At the midway point of Paul Chryst's first season at Wisconsin's helm, who's still on the #QuestforFun? An undefeated season, or even an undefeated conference season were probably unattainable goals anyway, but another Big Ten West division title still is out there. If it does in fact go through Indianapolis, the ride from here will be anything but smooth.
But that's not all bad, right?
It became clear as the Badgers were pushing three non-conference schedule-fillers aside that most, if not all, of their conference games would be played "tight," with precious little room for error when they had the ball. When the severity of junior running back Corey Clement's injury became known, the margin shrunk even further. Now, nearly every drive goes into double-digit snaps, with each one fraught with increasing peril as the ball moves toward the end zone. Fans, and opposing defenses, are just waiting for a mistake, and maybe one that changes the game.
Still, with all the limitations placed on them -- a young offensive line in continual flux, a running back depth chart now topped with a former walk-on defensive back and a true freshman former inside linebacker/all-state prep quarterback, and a maxed-out, inconsistent signal caller as the triggerman -- it's hard to argue that Chryst and offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph haven't done well enough getting the production they have from this group. Clement's return can't come soon enough, and it should be an effective complement to a passing game that has, in spite of itself and out of sheer necessity, actually made some small strides.
If the offense is a work in progress, there are, fortunately, much fewer worries on defense, which will continue to keep this team in all of its remaining games. Watching this team when the (non-Alabama) opponent has the ball is a decidedly different experience from that when the Badgers have it: good things usually happen, and you're not on pins and needles waiting for the seemingly inevitable drive-killing penalty or errant pass.
The only thing missing so far on defense is the "big plays." The offense couldn't capitalize on redshirt freshman T.J. Edwards' forced fumble against Purdue, but in each of their home games, a long return or defensive touchdown would have exploded anxious crowds and energized the entire team. In fact, both Iowa and Purdue did just that to the Badgers, and totally changed the complexion of each of those games. If the turnovers can start happening, it would release the pressure on this grinding offense considerably.
If actual games haven't been entertaining enough, well there's always recruiting, wherein the biggest recruit of recent times, running back Antonio Williams, suddenly decided last week that the chance to bust into the always-crowded Ohio State backfield is preferable to jumping into the mix at Tailback U. in 2016.
Then again, the only real negative with all of it is that Wisconsin lost to (the) Ohio State what looked like a highly talented recruit. As with any prospect, his future is unknown, but for the Badgers, having a top five high school running back from outside the Midwest (let alone outside the state of Wisconsin) be SOOO into the concept of being a Badger for SOOO long is a good thing by itself, even if it didn't culminate in a matriculation. Williams' high-profile saga will certainly pay future dividends, especially in the fertile recruiting grounds of the South, where this sort of thing is utterly normal. There are multiple sagas like this one is just about every recruiting cycle for Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Georgia, Florida, Florida State, and on and on. This is the "big time" from whence Urban Meyer and James Franklin brought their recruiting mastery, where there are no "gentlemen's agreements" and message/recruiting boards are absolute free-for-alls.
If the Williams recruitment broke new ground for Wisconsin, the trail forward will be bumpy, messy, and maybe hilarious, but if someone like him, or like current N.C. State quarterback Jacoby Brissett in 2011, actually winds up playing his home games at Camp Randall, there won't be much complaining or hand-wringing. And despite all that, UW still has a top-20 class for 2016 by some recruiting services, and one that features more than a few potential playmakers. Plus, no one should forget that Chryst can recruit and develop playmakers, at least on offense - see James Conner and Tyler Boyd.
By the same token, and after two cycles of Gary Andersen, just where are the playmakers on offense? Redshirt sophomore wide receiver Jazz Peavy, an in-state Bielema recruit, is making a case, but the only other candidates are two of the three quarterbacks brought in by Andersen who do not currently play that position here. Redshirt senior Tanner McEvoy, having gone through nothing less than a saga of his own, looked the part in fall camp, but his work and time at safety is apparently just too demanding and valuable for him to contribute any more than a few plays as a #TannerCat quarterback. It may not ever be more than that.
Now stepping forward is redshirt freshman D.J. Gillins, another fall camp standout, albeit at quarterback. Can Gillins, who couldn't beat out Joel Stave after 18 months in the program, provide a spark? It hardly seems likely given that he's spent no time at anything other than quarterback to this point (in his life) and time is quickly running out for 2015. If he can contribute, it'll be fun to watch, but no one should bank on it. Is running back Serge Trezy still there?
The only real shot for a difference-maker is if Clement returns as soon as possible. If he can help get a win in Champaign, games against Rutgers and Maryland should be good for two more before UW finally goes idle on Nov. 14. If that holds, along with the realistic chance that the Badgers take out Northwestern (home) and Minnesota, the drama moves to rooting for Iowa to drop at least two games. Iowa looks on paper like they can cruise the West undefeated, but with plenty of their own flaws, losses to any or all of Nebraska, Minnesota or even Indiana are quite possible. There is a clear path.
Among a far-from-over division race, a compelling (if not vibrant) recruiting scene, and the continuing search for anything interesting on offense, the #QuestforFun is alive and quite well. If the quest goes on to Indy, anything can happen, including the chance to wipe 59-0 from the memory banks forever. Fall is here, there's at least five games left -- let's enjoy the ride.
Beer me, please, I'm not driving.