OK, so Wisconsin's #QuestforFun just keeps getting a little bit harder -- not because the competition is getting stiffer, or because players are making too many mistakes, or because the coaches don't know what they're doing. Those arguments could be made, but really, what's a team supposed to when by the end of nearly every game it plays, there's yet another back-up getting playing time?
Wisconsin's defense (knock on wood) hasn't been the victim of too many injuries, save the concussion suffered by Michael Caputo against Alabama, Leon Jacobs's season-ending foot injury and the absence of lineman/nose tackle Arthur Goldberg against Illinois. Missing Caputo held the Badgers back against the best team they've played no doubt, but the emergence of true freshman Chris Orr has almost fully ameliorated the loss of Jacobs, and Goldberg's absence wasn't impactful against an Illini team that was itself without its top running back and three of its top four wide receivers.
The story is quite different on the offensive side of the ball. The Alabama game saw Corey Clement's only action so far this season; it was clear that he was far from healthy then and didn't play at all in the second half. How much of a difference Clement would have made against that Alabama defense no can know, but he's definitely been missed against the rest of the Badgers' schedule, especially in conference.
The Badgers could only hope to compensate for Clement's anticipated production with redshirt freshman Taiwan Deal and converted cornerback/former walk-on Dare Ogunbowale. It was clear to most that Deal would have been better off with a year behind Clement, and although he did earn a Big Ten Freshman of the Week award against Hawaii on 147 yards and two rushing touchdowns, he's now been injured since the first quarter against Iowa with no indication as to when he'll be back.
Ogunbowale and true freshman/former high school quarterback Alec Ingold have done yeoman's work at running back, but just how much have Clement and Deal been missed? The struggles of the running game, of course, aren't limited to those of the ball carriers -- not only has the Badgers' offensive line been a patchwork affair filled with inexperienced younger (and older) players from the outset, it's been utterly waylaid by injuries as well. Only undefeated Michigan State has had worse injury luck along its offensive line.
At right tackle alone, present starter and redshirt freshman Beau Benzschawel couldn't even play from midway through fall camp until Nebraska; before him Hayden Biegel and Jacob Maxwell, another redshirt freshman, roughly split time until Maxwell started against Iowa -- because Biegel was injured. Biegel, along with the seemingly disappeared Ray Ball, another presumptive starter, now isn't expected to return at all in 2015.
Center Dan Voltz, who's battled his fair share of injuries at Wisconsin, didn't play against Purdue because of an elbow injury. Listed as questionable for Illinois, he did play, but then left the game in the second half with what looked like a knee injury. Although no firm diagnosis was given, it was announced Monday that he'll miss the remainder of the season.
Though the drop-off from Voltz to Michael Deiter at center can be debated, Voltz's leadership on the line will be difficult to replace. Additionally, Deiter vacates the guard spot he'd been playing, which will be filled by Micah Kapoi, yet another redshirt freshman. Kapoi has played plenty this season and his development isn't necessarily a bad thing, but who knows what will happen if a third center is needed.
With a limited running game, the Badgers have relied more on their passing game, which has performed fairly well despite it all. But wouldn't it be even more effective with a complementary running game? Would both be even more effective if the Badgers' top tight end, Austin Traylor, had been on the field after the Iowa game? At least Troy Fumagalli is back to full health.
Having two versatile tight ends helps UW's offense immensely, but the passing game had been growing this season on the strength of an improved wide receiver group. Missing Alex Erickson for most of the second half against Iowa surely contributed to that result, but Jazz Peavy and Robert Wheelwright had really, truly begun making plays, including right up to the point where Wheelwright left last week after getting his leg rolled on Erickson's 56-yard jet sweep, a play itself only just now returning to UW's offensive repertoire.
Who will "replace" Wheelwright, who will be out for "quite a while," according to Paul Chryst, is anyone's guess. Tanner McEvoy largely filled in for the duration at Illinois, but it seems clear that he can only pay so much attention to playing wide receiver; the Badgers may be able to accommodate him there, now out of necessity. Little-used Jordan Fredrick, Reggie Love and George Rushing are the other candidatesm but all are likely to be a step down from the formerly emergent Wheelwright.
In this space, it's been asserted that Chryst and Rudolph deserve credit for the offensive production they've been able to get out of this particular group. Given the background of all these injuries, including last weekend to the starting quarterback, of all players (and who's already back), the point deserves further analysis. What have they done to adjust?
The emphasis has been on keeping game plans and play designs relatively simple. They haven't completely abandoned the run, but rather have used Ingold in power sets and Ogunbowale more often than not as a pass catcher on swing and leak-out routes; he's caught 25 passes for 228 yards. On passing plays, Joel Stave has been given just a read or two before he needs to find Ogunbowale in the flat or Erickson on a short route, usually just past the first-down marker.
There's a good argument to be made that Bart Houston was as successful as he was in relief against Illinois because the offense he ran had been uncomplicated for most, if not all, of this season. Additionally, in light of Badgers' need to sustain long drives, defenses have often conceded the shorter passing routes, waiting for a mistake. UW has too often made that mistake, but its consistently excellent defense has nearly always given the offense a wide berth for the kind of conservatism almost required by the available personnel.
The defenses fielded by Rutgers and Maryland should make moving the ball against them a bit easier; Northwestern and Minnesota will be tougher slogs, but do not at all present insurmountable challenges. If the law of averages can finally catch up with UW's offense injury-wise -- and if Clement comes back behind an offensive line configuration in place for more than a game -- the Badgers' Big Ten West division hopes could stay alive well into November.