It was a great weekend.
In the highly unlikely event that you missed it, the Wisconsin Badgers beat the stuffing out of the Akron Zips and coach Terry Bowden (he of the "we prefer spandex polos under a half-zip" school).
The quarterback play was strong, the defense continued to look legit against what could have been a frisky Zips offense and we got a tantalizing look at Olive Sagapolu at fullback (heavens to Manitowoc, Mr. Chryst, please deliver unto us a one-yard Sagapolu Dive at the goal line some day—we thank you in advance).
Also pleasant to watch was the continued resurgence of the offensive line. Redshirt freshman Jon Dietzen got the start at left guard over a banged up Micah Kapoi, but the line didn’t lose a step, as the running game accounted for 294 yards and three touchdowns against a Zips defense that had looked downright stout against the Virginia Military Institute Keydets the week before (I will save you the 20-minute "What is a Keydet" Google rabbit hole you are about to crawl down by directing you here; spoiler alert: the explanation involves a kangaroo and a gross mispronunciation of the word "cadet").
Of the many things that could derail what is shaping up to be the most interesting Badgers season in recent memory, offensive line depth is one that lingers quietly in the background. Behind Saturday’s starters were an injured Kapoi (backing up right and left guard), former walk-on Brett Connors backing up right tackle, former walk-on Brett Connors backing up at center and former walk-on Brett Connors backing up left tackle. (Fun fact: Brett Connors is also the third-string hockey goalie, the backup coxswain for the rowing team and will be the understudy for George Bailey in the UW theatre department’s production of "It’s a Wonderful Life" this winter. #brettbacksuptheworld.)
O-line is critical for all teams. For a team as dependent on good line play as the Badgers, the shallow pool behind what is shaping up to be pretty gosh-darned-good group is pretty gosh-darned-concerning.
This is not to point fingers. Look, I wholeheartedly believe that had he stayed more than two years, Gary Andersen’s preference for speed over strength in his offensive linemen would have led to the end of the program’s success over the long term. It cut against the natural competitive advantage Wisconsin has in recruitment, didn’t match up well against the rest of the Big Ten and would have eventually brought down the wrath of the fans. It was ill-advised and unsustainable. But the current lack of depth is not his fault.
When it comes to the health of UW offensive linemen, we have all become acutely aware that the program is on an exceptional stretch of injury bad luck. It struck again just last week, as it was announced that George Panos would be leaving the program due to a lingering shoulder injury. He joins Dan Voltz, Walker Williams, Hayden Biegel, Jaden Gault, Jack Keeler, Jake Meador and Matt Miller as potential contributors who had their careers cut short due to injury. Across the board, these were prep stars—highly decorated recruits and, in some cases, players with distinguished college careers. Their loss has hurt.
As a brief aside: When you all speak of these young men in blog posts and tweets and subreddits and god-only-knows-what-else, speak well. They have worked harder than any of us can imagine, through medical checks, surgeries, rehab (and more rehab and even more rehab). They busted their tails for us and had something they love taken away. Treat them well.
One could imagine Wisconsin's 2016 starting o-line with some combination of the above. Combined with the talent now playing and the young talent that’s not quite ready, that’s a tantalizing thought.
Pulling seven or eight really talented linemen out of the pool necessarily means younger players will have to step in before they might otherwise. That’s not always bad; last year’s injury armageddon gave critical reps to players who are now considered key contributors. It will be interesting to see if redshirts start getting burned should the need arise. In a normal year, it would be nearly certain that Cole Van Lanen and Patrick Kasl would sit for a year to develop. With any luck, Paul Chryst won’t have make that decision.
One of the true joys of watching Wisconsin is the line play. After last season’s constant mixing and matching, it is nice to settle into a comfortable bit of yard-chewing normalcy. But as this year’s line gels into the corn-fed force of nature we love about Wisconsin football, one can’t help but wonder, "what if?"