Following a no-letdown, emphatic win over Akron in Week 2, in which Wisconsin continued to look like Wisconsin, is it too early to wonder how high Paul Chryst can take this team—or even this program?
OK, OK, there are plenty of big tests left in this very, very young season, but in all seriousness, just how much does this team resemble the successful Badger teams of high times past? The hallmarks—solid line play, physical team defense, a pounding, game-controlling running game—have been there so far. They should be against Georgia State, too, no doubt. The true tests will come on the road in consecutive weeks against Michigan State and Michigan.
So far, this offense looks like something Chryst would have run to brilliance circa 2009—or maybe even 2006 or 2007, or, without getting too hasty, 2010. Bart Houston has much to clean up before he can look like 2010 Scott Tolzien, but is he that far off 2009 Tolzien? The Tolzien of that year against Iowa or Ohio State? Houston probably doesn’t have the physical ability of Tyler Donovan (another fifth-year senior who waited for, and eventually got, his shot) but does he at least look as calm and cool as 2006 John Stocco?
Houston can look like all those successful QBs, even like them at their best—it’s all a matter of him cutting down the mistakes and making better decisions with the ball. Given that he’s only started two games in his career and played meaningful minutes in just one other, it seems like there might be a chance. And guess who his position coach is: the same guy that coached Stocco, Donovan and Tolzien.
If you can set aside the two awful turnovers against LSU, only one of which was on Houston, the offense under him was largely effective. The running backs ran at just over three yards per carry but came through when needed and tight end Troy Fumagalli was as clutch as they come (“Chryst loves his TEs!”). It did just enough to win after controlling the ball for a whopping 37 minutes. That was vintage Chryst.
Against Akron this week, the offense was dominant and still left points on the field. There was also another Chryst hallmark: balance. WIsconsin racked up 586 total yards, 294 of those on the ground and 292 through the air. Again, something not seen since 2011, 2010 and 2009 (nothing, of course, compares to 2011).
The offensive line is visibly better than last year, but it’s really wide receivers Robert Wheelwright and Jazz Peavy that have been the biggest revelations. They’ve reminded fans that UW can actually produce at the wide receiver position with guys on scholarship, which is also something not seen regularly since Chryst last ran a UW offense. Did Wheelwright not look like Nick Toon on those wide receiver screens, running plays by another method that they are? Peavy, who seems to get better with every game, would have fit right in those offenses.
Then there’s the freshmen, A.J. Taylor and Quintez Cephus, who, although they were on the field plenty against LSU and in the first half last Saturday, showed in the second half that fall camp might not have been all hype. The last time UW had even one freshman produce at the position was ... probably 2007, and you get the point.
On defense, the Badgers may look even better than last year’s stellar group. That’s admittedly an overreaction, but they are producing turnovers at much greater rate. When the schedule gets more difficult, a timely turnover may be the difference in one of those games. They should continue to be tough against the run by virtue of a strong front seven and by adequately replacing an injured Natrell Jamerson, but if the turnovers can keep coming, this defense can be truly special.
Overall, this team is playing so far with a quiet confidence. The Badgers weren’t frazzled when LSU suddenly took the lead after being stifled for two-and-a-half quarters; they didn’t even jump into potential rumble after Tiger lineman Josh Boutte’s cheap shot after that game was decided by D’Cota Dixon’s game-sealing interception. They didn’t take Akron lightly and played an overmatched opponent in a way that said, “all business.”
These Badgers, like nearly all of their other post-Barry Alvarez editions, reflect the attitude and personality of the head coach. Where Bret Bielema’s teams went from, “This is easy to do right [until I get punched in the mouth],” to, “OK, I know what it takes to do it right, let’s do it,” to, “We desperately NEED to do this right” and Gary Andersen’s teams were, “Am I doing this right??,” this team so far is, “I’m prepared, I’ve done the work, I KNOW I’m going to do this right.”
Other UW teams might have folded in the second half against LSU or thought they could just breeze past Akron; this one did neither—and seems like it’s only just getting started.
There’s one more welterweight before the Badgers go back to taking on the Big Ten’s heavyweights. If they take care of business against a still relatively unknown Michigan State team, the Big House could well be the venue for a showdown between two top-five teams. Win that one and who knows? Right now, it all seems strangely reasonable. That’s largely because of the way the head coach has curated the talent on this team, and the assured calm he has projected onto it.
It’s easy to get excited by what’s transpired so far and enthusiastically overreact to it, but for whatever reason—and just maybe that’s Chryst himself—it just doesn’t seem so ridiculous to think big things right now.