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Reasons why Wisconsin has a chance at greatness

It’s not difficult to find positives when you’re 4-0. Let’s take a look some facts, figures and feelings.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

In terms of the expectations game, it’s easy to say that the Wisconsin Badgers, even if they lose to the Michigan Wolverines or Ohio State Buckeyes, have passed with flying colors.

If you’re the sort to believe in historical omens, the Badgers are in line for one hell of a ride. If you’re more pragmatic or the sort that unironically retweets Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the Badgers are really good with a chance to be great. They will also return 17 starters from this team next year barring injuries, NFL opportunities or stupidity, criminal or otherwise.

As we stand four weeks in, let’s talk about four good things the Badgers are doing. Some will seem obvious. Some might surprise you.

While I’m sure there are fans who will stop you from saying Wisconsin has a good passing attack, UW can definitely move the ball through the air.

Going into Ann Arbor this weekend, the Badgers have the 70th-ranked passing attack in terms of yards per game. With a touchdown-to-interception ratio that’s roughly equal to the final two seasons of Joel Stave passing through the air, one might say that the passing game is still pretty shaky.

I’m here to tell you that this passing attack has a lot to like to it, however. For one thing, the Badgers are averaging 7.9 yards per attempt, almost a full yard higher than the Stave era. They’re also completing 64 percent of their passes, a rate that puts them in a tie for 27th. If you look deeper, it gets more interesting.

The Badgers are currently 18th in first downs through the air with 51. They also have the 16th-most passing yards on third down (tied for 33rd in terms of completion percentage) and have a 70.5 percent connection rate in the second half, good for a tie for 13th.

I grant you the premise of the mop-up in terms of the last statistic, but they did go 17-of-27 for 232 yards in games when it wasn’t over early, which is good for 62.5 percent as well as a fun 8.6 yards per attempt. The one touchdown vs. two interceptions isn’t super, but the rest of it shows that calling a pass is far from the adventure it was during the Andy Ludwig era.

A good reason why the passing game is underrated? This might be the most productive starting trio of pure pass catchers the Badgers have ever had.

You might wonder if this is some kind of backhanded damnation. After all, Wisconsin’s quarterback situation had such a fallow period that Stave is on the second tier of best Badger quarterbacks of all time.

Far from it.

It’s just a statement of fact that the Badgers have never had two receivers and a tight end whom are all on pace for 40-plus catches. Yes, 2005 had Brian Calhoun join up with Brandon Williams and Jonathan Orr to all be north of 40 grabs, but Calhoun was there to run the ball 27 times a game.

Rushing Receiving Scrimmage
Player Att Yds Avg TD Rec Yds Avg TD Plays Yds Avg TD
Brian Calhoun 348 1636 4.7 22 53 571 10.8 2 401 2207 5.5 24
Brandon Williams 7 47 6.7 0 59 1095 18.6 6 66 1142 17.3 6
Jonathan Orr 40 688 17.2 8 40 688 17.2 8

With the breakout of Jazz Peavy, the physicality of Robert Wheelwright and the dependability of Troy Fumagalli, the Badgers have the most options to go down the field in the passing game. There’s going to be awareness questions at quarterback for a while, but the Badgers can definitely get open windows through the air.

The early grade for Jim Leonhard is definitely an A+.

I mean, the expectations were high for the Wisconsin legend, who was coming off his 10-year NFL career. Yet as a rookie defensive backs coach, Leonard has put together a secondary that’s stepped up to the challenge quite nicely. This, despite having no starter that’s even six feet tall and losing three starters from 2015, including two players that stuck on NFL rosters and a top-notch safety in Michael Caputo.

For one thing, the interception seemed a lot more theoretical than tangible in recent seasons. I’m not going to tell you that the Badgers are on pace for an elite number, but when the interception total for four games matches all of 2014, it’s a heck of a start.

If you’re so inclined to look at Georgia State like Admiral Akbar was trying to warn the Badgers about something, the pass defense on the whole is quite promising. The Panthers did complete 20 of 30 passes for 269 yards and a score, but without all that weirdness, UW opponents have gone 46-of-89 for 527 yards and only one touchdown against six interceptions. That’s a 51.6 completion percentage and 5.92 yards per attempt. There’s a top-20 pass defense with a run defense good enough to force the issue through the air.

While this team is still quite young, it’s rather resilient.

Wisconsin didn’t have inside linebacker T.J. Edwards for the LSU game, then lost sophomore Chris Orr on the Tigers’ first offensive play. Yet, Ryan Connelly steps in and steps up.

Lose Jon Dietzen? Micah Kapoi steps up. Lose Kapoi? Walk-on Brett Connors rolls in and earns himself a scholarship.

Lose an integral nickel back like junior Natrell Jamerson, and a player once forgotten in Lubern Figaro makes the most of the second chance. This is the sort of intangible that isn’t supposed to happen for a school that makes its bones on development. Alabama gets to play next man up. Michigan gets to play next man up. Ohio State gets to play next man up. Wisconsin isn’t supposed to plug and play without major downgrades in terms of quality. It hasn’t happened quite yet—with luck, it won’t. Even if the worst happens, this is a tough team. The Badgers tend to find a way.

The level of greatness of this team, if any, is going to be found out in the next three weeks. I’ll tell you this much: I wouldn’t put it past Wisconsin to come out of the gauntlet with hopes of a playoff still very much alive.

I believe in Wisconsin. I think others follow soon.