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The Wisconsin football program is exactly where we want it to be

After a few years of awkwardness, Paul Chryst has the Badgers on a promising track.

Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

Much will be made, rightly so, of Saturday’s 16-14 win against LSU. Wisconsin’s defense was more stout than anyone expected it to be against a possible Heisman Trophy finalist and top-five pick. The quarterback play was solid and encouraging, despite some truly horrific decisions in key spots. The coaching was aggressive and the execution, with a few notable examples, was exemplary. We now have hope for a season that could have looked quite bleak with an “L” against the Tigers and the murderer’s row of a Big Ten schedule ahead.

Lambeau College Classic - WI vs LSU Abigail Buchta

We’ll see where we end up after this season. I am excited, as should you be; we all should take a deep, cathartic breath and remember that the night remains dark and full of terrors. Perhaps the Badgers will go on an unprecedented run; perhaps injuries or the schedule or Bart Houston’s occasional bouts with locked-in syndrome or Rafael Gaglianone’s inevitable call-up to the Brazilian men’s national team will be too much to overcome. The world can be made of one game, good or bad, but regardless of what comes over the next 11 to 13 games, certain things can be divined. Coming at exactly the same point in his coaching tenure as Gary Andersen’s encounter with the Tigers (subspecies Bayou Bengal), Paul Chryst’s first tangle with Les Miles may give us insights about where this program is at. And I think, whatever the wins and losses are this season, deep in the bones of the program, it is exactly where we want it to be.

When these teams met two years ago, the game epitomized the Gary Andersen era. The defense was rock solid, only cracking when the lack of interior depth was revealed after Konrad Zagzebski and Warren Herring went down with injuries. Some aggressively bad, square-peg-round-hole jamming at the quarterback position found athletic savant Tanner McEvoy miscast as a Power Five quarterback (a mistake repeated with the recruitment of poor, poor Austin Kafentzis). Questionable offensive decision-making (of the “are you sure you want to wear a sequined shirt to a funeral?” mastery level) led to Melvin Gordon getting extended time on the bench to I-don’t-know-your-guess-is-as-good-as-mine-catch-up-on-some-light-reading-maybe. The befuddled offense motif recurred again and again over Andersen’s Madison Tour (see, e.g., Penn State ‘13, Northwestern ‘14).

This is all to say that, though the 2014 season was, by and large, a success, you could see then what we’ve all come to understand about the Andersen era. Great defense. Not a lot of offensive creativity. A tendency to wilt in big games. Understanding of the quarterback position ... meh, not great.

Great athlete. Not a quarterback.

I think when we look back at Saturday’s game two years hence, we will also be able to discern the contours of the program under Paul Chryst. I think that we’ll find that he is building one heck of a house for Bucky:

This program can hang with the best. For a while (oh so long), the Badgers had settled into a nice pattern of eight-to-10 wins paired with heartbreaking losses in big, B1G or BIG games. For a national program, we were awfully consistent about beating awful teams, mediocre teams, Nebraska (this is possibly redundant) and nobody else with any regularity. As greedy, greedy fans, we want a team that can match up with premier power-conference teams in high-profile settings. With back-to-back wins against USC and LSU, and a not-to-distance bowl win against Auburn, this is a program starting to weave big wins into its DNA, particularly as an underdog.

The team plays a style that’s fun to watch and matches well with the recruiting pool. We, as fans, want a creative (check), aggressive (checkity-check), run-first (yup), pro-style offense (looks like it to me) with talented running backs gashing front sevens behind “those big palookas up front.” After a brief detour into the dystopian wasteland of Andersen-era offensive line strength and conditioning (seriously, what did they have them doing?) we have decidedly entered the Second Great Palooka Era (oh, thank goodness).

Incidentally, we want this. Not because it’s what we’ve always done, or because we like corn (and, oh god, we do), but because it makes for a sustainable football model. I doubt, even under the best of circumstances, we’ll ever truly compete for recruits consistently with the USCs and the LSUs and Auburns of the world. Admissions standards and the deep, dark Wisconsin winters will forever conspire to keep us out of competition for many (though not all) five-star athletes. As we’ve seen above, that doesn’t really matter. Barry Alvarez cracked the code for offensive recruiting years ago and it feels like the 3-4 (a recent and welcome addition) also matches well with the UW football recruiting pool. If we recruit to our inherent strengths while continuing to push into Florida and Maryland and Georgia, we’ll have a sustainable model for years to come.

Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The team is smart and disciplined. Some (ahem) interesting choices from Houston aside, the team we saw on Saturday executed the H-E-double-hockey-sticks out of its assignments. Many believed the play of the game was Ryan Connolly’s tackle of Fournette off a delayed screen early in the fourth quarter, causing a punt. D’Cota Dixon’s game-sealing interception was similarly the result of team execution and an intelligent read of how the play was breaking. A smart team is a fun team to watch, and it also creates competitive advantages against teams who may look better on paper.

There is a vibrant walk-on program. Much has been made about Wisconsin’s walk-on program. Over the past year-plus, Chryst has reenergized what threatened to be a lost art under Andersen. Dare Ogunbowale, Ryan Connolly, P.J. Rosowski and others were all key contributors on Saturday and would likely not have been on the field without the program’s dedication to walk-ons. Not only does the walk-on program bring in much-needed talent, it also keeps a decidedly “Wisconsin” feel to the team.

Oh, and we kinda want a gunslinger at quarterback, too. Admit it. Even if we say some bad words during pick-sixes and endzone INTs.

Exhibit A.
Photo by Rob Kim/Getty Images

When it became clear that Chryst would become the coach, I was totally and unabashedly against it just a teeny, tiny bit skeptical. More than a year in, however, it looks like he has patched the cracks that had started to show under Andersen. It’s clear that he gets Wisconsin intuitively and has started to lay the groundwork for sustained success going forward. It makes for a fun program to watch and get behind as a fan. Whatever the outcome over the next few months, I think we’re in good hands as a program. And the program is exactly where we want it to be.

On Wisconsin!