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Grading Wisconsin’s 2016 season

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Closing the book on a fantastic 11-win year.

NCAA FOOTBALL: JAN 02 Cotton Bowl - Western Michigan v Wisconsin Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Wisconsin Badgers entered the year projected to drop-off from past success. Noted bloviating gasbag Colin Cowherd predicted a 6-6 season. I personally was making plans for the New Era Pinstripe Bowl.

The Badgers finished with 11 wins and a 2017 Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic championship.

How on earth did Wisconsin go from doom and gloom to the only Big Ten school (save for Northwestern in the aforementioned Pinstripe Bowl) that managed to both win a bowl game and not fire its coach for supporting an ill-advised student mutiny?

Let’s take a look at the unit grades for the 2016 and find out:

Offense: B

  • All-Americans: Ryan Ramczyk (AP - first-team; Walter Camp - second-team).
  • All-Big Ten: Ramczyk (first-team coaches & media); Corey Clement (first-team coaches; second-team media); Beau Benzschawel (second-team coaches, third-team media); Troy Fumagalli (second-team coaches, third-team media).

The Badgers’ offense was the object of fan concern much of the season. While the Bart Houston-Alex Hornibrook quarterback carousel drew much of the attention, the offensive line was the biggest problem area. Offensive tackle and possible early NFL draft entrant Ryan Ramczyk anchored the left tackle position, but injuries and inconsistency plagued the line much of the year.

The Badgers drew a particularly hard slate this season on the offensive side of the ball, matching up against seven of the top 30 overall defenses in 2016, including five of the top 15 scoring defenses in FBS (Michigan, OSU, LSU, Iowa, and Western Michigan).

Once Wisconsin got through the meat of the schedule, things started to change up front. The Badgers finished the year averaging over 203 yards rushing per game (39th nationally, third in the Big Ten), tallying 31 touchdowns on the ground and landing running back Corey Clement All-Big Ten honors. Wisconsin led the country in time of possession, holding onto the ball nearly 35 minutes per game.

Overall, the Badgers averaged 382.1 yards per game (89th nationally, seventh in the Big Ten). They were in the middle of the pack in scoring offense (28.4 points per game) and red zone offense (84.5 percent conversion rate, though a better than average 37 touchdowns).

Quarterback play was inconsistent much of the year. Redshirt senior Bart Houston began the season as the starter, struggled, lost his job to Hornibrook, saw playing time in a change-of-pace platoon role and ultimately regained his starting job when Hornibrook went down with a head injury against Minnesota. Houston, who led the Badgers to victory in his final game against Western Michigan in the Cotton Bowl, finished the year with a 68.09 completion percentage, 1,245 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions in 11 games.

Hornibrook, the heralded redshirt freshman, flashed brilliantly at times (oh, those luxurious, softly-tossed out-routes), but the offense bogged down frequently under his direction. Hornibrook finished with a 58.56 completion percentage, 1,262 yards, nine touchdowns and seven interceptions.

Overall, the Badgers’ passing game finished No. 104 in the nation. With both wide receiver Jazz Peavy (43 receptions, 635 yards, five touchdown receptions) and tight end Troy Fumagalli (47, 580, two) emerging as weapons, expect that to improve next year.

Defense: A

  • All-Americans: T.J. Watt (first-team by ESPN and Sports Illustrated, second-team honors from the Associated Press and CBSSports.com..
  • All-Big Ten: T.J. Watt (first-team coaches & media); Vince Biegel (second-team coaches, third-team media); Sojourn Shelton (first-team media, second-team coaches); Conor Sheehy (third-team coaches); D’Cota Dixon (third-team media); Leo Musso (third-team media).

With the departure of coordinator Dave Aranda, the Wisconsin defense was expected to take a huge step back in 2016. Under new coordinator Justin Wilcox, they proceeded to lay the wood on pretty much all comers (#onenotableexception) and post an historic Badgers defense. The unit finished the year No. 7 nationally in total defense, giving up 301.4 yards per game, fourth overall in scoring defense, allowing just 15.6 points per game and only giving up 17 red zone touchdowns all year.

The defense was stout up front, finishing the year third overall in the country in rushing defense, allowing less than one hundred yards per game and giving up just nine rushing touchdowns. Making the success up front even more remarkable was Wisconsin’s ability to replace the loss of key cogs in the front seven. Linebacker Chris Orr was lost on the first defensive play of the year. Linebacker Jack Cichy went down in late October to a torn pectoral muscle. Both outside linebacker Vince Biegel and nose tackle Olive Sagapolu missed time, as did others.

The secondary was a big question mark entering the season, with three starters departing last year’s unit. With UW Athletics Hall-of-Famer Jim Leonhard taking over as secondary coach, the secondary allowed just 202.6 yards per game in the air and finished tied for second in the country with 22 passes intercepted. Despite the secondary’s clear successes, though, there were several highly visible breakdowns including a big play over the top that swung the game against Michigan and a full-on meltdown against Penn State in the Big Ten Championship game.

Special Teams: C+

Injuries had a major impact on special teams throughout the season. After cornerbacke/kickoff returner Natrell Jamerson went down against Akron the second week of the year, Wisconsin’s return game lost its swagger. Ultimately, it was lower tier for much of the year, averaging 19.81 yards per game on kickoffs and 7.30 yards per game on punts.

The kicking game struggled after starter Rafael Gaglianone was lost for the season with a back injury in late September. His replacement, senior Andrew Endicott, managed to convert only 13 of 19 field goals (68.4%). Endicott also missed a critical extra point in overtime against Nebraska which nearly swung the game for the Huskers.

Redshirt sophomore P.J. Rosowski started the year as the starting punter, but really became a weapon on kickoffs, getting touchbacks on 51 of 79 tries.

Wisconsin finished the year 114th out of 128 FBS schools in net punting (34.62 yards per game). Heralded freshman Anthony Lotti lost the job to Rosowski coming out of fall camp and struggled for much of the season when he regained the role after the LSU game. Lotti came on strong towards the end of the season, though, and his gorgeously executed punt in the fourth quarter against Western Michigan may have been the play of the game.

Coaching: A

  • Awards: Head Coach Paul Chryst - Big Ten Hayes-Schembechler Coach of the Year (coaches vote)

Chryst and his staff delivered big in a season with low expectations. The Badgers were smart and disciplined all-year long. They finished the year plus-12 in turnover margin, second in nation in penalties per game (3.43) and fourth in total penalties. Games were well-called and Wisconsin always came prepared to play. Chryst won the Big Ten Hayes-Schembechler Coach of the Year award as voted on by his peers.

On defense, Wilcox regained the mojo he lost at USC and looks to be a good fit. He and outside linebackers coach Tim Tibesar continue to crank out linebackers at an heroic rate. Inoke Breckterfield has been solid with the defensive line. Leonhard is going to be the defensive coordinator some day.

On offense, Joe Rudolph as coordinator with Chryst calling plays works. Rudolph may be better suited to coach tight ends in his secondary role rather than the offensive line; injuries were rough, but the young line showed technique issues at times. John Settle will never be the fan base’s favorite running backs coach, but Clement, Dare Ogunbowale, and Braderick Shaw all showed improvement. Ted Gilmore has the receiving corps looking good and the tight ends (Fumagalli in particular) took a step up under Mickey Turner.

Chryst has exceeded expectations in his first two years at Wisconsin. His unassuming style goes over well with the fan base, as does his commitment to Wisconsin talent (as of this writing, six of the top seven state recruits are committed to UW and ten in-state prospects have accepted preferred walk-on offers). He runs a clean program that aligns with fan and university values and wins doing it.

Overall: A

2016 was one of the Top 10 Wisconsin seasons historically. Wisconsin played the eighth hardest schedule in the country (as per Sagarin/USA Today). Against that schedule, they managed three victories against Top 10 opponents (including an historic upset of No. 5 LSU at Lambeau Field), a New Year’s Six bowl victory, a Big Ten West crown, and a sweep of trophy games against Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska.

The Big Ten title game loss was a missed opportunity, as were potential statement wins against Michigan and Ohio State, but this was an excellent season. It exceeded all reasonable expectations and was a joy to watch.