If there’s one thing you can say about the current group of Wisconsin seniors, it’s that they’ve persevered through a remarkable number of changes. All but two seniors in 2013 will be entering their fifth year or higher (Curt Phillips and Brenden Kelly will both be sixth-years) with the Badgers.
This group has endured numerous coaching changes across the board, and now the group will face the ultimate change -- a new head coach.
New coaches are like an organ transplant. Strange comparison, I know, but it’s up to the recipient’s body (the players) to decide if they will accept it or reject it. Last year, the offensive line flat out rejected new offensive line coach Mike Markuson and his switch to a zone blocking scheme, leading to some of the worst performances from a Wisconsin offensive line in recent memory and Markuson losing his job just two games into the season.
With the third group of different coaches in as many years, the Badgers will once again be tested to see how they adapt. It’s different this time, however, than it was a year ago. New head coach Gary Andersen opted to bring familiar faces with him to Madison, hiring several members of his former staff at Utah State and other men he worked with throughout the duration of his coaching career.
Andersen also did himself a favor by retaining two key members of the Wisconsin staff in running backs coach Thomas Hammock and secondary coach Ben Strickland. Not only did it most likely give Andersen and the new staff members that could help inform them and bring them up to speed on the lay of the land, it also instilled trust and familiarity with the players.
"Trust" was a word that Andersen threw around a lot during his initial hiring and during spring practices. He wants to build a sense of community and respect that may have been lacking during the Bret Bielema era. So far, it’s been working in an unprecedented manner, with the head coach becoming revered by Wisconsin fans before he’s even coached a single game.
But the question still remains: how well will the Badgers adjust to their new coaches and their new teachings? Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda will have Wisconsin playing a 3-4 base defense in 2013 and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig will be tweaking the offense, but keeping many things the same.
This is a burning question only because it truly is an unknown. Wisconsin players in the spring seemed radiant about the new coaching staff, mainly because they installed a new-age vibe at practices (music, dance-offs, fun). Only when Wisconsin starts playing games will we be able to see how much the players have adapted and learned under their new coaches.
Can Andersen win in the devil's den?
One thing that has haunted the Badgers for several years is their road woes against top 25 teams away from Camp Randall Stadium. During his tenure with Wisconsin, Bielema won just one game on the road (neutral sites excluded) against a top 25 opponent, at Iowa in 2010.
Time and time again, Bielema teams couldn’t get it done when it mattered most away from home. Everybody can say what they want regarding execution, but the style Wisconsin clung to fell apart in big road games almost systematically over the past two years. The Badgers would jump out to a big early lead, then fall apart as the game wore on. To me, that reflects coaching. It reflects making the adjustments to your opponent’s adjustments cleanly. Or, perhaps, poor preparation and analysis of opponents tendencies going into games.
Wisconsin lost three Rose Bowls, two with Bielema coaching. Remember the timeout usage in the Oregon game? That wasn’t just a one-time deal for him away from Camp Randall. In the 2013 Rose Bowl, Barry Alvarez displayed what efficient time management looks like in the Badgers' final drive of the second quarter, which was capped by a touchdown pass from Curt Phillips to Jordan Frederick to narrow the score to 17-14, Stanford, going in to halftime.
Like Mike Tyson once said, "everyone has a plan ‘till they get punched in the mouth." When it comes to coaching, you can make all the preparations in the world, but you have to be a cool customer when it comes to handling the pressure of a hostile crowd, things going wrong and being in clutch situations. Some men are just better than others at it, and that’s what Wisconsin is hoping it has in Gary Andersen.
It’s already been revealed that Wisconsin and Ohio State will face each other at night in The Horseshoe. Looking at both teams' schedules, it could be the game that decides the Leaders Division representative in the Big Ten Championship Game. With Ohio State now bowl-eligible, the team will be hungrier than ever to follow up last year’s perfect season under Urban Meyer.
Will the Badgers' march in against a top 10 team on the road and steal a win? It will be a lofty task, and until then the question will remains: Can Gary Andersen win the big ones?