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Roundtable: An honest assessment of Badgers OC Phil Longo

The Wisconsin Badgers left Saturday’s loss to the Iowa Hawkeyes with a number of questions.

We’re back with another roundtable, as the Wisconsin Badgers found themselves in the loss column for the second time this season, dropping to 4-2 in a 15-6 defeat to the Iowa Hawkeyes in a disappointing game.

There were several takeaways from the loss, including thoughts on offensive coordinator Phil Longo, quarterback Braedyn Locke, and more.

For this roundtable, I combined with our football writer, Scary Alvarez, once again to answer some critical questions.

Q: What’s your honest assessment of OC Phil Longo?

Rohan: Through the first six games of the season, it’s been a mixed bag for the Badgers and new offensive coordinator Phil Longo. Thus far, there have been some things that have impressed me, raised cause for concern, and external factors that play into my assessment of Longo.

Let’s start with the good. While the passing attack was the primary highlight when Longo was hired, I honestly think his run concepts might be the most impactful element thus far. There have been some blunders in short-distance situations, but I attribute them more to poor execution rather than bad design. Longo has consistently been able to create explosives in the run game, and that should continue to occur as he gets more change-of-pace backs involved in the future.

Now, the bad. I do have reservations about a system that incorporates as much shotgun as the Badgers do. Now, it involves the threat of the quarterback run more, while helping set up passing concepts better for the signal-caller, as his back isn’t to the defense. But, the lack of under-center action is a huge factor, especially in short-distance situations, where the Badgers have struggled at times this season. The under-center concepts can create better misdirection in the play-action game, and also aids in forcing linebackers to be more instinctive, as they can’t see the football. I’m not saying a total shift, but a bigger implementation of under-center concepts could aid this offense.

Lastly comes the external factors. The Badgers don’t have a deep threat on their roster. That’s pretty apparent with the consistent lack of separation from the wideouts week-by-week. Now, it’s a talented bunch, but that burner speed isn’t present downfield, and that’s limited that portion of the aerial attack. Head coach Luke Fickell also alluded to the personnel at tight end as another area where they’re not as matched players-wise with the system. This aspect may take time to develop, as the Badgers are incorporating a completely new offense, but that part of the team will only fully take off when Wisconsin has the personnel best for Longo’s system.

Scary: It’s tempting now to look back on his six games with Wisconsin and conclude that Longo is not a very good OC and/or fit. The Badger Offense has had some nice moments, but it would be silly to say that the attack hasn’t been underwhelming relative to pre-season expectations, unfair as those might have been. A lack of killer instinct, slow starts, and an almost MIA downfield passing game have all been disappointing.

That all said, Longo’s track record of success is hard to argue with when assessing things, so the answer to this question has to focus on whether or not he has the personnel needed right now to make his system work. I’d argue that he doesn’t. Even Mordecai had trouble going downfield and that can’t all be put on Longo. OL, QB, and WR play have all had issues. But let’s be real here, a coach of Longo’s pedigree should still be able to make things *mostly* work. That it hasn’t is surprising.

Even so, my final answer is that Longo absolutely deserves next season to get his system humming. Because it’s now highly unlikely with Mordecai out that Wisconsin’s Offense will open up—it will almost certainly be the reverse. And let’s not forget, Longo is also a high-end recruiter. Moving on from him would likely result in losses from what could end up being our most highly-ranked class ever.

Q: Expectations for the Badgers with Braedyn Locke?

Rohan: I think expectations do have to decrease with Braedyn Locke under center for the sole reason that he lacks Tanner Mordecai’s experience. Locke is likely going to go through growing pains as he gets acclimated at this level, while opposing defenses will throw extra pressure at him, daring the Badgers to throw the football. While Wisconsin does have an easier schedule, some of those “winnable” games just got a little tougher.

Additionally, I don’t know if I’d expect as many quarterback scrambles or designed runs, as Locke doesn’t appear to have Mordecai’s athleticism, which may lead to slight alterations of the offense.

However, this stretch of games will be crucial for the Badgers, as they evaluate their potential option for the future ahead of the offseason, which leads me to the answer to the next question.

Scary: The good news is that Braedyn Locke is a hard-working kid who values preparation, and it will likely never get tougher for him than being thrust into a windy, high-pressure contest trailing Iowa and their very talented defense. His mistakes were not shocking and he’ll grow from them, but I believe that he will rise to the moment with everything he has. Here comes the “But”: Locke is nowhere near as experienced as Mordecai, so any issues the Badger attack was having with No. 8 will only be amplified under Locke.

So, despite having a pretty manageable schedule going forward (besides Ohio State), I expect almost all of the contests to be close. That will require Locke to wisely manage the game, avoid turnovers, and move the chains. If he does those things well, and the defense holds up its end of the bargain, there’s no reason why the Badgers can’t win most of the remaining games. But, that is far from a given.

Q: What’s one bold take for the Badgers?

Rohan: The Badgers will go to the transfer portal for their answer at quarterback next season. I don’t know if they’re sold on Locke fully being their guy right now. He seems like a viable backup that you can trust, but I’m not sure that they can count upon him to be the starter, given his experience, against such a tough schedule in 2024. The Badgers will have a lot of questions to answer in the offseason, with quarterback at the top of the list. With the way the transfer portal is nowadays, there’s going to likely be some good talent changing teams next season, and I believe the Badgers will be in the mix there.

Scary: I’m going to stay away from predictions here, but I’m comfortable saying that we’re going to learn more about Fickell, his staff, and the 2023 Badgers this weekend in Champaign than in any other week. A rivalry-type game against a down but hungry Bielema squad will be a stern test for Wisconsin and its new signal caller. If they come in with fight and emerge with a win in a game they absolutely need, it would be a bold statement on the mental toughness and grit of this team.

If the Badgers lay an egg and get worked over by the Illini, things could start to spiral. For what it’s worth, I think Wisconsin will rise to the occasion going forward. There’s still so much to play for.