After a heartbreaking loss to LSU in week 1, Wisconsin was able to rebound by winning 10 of its next 11 games to finish off the regular season with a 10-2 record (7-1 in the Big Ten). That was enough to earn the Badgers a Big Ten West title, and a spot in the Big Ten Championship. Their lone loss during that span came when they traveled to Evanston in week 6 and were upset by the Wildcats, 20-14. There were several notable victories though: a 59-24 victory over Nebraska in week 12, as well as two absolute thrashings of Big Ten newcomers Maryland and Rutgers in back-to-back weeks (52-7 over Maryland, 37-0 over Rutgers).
Wisconsin peaked as high as No. 13 in the College Football Playoff rankings before heading to the Big Ten Championship to face the Ohio State Buckeyes and their third-string quarterback, Cardale Jones. The Badgers were completely embarrassed by the eventual national champions, ultimately getting shut out 59-0. Four days after that loss, news broke that head coach Gary Andersen was leaving the program to take the head coaching position at Oregon State. Just 11 days after Andersen's departure, Paul Chryst was hired and introduced as the Badgers' new head coach — their third in four seasons. But the Badgers were able to rally together, and, led by interim head coach Barry Alvarez, finished the season off with a 34-31 overtime victory over Auburn in the Outback Bowl to finish the year 11-3.
Wisconsin's bread and butter on offense has always been the product of two things: talented running backs and a dominant offensive line. Last season was no exception, as running back Melvin Gordon turned in one of the greatest single season rushing performances of all-time, rushing for 29 touchdowns and 2,587 yards (second most of all-time, behind only Barry Sanders). Over the past decade, Wisconsin has cemented itself as one of the most consistent rushing attacks in college football, averaging 3,594 rushing yards and 43 touchdowns over the last 5 seasons.
Last season, thanks to Gordon's Heisman-runner-up performance, the Badgers had the best rushing offense in the Big Ten as they totaled 320 rushing yards per game, 4482 yards and 46 touchdowns. Gordon averaged an astounding 7.5 yards per carry. Gordon is gone this season, along with All-American linemen Rob Havenstein and Kyle Costigan, but it would be foolish to assume that the departures are going to prohibit the Badgers from having yet another impressive season on the ground.
The Badgers started the 2014 season with converted-safety Tanner McEvoy at quarterback. While McEvoy showed some flashes of athleticism and dual-threat ability, he ultimately struggled the majority of the time with his accuracy and decision-making, and by week 7, Joel Stave had recaptured the starting quarterback position. The passing game ended up being one of the team's weaknesses, as they finished ranked No. 112 in the country with only 2,082 total passing yards, 15 touchdowns and 16 interceptions between the two quarterbacks.
One of the biggest problems with the Badgers' passing game last season stemmed from the thin receiving corps. All of the Badgers' pass-catchers struggled early in the season with route-running and drops. However by the end of the season, Alex Erickson showed great improvement — finishing the year with 55 receptions for 772 yards and three touchdowns — and will enter his senior season as the clear cut No. 1 receiver in Madison.
Three players to know
Behind Enemy Lines
The defense holds its own against Alabama in the season opener, creating several turnovers and the chance to win late in the game, but the Crimson Tide holds on to a hard-fought defensive struggle 17-14. From there, the offense regains its confidence, owning the rest of the softer non-conference schedule post-Bama and Iowa at Camp Randall, and go on the road and defeat the Huskers in a tough contest in Lincoln. Without Ohio State or Michigan State during conference play, Wisconsin wins the rest of its regular season games, and faces the Buckeyes in a rematch of last year's Big Ten Championship game. Wisconsin puts up a bigger fight than last year, but still falls in the title game. Their reward, however, is another New Year's Day bowl and a highly successful first season for Chryst.
Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda's 3-4 scheme continues to lay havoc as it has the past two seasons. Outside linebackers Vince Biegel and Joe Schobert lead the most dynamic set of linebackers Wisconsin's ever seen, racking up sacks and tackles for loss each game. The veteran secondary lives up to its hype, as a rejuvenated Sojourn Shelton interceptions six passes during the season, and safety Michael Caputo continues to stuff running games as a pseudo fifth-linebacker. The defensive line solidifies with the experience gained in 2014, as sophomores Chikwe Obasih and Alec James add to the pass rush, helping the Badgers to average two turnovers forced per game.
Bama shocks the Badgers early on in Dallas with forcing turnovers early against that offensive line and Stave that translate to easy points for the Tide. Wisconsin never fully recovers to make it a close contest, as junior running back Derrick Henry carries the Tide offense. Wisconsin owns the next four contests, but Jordan Stevenson -- the former verbal commit who was just denied admissions to the university in early July but signed with the Huskers -- runs wild in early October and scores two touchdowns in an emotional victory at home. The Badgers narrowly escape in the rest of their home games, but stumble in a Northwestern-like loss circa 2014 at Maryland -- and, after holding the Paul Bunyan's Axe for 11 straight years, the Badgers lose a shocker against Jerry Kill's Gophers surprise and shock Wisconsin at TCF Stadium with turnovers and injuries hurting UW's chances at holding the Axe for the 12th straight year. At 8-4, Wisconsin misses the Big Ten Championship game but flounders into a non-New Year's Day bowl game, it's first not played on Jan. 1 since the Champs Sports Bowl in 2009.
The defense carries its weight on the team, but with being on the field for over 35 minutes a game, the wear and tear take their toll. Wisconsin's inside linebackers, Leon Jacobs and T.J. Edwards, though showing flashes of great potential in the spring, show their greenness in their first season starting and face some problems staying healthy. With five of Wisconsin's eight projected inside linebackers true freshmen, the Badgers have to rely on youth to step up quickly with mixed results. The defensive line misses the leadership of Warren Herring and Konrad Zagzebski, and offenses take advantage of that position group trying to find its identity. The secondary, which many believe to be of great potential for the third straight year, stumbles with quarterbacks picking on Shelton as they did in 2014 -- which causes the junior to lose the confidence he regained in the spring.
Bill Connelly says...
Still, Wisconsin is the surest bet in the Big Ten West. Minnesota has risen for three straight years, and Nebraska's got new energy and a nice schedule. But the kings are still the kings until they are dethroned. The Badgers have won three of four against Nebraska and 11 straight against Minnesota. That they have to go to Lincoln and Minneapolis is scary, especially since the passing game isn't guaranteed to improve, but they avoid both Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan, and Penn State out of the East and will be favorites in each of their other six conference games.
Paul Chryst isn't a perfect hire, but he seems good enough to keep this ship steered. Wisconsin will have a solid chance of winning the West, and with quite a few high-impact underclassmen, the Badgers set up well for 2016 as well.
Last year, the Badgers' traveled to Evanston, turned in a sluggish performance, and fell 20-14. However, in the Wildcats' last three trips to Madison, they've been outscored by the Badgers 146-38. Although this may be Chryst's first season at the helm, he returns plenty of impact starters on the defensive end and a plethora of talent on offense, coupled with a promising incoming recruiting class. The Badgers could have one of the best defensive units in the Big Ten, and a dominant rushing game is basically a given.
While the extent of Wisconsin's success this season could ultimately hinge on how well Stave develops under Chryst's supervision, against NU, the Badgers' should be able to lean on Clement and have success on the ground. If Stave is able to connect on the occasional downfield pass, this game could be over in the third quarter, especially with Wisconsin seeking revenge from last season's loss. The key for Northwestern will be controlling the Badgers' offense, as it did last season.