Finally, finally, finally-- real football is here again. Woo hoo!
And this year, unlike many previous ones, the University of Wisconsin Badgers are opening their season against a pretty legitimate opponent-- the Washington State Cougars. Washington State, aka Wazzou, had an up and down season last year that ended in disappointment.
The Cougars were 6-6 last season, going 4-5 in the Pac-10. With three games left, they were 6-3, coming off two impressive victories over Oregon and at UCLA, but they got slapped by Arizona at home, were blown out in Tempe by ASU, and lost a wild shootout to arch-rival Washington in the last game of the season that killed their bowl hopes. You'd think an intensely disappointing loss like that would do one of two things-- motivate the returning players to really kick ass, or make you depressed all offseason. So who knows where they're at now?
As you've probably already read, Washington State's quarterback, Alex Brink, is pretty good. He's a senior, has 28 starts already, and was second team all-conference last season, behind USC's starter. (Whose name, I believe, is "Booty," but I digress.) Their running back (who has the wonderful last name of Tardy) produced decently last year and should be improved , and they have some talent at wideout, namely Michael Bumpus (another great name) and Brandon Gibson, who had a 91 yard touchdown catch last season against Arizona. Gibson looks to be their go to guy-- he got better as the year progressed, scoring a touchdown or going over 100 yards receiving in four of his team's last six games. During training camp, he's been a little gimpy with a knee problem, but has been practicing lately. Wazzou apparently runs a spread offense, and throws the ball slightly more than they run it (430 pass attempts and 392 rushing attempts last season; compare this to Wisconsin's stats-- 292 pass attempts and 508 rushing attempts). The word on their offensive line is not good, which may be why they run the spread. That is, as a way to avoid having to rely on their offensive weakness.
You'd expect Wazzou to run a lot of dink and dunk passes to try to loosen up and confuse the defense (especially UW's two new safeties and true freshman nickel-back). Then, when the Badgers are expecting pass or have one to the nickel, they'll try to run out of the spread. The keys for the defense, with this kind of attack, is for the linemen to get in the passing lanes and throw off the the quarterback's timing, and for everyone to make sure, immediate tackles when passes are completed. Spread offenses live off of yards after the catch. Given the iffiness of their line and their running game, if the Badgers can limit their YAC (doesn't everyone want to limit their YAC?), and thus keep them in third and long or third and medium, they'll be alright. Also, if Gibson isn't comfortable on his injured knee, that will be a major loss for them. I feel odd making predictions, but I think the Badgers will have some problems at first. Wazzou should definitely score some first quarter points. Even though guys like Casillas and Levy are made to play against spreads, the defense doesn't usually see a spread team in practice, and Wazzou's QB is better than either Donovan or Evridge. Hopefully, with good coaching and increased familiarity, players will get comfortable and the defense will clamp down as the game progresses. That's my hope.
The offense will be interesting to watch. As much as people like to describe UW as a running team, I think that oversimplifies things-- under Chryst, UW does whatever works best, with running the ball as the first option. If a team can't stop the run (like Northwestern last year), then they'll pound it on the ground. If they can't run decently, they'll throw the ball. It's that simple-- find something that's effective and keep doing it. (Remember the Brandon Williams' sweeps against Auburn in the bowl game?) And as much as people expect out of the line and the running game, the Badgers could have trouble moving the ball on the ground this game. Thomas was a great player that made other people around him better. The rest of the line was not particularly good last year-- against good defenses, the Badgers gave up a fair number of sacks and had trouble running the ball, a la the bowl game against Arkansas. You'd hope the linemen will be improved, with more practice and more experience together. But enough to make up for the loss of Thomas? Maybe as the season rolls along, but probably not now. And the strength of the Wazzou defense is their line-- they have four enormous linemen, including three guys who are 6"7' or taller. This line led Wazzou to pretty decent numbers against the run last season. So UW may have to go around rather than through. I bet they try to run up the middle at the start, and if they don't have success, head to the outside or to the air. Maybe sweeps with Rance and rollouts with Donovan to loosen things up?
The passing game should be interesting. The Cougars were atrocious in pass defense last season, and their last two opponents destroyed them through the air. But, there's been a lot of turnover. Wazzou has only two starters returning among their rear seven, and several of the new starters may be junior college transfers or true freshmen. With experienced, talented, and heady guys like Beckum, Swan, Crooks and Hubbard, even if Wazzou's pass defense is improved, you'd expect there to be some mismatches. The question is, will Donovan be able to take advantage of them? Does he have the arm strength to make sharp throws to the sidelines? Is he tall enough to avoid batted balls, especially against a d-line this big? Can he air out deep balls to Hubbard? Will he look past his first progression before trying to run? He looked decent passing in the Spring Game, so I hope so. But I just don't know what we'll get with Donovan. My memory of the Iowa and Buffalo games is fuzzy. I seem to recall a lot of undemanding short passes to Beckum. As far as offensive predictions, who knows? I hope they deliver an Indiana-like pounding. They did only lose two starters.
Special teams, blah blah. If it comes down to this, the Badgers are in trouble. We should all hope to see better kick returns. The lack of excitement last season was plainly embarrassing. And hopefully true freshman David Gilreath, a small, shifty, speedster will eventually take over the punt return duties from Luke Swan, who's more of a designated fair catcher. DeBauche and Taylor are both old pros, for amateurs that is. They should deliver when needed.
Anyhow, get psyched. Time for some action.