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Wisconsin Badgers 2018 season review: The good, the bad and the ugly

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Yes, the Wisconsin Badgers still have one game remaining in the season, but that one game isn’t going to make or break how we see the 2018 season for the Cardinal and White. 

As we move on towards the bowl game and try to get over the fact that Paul Bunyan’s Axe is no longer in the Badgers trophy case, it’s also time for us to reflect back on the season as a whole. 

Over the next few weeks we’ll give various looks in to the 2018 season. That starts today with a look at the good, the bad and the ugly of the season that was. 

Of course, before we get there we have to acknowledge that this season on the whole was a bitter disappointment. Going from one of the top teams in the country to 7-5, not winning the Big Ten West division and losing to bitter rival Minnesota to close out the season was not how anyone believed this season would go. 

If anything, the 2018 season is a cautionary tale in believing that one game makes or breaks the reality for a team. It seems that many bought in to UW’s performance against Miami in the Orange Bowl last season as a sign that this team was turning a real corner as a program. 

Clearly that didn’t happen, but what did happen in 2018 to get us where we are today? 

The Good

Two words, one player — Jonathan Taylor. 

It’s scary to think of how the 2018 season would have gone without him leading the way for the Badgers offense. Taylor followed up a stellar freshman season with another record-setting year for the Badgers. 

So far this season, Taylor has racked up 1,986 yards and is very likely to top 2,000 yards when the Badgers play whatever bowl game they’ll end up in. His combined two-year total yardage is the best for anyone in FBS history and he finished the year averaging over 24 yards more per game than the next best number on the year. Oh, and he bested the next best rushing total in the Big Ten by a measly 800 yards

Wisconsin’s run game accounted for 268.4 of the 433.2 yards per game on the year. Taylor accounted for an average of 165.7 of those 433.2 yards per game, otherwise known as 38.2 percent of the teams total yards in a game. 

Of course, Taylor wasn’t the only one that got their jobs done well in the run game. UW’s offensive line was impressive, continuing to maul and wear down opposition defenses time and again. 

By the end of the season, four of the Badgers starters were named All-Big Ten first team selections and senior guard Michael Deiter was the Big Ten’s Offensive Lineman of the Year. 

It was arguably one of the best rushing seasons in program history and the best per-game average of any Badgers team since 2014 to put it all in perspective. 

The Bad

This one is easy — injuries. 

Wisconsin’s defense started the season behind the eight ball with a pair of devastating injuries to expected defensive end starters in Garrett Rand and Isaaiah Loudermilk and it just snowballed from there. 

Rand missed the entire season with a torn Achilles tendon, while Loudermilk struggled to get consistent playing time thanks to his injury nagging him on and off all season. As it was, he played in just eight games on the year and racked up just 14 tackles, 2.0 tackles for loss, 1.0 sack and 2 pass break ups in those eight games. 

The injury bug bit both Andrew Van Ginkel and Zack Baun at outside linebacker, as they both picked up nagging injuries early on in the season. Neither of them hit their stride until near mid season and UW’s defense came along nicely after their return.

But, that didn’t last long as the Badgers secondary then got the injury bug too. Scott Nelson and D’Cota Dixon missed games and that led to freshman Reggie Pearson getting a start, only to see himself get injured. 

UW’s cornerback depth nearly ran on empty at points this season as a myriad of injuries were racked up by the young group. Yes, Madison Cone played all 12 games and Faion Hicks played in 11, but literally no one was able to go all season without missing plays due to injury. 

Names like Travian Blaylock and Alexander Smith, who weren’t expected to be contributors at all got in four and three games respectively this season, largely because UW had no other choice at times given in-game injury situations.  

In fact, eight of UW’s 10 cornerbacks on the roster saw game action as a cornerback (and not just on special teams) this season. Only walk-ons Cristian Volpentesta and Kobe Knaak failed to make an appearance on the stat sheet this year. 

Wisconsin came in to the season young and inexperienced in the secondary and up front as well. What it found out is that the combination of young, inexperienced and injury-prone wasn’t a fun one. Depth is great, but it only extends so far and the Badgers extended it to their extremes on the defensive side of the ball in 2018. 

The Ugly

Nothing was more ugly for this Badgers team than quarterback play. Arguably, the biggest reason for optimism heading in to 2018 came from the way Alex Hornibrook played in the Orange Bowl win. With UW’s run game bottled up at times, it was Hornibrook that really led the way in the win. He was on time with his passes, threw the ball with real zip and played with complete confidence. 

But, the cautionary tale of the 2017 season was that the Orange Bowl was an outlier to the rest of Hornibrook’s season. Would that one game be the catalyst for change or would it be more of the same. 

The answer was clearly more of the same and that didn’t bode well for a Badgers team that needed to challenge defenses with more than just a powerful run game. 

Hornibrook completed less than 60 percent of his passes and threw nearly as many interceptions (11) as touchdowns (13) for the second straight year. 

He also went down with two concussions in a three game span and that gave sophomore quarterback Jack Coan a golden opportunity. He didn’t take advantage of it at all, albeit against some really stiff competition — Northwestern and Penn State. Coan finished the year completing 61 percent of his passes for just 442 yards and 4 touchdowns to 2 interceptions. There was a 60-yard performance in a start at Penn State. 

Simply put, no one stepped at the quarterback position and without that happening, the Badgers were so one-dimensional that it made it easy for teams to tee-off on defense. 

Wisconsin has to go back to the drawing board at quarterback this offseason if it really wants to become a national contender. What they got from Coan and more importantly, Hornibrook, was completely unacceptable. 

Perhaps the biggest offseason question has to be if the No. 4 pro-style quarterback in the country, Graham Mertz, can come in and take the job by the horns. If not, it’s hard to see how the Badgers are more competitive on offense next season. 

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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