If Badger football fans are fretting about their team’s uncertainties on offense heading into next season, they should take a step back and look at the big picture.
Yes, the Badgers did lose some key members from the squad that delivered them to a Big Ten Championship and Rose Bowl berth in 2010. Quarterback Scott Tolzien, running back John Clay, tight end Lance Kendricks and Wisconsin’s best two offensive lineman — guard John Moffit and tackle Gabe Carimi — will not be back when the Badgers take on UNLV under the lights at Camp Randall on Sept. 1, so there are some gaps to fill.
The departure of Tolzien in particular worries the Badger fans because many have yet to forget the disastrous quarterback situation in 2008 that helped caused an otherwise talent-laden squad to implode and finish the season a disappointing 7-6. The loss of Kendricks, one of the Wisconsin’s top threats in the passing game last season, only deepens fans’ concerns.
However, these reservations are short sighted. The Wisconsin offense has been built on running the football since Barry Alvarez took over as head coach in the early 90s. With the return of two dynamic running backs and a handful of offensive lineman with plenty of experience, the Badgers might not ever need to throw the ball.
Whoever starts the season under center for the Badgers will be put in a situation almost any quarterback in the nation would envy. No team was able to hold Wisconsin’s rushing attack under 142 yards last season and only five allowed less than 200. Can the Badgers actually improve on these numbers in 2011? It certainly won’t be easy, but I don’t think it’s out of the question.
As always, everything will start up front for the Badgers’ offense. Despite the graduation of Carimi and Moffit, who will undoubtedly be taken in the NFL draft in a few weeks, the Badger offensive line returns quite a bit of talent. Five Wisconsin offensive linemen who have started at least one game will return for the Badgers in 2011, led by consensus honorable mention All-Big Ten selections Kevin Zeitler (senior), Peter Konz (redshirt junior) and Rickey Wagner (redshirt junior). Wisconsin also returns Josh Oglesby (senior), who was a five-star recruit coming out of high school but has struggled with injuries since.
In Wisconsin’s last four games of the 2010 season, their No. 1 rushing threat, John Clay, was hobbled with an ankle injury. However, the Badgers were actually better at rushing the ball statistically during this stretch than they were in their first eight games. Freshman James White and sophomore Montee Ball combined to average 283 yards per game and scored 17 touchdowns in those four games. Not even TCU, which boasted one of the top defenses in the nation, was able to stop the duo’s combination of power and speed. Those two will both be back and will presumably be even better.
Ball has already earned rave reviews from both coaches and the media for his off-season conditioning and improved explosiveness. Considering his production down the stretch of the 2010 season — he rushed for 777 yards and scored 14 touchdowns in Wisconsin’s final five games — it seems likely he’ll be penciled in as the starting running back next season barring an off-season injury.
White led the team with 1,052 rushing yards last season and averaged an incredible 6.7 yards per rush on his way to winning Big Ten Freshman of the Year. He struggled against TCU’s lighting quick linebackers in the Rose Bowl, rushing eight times for only 23 yards, but the Badgers won’t likely see that kind of speed again in 2011. Because of his outside speed, it will be interesting to see if offensive coordinator Paul Chryst uses White in the passing game more often in 2011. He caught only 11 passes in 2010.
In the last decade, there have been a handful of elite duos at running back that have carried their respective teams to successful seasons. Darren McFadden and Felix Jones (and Payton Hillis) at Arkansas (2007), Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown at Auburn (2004), Laurence Maroney and Marion Barber at Minnesota (2004) and Reggie Bush and LenDale White at USC (2005) all come to mind.
All four of those teams had very good years (yes, even Minnesota) and two played in BCS bowl games, even though you probably can’t name their quarterbacks (besides Matt Leinert). Furthermore, it’s tough to imagine any of those teams had the kind of experience and talent the Badgers will have up front next season. Could Ball and White be college football’s next running back duo to carry their team to a big season? Can the Badgers improve on their incredible 2010 campaign? We’ll find out soon enough.