Badgers offense uncertain until game-tested

MADISON, Wis. — When the bar continues to rise higher
each season, at what point does it finally fall?

That is the question Wisconsin’s offense will have to contend with as it
prepares for the 2012 college football season. Even if the Badgers sparkle
consistently with crisp scoring drives, they may not live up to the lofty
standards they’ve set in recent seasons.

Of course, few teams across the country would be able to match those numbers.

In each of the past two years, the Badgers cranked up their scoring offense to
new heights, shattering school records along the way. In 2010, Wisconsin broke
the school record for scoring offense by more than a touchdown when it averaged
41.5 points per game. Last season, the Badgers ranked sixth in the country in
that category, averaging a program-best 44.1 points per game.

So is it realistic for an increase like that to continue? Wisconsin’s coaches
aren’t in the business of offering predictions, but their statements err on the
side of practicality.

“I think what’s realistic is we’ve got to play good football, be physical
up front and we’ve got to score more points than the people we play,” said
Badgers first-year offensive coordinator Matt Canada, one of six new assistants
on staff. “When you look at scoring X amount of points in a certain number
of games, we’re going to try to be good every week and be solid every
week.”

Canada is likely the coach to be compared most to his predecessor because
former Badgers offensive coordinator Paul Chryst helped turn the offense into a
scoring machine. But Canada is no stranger to leading high-octane offenses.
Last season as offensive coordinator at Northern Illinois, the Huskies ranked
12th in the nation in scoring offense at 38.3 points per game.

“I’m sure (fans) will see some things that are a little bit
different,” Canada said. “Football is not that hard of a game. It’s a
matter of if you can block, you can tackle and you can take care of the
football. … We’re going to continue to
do those things. I don’t think there’s going to be a big difference in the way
the Wisconsin offense looks.”

The most noticeable difference on the field beginning with Wisconsin’s Sept. 1
season opener against Northern Iowa will be the player under center.

Record-setting quarterback Russell Wilson is a starting quarterback in the NFL,
and Danny O’Brien will take over after beating out Joel Stave and Curt Phillips
for the starting job during fall camp.

The comparisons between Wilson and O’Brien are only natural. Both transferred
from an Atlantic Coast Conference school under the graduate transfer exception
rule, allowing them to play immediately at Wisconsin.

“But that’s the end of the similarities,” Badgers coach Bret Bielema
said.

Bielema noted that he spoke to O’Brien during his recruiting visit in the
spring about not comparing himself to Wilson. That’s why Bielema said he gave
O’Brien the No. 6 jersey to wear this season instead of Wilson’s No. 16.

O’Brien is a solid quarterback who played in 22 games and started 17 in two
seasons at Maryland. During that time, he completed 56.7 percent of his passes
for 4,086 yards, 29 touchdowns and 18 interceptions.

But Wilson produced the finest single season in Wisconsin history among
quarterbacks. Last year, he completed 72.8 percent of his passes for 3,175
yards, 33 touchdowns and just four interceptions.

“I think (O’Brien) wants to go out and wants to have success because we’ve
had success,” Bielema said. “Russell is doing some good things now,
too. But we’ve kind of almost addressed that during his recruiting visit. …
Every man is his own man when he walks through this door.”

Despite the coaching turnover and a new starting quarterback, Wisconsin returns
plenty of firepower from last year’s record-setting team that could prevent a
significant drop-off offensively.

Senior running back Montee Ball, a Heisman Trophy finalist last season, rushed
for 1,923 yards and 33 touchdowns. His backup, James White, rushed for 713
yards last season and 1,052 as a freshman two years ago.

Wide receiver Jared Abbrederis (933 receiving yards, eight touchdowns) and
tight end Jacob Pedersen (356 yards, eight touchdowns) also return on offense
after impressive seasons.

There are concerns about finding a consistent No. 2 wide receiver, but redshirt
freshman Jordan Fredrick has emerged as a solid option. Plus, the offensive
line will continue to be a strength for the Badgers.

Bielema noted that Wisconsin returns just 11 of 22 starters from a team that
played in the Rose Bowl. But the Badgers also faced an identical situation at
this time a year ago, with 11 of 22 returning starters coming off their first
of back-to-back Rose Bowl appearances.

“We’re replacing half of our starting offensive and defensive unit, and
everybody had concerns last year,” Bielema said. “Obviously, we were
able to prevail. But this year, it’s going to be different. I’ve never worked
with these coaches on gameday on Saturday. … Nothing will be proven until
Saturday when the bullets start flying.”

The same goes for Wisconsin’s offense.

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