College football season is finally, gloriously, upon us. And that can only mean one thing: the return of the Badgers mailbag! If the excitement of Wisconsin’s season opener against LSU wasn’t enough to get your blood pumping, perhaps this mailbag will do the trick.
In the Week 1 edition, we address questions about the quarterback battle between Tanner McEvoy and Joel Stave, the plight of reserve quarterback Bart Houston, Wisconsin’s Big Ten championship odds and more.
Thanks to everyone who submitted questions this week. If you’d like to participate, look for a link to next week’s mailbag on our website following the Wisconsin-LSU game. And now, on to the questions:
Q: Hey Jesse, glad to see the mailbag’s back. What do you think happened behind the scenes regarding the quarterback decision? Didn’t it seem like Stave was the front-runner? What do you believe changed? Thanks! — Mitch Clydburg, Madison, Wis.
A: This is a very good question because I, like many media members who watched the first two weeks of practices, assumed Stave was going to win the starting quarterback battle. He generally displayed more consistency in the passing game, and I figured this team needed to have a reliable play-action game to complement the team’s great running backs.
It’s quite possible that if we step back and really assess the situation, the coaching staff perhaps wanted McEvoy to win this job all along. I’m not going to start any conspiracy theories because I do believe the coaches gave both quarterbacks a legitimate opportunity to win the job. But if Stave was only slightly ahead of McEvoy — and it seemed as though McEvoy made a strong comeback after Week 1 — then maybe the coaches just decided to go all in on the dual-threat guy. It’s no secret Gary Andersen and his staff has wanted someone that mirrors what Chuckie Keeton did at Utah State when Andersen was there. McEvoy was the first scholarship quarterback recruited by this staff, so he’s really their guy.
We know McEvoy can make plays with his legs and run some option. But I’m interested to see just how well McEvoy can handle the passing game. He certainly has a unique throwing motion, but he seems to get the ball where it needs to go. Still, the fact he has yet to throw a pass in a Division I game is a bit disconcerting, while Stave has 19 starts at quarterback and has thrown 455 passes.
Q: Jesse, I feel like if McEvoy has a couple of bad games, they’re going to go right to Stave. Stave seems like a safer choice, more of a game manager, but I think Tanner could be the high-risk, high-reward-type QB. Do you suspect the coaches sense that the defense is not going to be very good, so they need to score a lot of points every game to compete, thus McEvoy over Stave? — Dan Simon, Janesville, Wis.
A: Gary Andersen has said that both quarterbacks will play at times this season, so that leaves open the possibility of Stave earning back his job. But I think the coaches recognize McEvoy is still a bit green as a quarterback and will need time to develop. It’s one thing to win the job in fall camp and another to perform at a high level right out of the chute against LSU. Part of me believes that if the coaching staff is fully committed to McEvoy, then they will deal with both the good and bad and ride it out with him. Another part thinks that, as you note, Stave could easily be inserted back into the starting lineup if McEvoy struggles. Certainly, McEvoy provides a dynamic this team doesn’t otherwise have, so in a sense the payoff can be greater because he has more upside.
As to your assertion the coaches believe this defense won’t be any good, which means the offense must score a ton of points, I disagree. I don’t think the quarterback decision had anything to do with that because this defense should be pretty darn good. Even though the defense doesn’t have a bunch of household names (like a Chris Borland), these guys have playing experience and better fit defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s vision to be more athletic and productive. The decision to go with McEvoy is more out of a belief that he gives the team the best chance to win.
Q: What is the scoop on Bart Houston? He was a top QB coming out of high school and seems to be lost in the shuffle. When he has played, he has looked good. — Dale Neis, Dickeyville, Wis.
A: I often wonder what would have happened if Houston had wound up picking a different college to play quarterback because he’s been passed by entirely at Wisconsin. And you’re right about him being a top quarterback out of high school. In fact, he came in as one of the most highly touted quarterbacks this program had ever seen — a four-star guy and the No. 7 QB in his class, according to Scout.com.
The way I look at it is he does a lot of the same things that Joel Stave does — a solid pocket passer who won’t provide much in the mobility department. And since Stave already has 19 starts under his belt, it’d be awfully difficult to leapfrog Stave with Houston, who’s only played in two games. This coaching staff clearly places an emphasis on dual-threat quarterbacks, and you can see that in the two quarterbacks on scholarship that they’ve actually recruited: Tanner McEvoy and D.J. Gillins. Even Class of 2015 commit Austin Kafentzis has rushed for 4,516 yards in his first three high school seasons.
Under the right circumstances, Houston could have developed in much the same way Stave did, progressing each season while gaining that valuable game experience. But coaching staffs have to make tough decisions, and with four quarterbacks on scholarship, that means someone is going to get left behind. I give Houston a lot of credit, however, because he has been adamant with me in the past that he’s not looking to transfer. He committed to the school, and he loves the city and the university. Admirable, to be sure.
Q: What are your expectations for (Lubern) Figaro this season? — Rudi, Madison, Wis.
A: I wrote about safety Lubern Figaro last Friday, but I can tell you that expectations are pretty high considering he’s a true freshman. Figaro is expected to be the team’s starting free safety opposite Michael Caputo when Wisconsin opens its season against LSU on Aug. 30. The thing that struck me most about Figaro was his dedication to learning the intricacies of college football. He told me that, one night last week, he studied LSU game film on his iPad from 7 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. in his dorm room. And he’s asked a lot of questions to the team’s veterans, including Peniel Jean, Leo Musso and Caputo.
Rare are the true freshmen that are capable of contributing immediately at Wisconsin, but Figaro certainly is one of them. Cornerback Sojourn Shelton talked about how impressed he was with Figaro’s ability to pick up the defense, and Shelton would know: Last year, he too started in the secondary for the Badgers as a true freshman. Shelton, however, was an early on-campus arrival and was here for spring ball. Figaro did not have that benefit, making his accelerated growth even more impressive.
Q: With Ohio State losing Braxton Miller for the season, I figure Wisconsin has to be the favorite to play in the Big Ten championship game. If they get by LSU, then it looks like the toughest remaining game would be at home against Nebraska. No Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State or Ohio State on the schedule this year. Who would you say would be the favorite to play Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship? Michigan State? If Ohio State makes the Big Ten championship game, they would certainly be a different team by then. — Steve Waldvogel, Flagstaff, Ariz.
A: At this point, I’d say there are three teams considered viable options to win the Big Ten West right now: Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska. And after tallying up the win-loss record of conference opponents from last season, I found Wisconsin to have the easiest path through the Big Ten, which I wrote about back in April. Here are the conference win-loss records of each team’s Big Ten opponents from last season:
Make a note, however, that Iowa and Nebraska are not far behind Wisconsin in the easy-schedule department. My belief is Wisconsin’s season will come down to back-to-back weekends: at home against Nebraska (Nov. 15) and at Iowa (Nov. 22). If the Badgers can win those games, or perhaps earn a split and win their other six Big Ten games, then Wisconsin is on to the Big Ten championship.
As for the team Wisconsin could face in the title game, yes, Braxton Miller’s injury substantially changes the East Division. Consider that Ohio State’s Las Vegas odds to win a national title dropped from 12-to-1 to 50-to-1 with the Miller injury in some sportsbooks. In the Big Ten race, Michigan State and Wisconsin both surpassed Ohio State as favorites to win the league title, according to Vegas oddsmakers. If we go back and look at the above win-loss record, notice that Michigan State and Ohio State both play what is considered to be the easiest conference schedule among teams in the East. Of course, that’s also because they don’t have to play themselves after both went 8-0 a year ago.
Q: It sure looks like this Badgers team is a scoring machine, but is the defense capable of stopping a running team as good as the Tigers? — B. Gailbreath, Madison, Wis.
A: So many people want to talk about Wisconsin’s talented tandem of running backs — and rightfully so. But LSU’s stable will be awfully scary, particularly with the addition of Leonard Fournette, who is perhaps the most hyped running back to come out of high school since Adrian Peterson. Consider that Fournette, as of now, at least, is the third running back on the team’s depth chart.
Terrence Magee is a returning tailback that rushed for 626 yards and eight touchdowns last season. Fellow senior-to-be Kenny Hilliard rushed for 310 yards and seven touchdowns. Plus, both of the LSU quarterbacks vying for the starting job — Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris — are dual-threat quarterbacks.
Wisconsin allowed just 102.5 yards rushing per game and ranked fifth in the nation last season. Only twice did the Badgers surrender more than 120 yards on the ground: 163 against BYU and 192 against Ohio State. LSU, meanwhile, averaged 202.3 yards rushing per game.
This game certainly will be the biggest test Wisconsin’s defense sees during the entire regular season. But the Badgers’ D still has a chance to be every bit as good as the one last season that ranked in the top 20 nationally in all four major statistical categories: total defense, passing defense, rushing defense and scoring defense. There’s no question Wisconsin is capable of stopping LSU’s run. It’s just a matter of execution.
Q: Are the Badgers going to beat LSU? — Jeff, Stratford
A: The most important question of the week! And if this question read, "Can the Badgers beat LSU," my answer would be yes. But I have to go with my gut feeling, which tells me the Tigers are going to win. Wisconsin just hasn’t seemed to beat out-of-conference teams from the power leagues in recent seasons. By my count, the Badgers are 0-5 in their last five games against such teams: South Carolina and Arizona State last year, Stanford and Oregon State the year before, Oregon in the 2012 Rose Bowl. Only one of those teams is from the SEC, which is the best conference in the country year-in and year-out.