MADISON, Wis. — Expectations for Wisconsin’s offensive capabilities formed well before the Badgers took the football field for their first game of the season. The majority of opinions seemed to suggest that, though Wisconsin had lost five players to the NFL, enough talent remained to avoid a considerable drop-off in scoring.
Then, the season began in disarray, and those same pundits wondered what the heck had happened. On offense, the Badgers looked more like a Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Association program than a Big Ten team.
Through three weeks, Wisconsin was averaging just 16.3 points per game — a far cry from the record-breaking teams of the past two seasons. The Badgers’ famous running game was practically nonexistent as the offensive line struggled to create holes, and the passing game wasn’t much better.
An offense that averaged a school record 44.1 points per game the previous season under then-offensive coordinator Paul Chryst suddenly looked pedestrian one year later with new offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who absorbed plenty of blame.
“I think it’s just understanding your personnel,” Badgers wide receiver Jared Abbrederis said this week. “Obviously, it’s going to take some time. It did take a little time.”
Despite the rough start, leaders such as Abbrederis maintained their patience with Canada, and the team began winning because of the offense rather than in spite of it. Now, more than three months after the season started, the offense has progressed further than any other phase on the team. Over the past 10 games, the Badgers are averaging 35.1 points per outing.
How did Wisconsin do it?
Badgers center Travis Frederick said the offense evolved as Canada became more comfortable running the team’s pro-style system. Canada previously served as offensive coordinator at Northern Illinois, which ran a spread offense.
“And then besides that, the cohesion between the units is better,” Frederick said. “I think guys are communicating better, taking care of what they need to and knowing that it’s going to work instead of somebody trying to do too much.”
At the start of the season, Frederick was among the most frustrated with the performance — or lack thereof — from the offensive line. Following the team’s 10-7 loss against Oregon State on Sept. 8, offensive line coach Mike Markuson was fired and replaced with graduate assistant Bart Miller.
At the time, it didn’t seem to matter what plays Canada called. Most of them didn’t work because the line couldn’t protect the running backs or quarterbacks long enough. But as the offensive line re-learned its downhill blocking schemes of years past, the offense slowly began to open.
Running back Montee Ball, a Heisman Trophy finalist last year, recovered from a poor start. Quarterback Joel Stave replaced Danny O’Brien in the third game of the season and used his big arm to connect on play-action passes with Abbrederis. Fullback Derek Watt continued to develop in his first season at the position. The tight ends became more involved in the offense. And tailbacks James White and Melvin Gordon took advantage of packages and plays specifically designed to fit their skill set.
“I think the offense has evolved from game to game,” Badgers left guard Ryan Groy said. “We’ve put in a lot of things. Some things didn’t work and some things did. I think we’ve kept the things that were successful and got rid of the things that weren’t. That’s been pretty important in our offense.”
Perhaps there was no greater example of the offense’s evolution under Canada than during Wisconsin’s home game against Minnesota on Oct. 20. In the first half, Canada unveiled Wisconsin’s form of the “Wildcat” offense, known simply as “The Barge.”
The concept was to put seven offensive linemen and two tight ends on the line to power the way for White, who lined up as the quarterback. White picked up four yards on his first attempt and then ran around the right side for a 14-yard touchdown.
Canada’s creativity had built a successful package that would be used several times the rest of the season. And it bred confidence among the team.
“We have a lot of different plays and formations and personnel to try to keep people off balance,” White said. “The Barge is definitely keeping people off balance. They don’t really know how to fit it. There probably is no proper way to fit it, so I just go out there and try to read it the best way possible, try to make a play for the team.”
White described the formation as one of the most fun for him in the entire playbook.
“I’m sure it’s fun for the offensive linemen, too,” he said. “It’s like I’m standing behind a brick wall.”
The Barge was just a sample of Canada creativity, as he became increasingly comfortable with his players. During Wisconsin’s 70-31 victory against Nebraska in the Big Ten championship, he opened up the playbook in ways that Wisconsin fans had never seen. Abbrederis completed a 27-yard pass to quarterback Curt Phillips, White threw a touchdown pass from The Barge, and the team had the Cornhuskers on their heels the entire game.
As the season progressed, Canada also found different ways for Wisconsin to reach the end zone. For example, the Badgers have won despite Abbrederis, the team’s top receiver, not catching a touchdown pass in the past seven games. Instead, tight end Jacob Pedersen has caught three touchdown passes during that span. Tight end Sam Arneson has two, receiver Jeff Duckworth one and Gordon one.
Abbrederis had 27 catches with five touchdowns in his first five games — he missed the Utah State game with a head injury — and has 19 catches with no touchdowns in the last seven games.
Part of Abbrederis’ lack of productivity stems from the running backs’ amazing productivity. Wisconsin churned out a school-record 564 yards rushing against Indiana and 467 yards against Purdue — making it even easier for the Badgers to hit play-action passes on their few attempts. This season, Wisconsin has thrown on just 31.7 percent of its offensive plays, down from 35.0 percent last season with star quarterback Russell Wilson.
Despite the slow start, the offensive scheme under Canada has proven to be effective, even if it’s different and not at a school-record pace.
“At the beginning of the season, we were in positions to be successful,” Phillips said. “We just didn’t make the most of it. We’re just learning from those mistakes and then just having more confidence. I’m sure coach Canada would tell you the same thing. Early on he was maybe trying to get a feel for things. Now he’s got it dialed in pretty well.”