Badgers report card: Season review may leave Wisconsin feeling a bit unfulfilled

Wisconsin fell short of the expectations established before this season, particularly after closing with two straight losses, but the Badgers also appeared in a fourth consecutive New Year's Day bowl -- an accomplishment few schools can match.

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How do you determine whether a college football season is deemed a success? Is it a conference championship? A bowl game victory? A New Year’s Day bowl appearance?

That’s the question many Wisconsin fans will be left to ponder when they look back on the 2013 season. The Badgers played well for much of the year, won nine games and created plenty of lasting memories: Two shutouts to open the year. A controversial last-second loss at Arizona State. Taking undefeated Ohio State to the limit. Retaining trophies against rivals Iowa and Minnesota. Reaching a fourth consecutive New Year’s Day bowl game.

Wisconsin fell short of the expectations established before the season, particularly after closing with two straight losses — including a 34-24 defeat to South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl on Wednesday. This team was certainly good. But the difference between good and great, as head coach Gary Andersen can attest to, is winning the biggest games of the season. And the Badgers, for the most part, did not accomplish that mission.

Handing out grades in Wisconsin’s season-ending report card:

Gamecocks 34, Badgers 24

Passing offense: B-minus

In most any other season, the numbers quarterback Joel Stave put up would be cause for celebration. But expectations of the position at Wisconsin have changed in recent years — particularly since Russell Wilson came through in 2011 and set the world on fire. Maybe that’s unfair for someone like Stave, but that’s simply the way things are.

Stave finished his sophomore season ranked fifth in program history for single-season passing yards (2,494), first in pass attempts (336), third in pass completions (208), sixth in completion percentage (61.9), second in passing touchdowns (22) and eighth in pass efficiency (138.1). So if we’re looking strictly at the statistics, his season will go down as one of the best for any quarterback at Wisconsin.

And yet, Stave’s performances left coach Gary Andersen and the fan base wanting more. Stave’s 13 interceptions tied for the 11th-most in the country among FBS players. He also struggled to consistently hit open receivers and talked often about the need to improve his footwork in the pocket under pressure.

Stave could have solidified his status as the team’s starter during the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina on New Year’s Day. Instead, he threw for zero yards in the first quarter, finished with 80 passing yards and was knocked out of the game late in the third quarter after failing to slide on a quarterback scramble.

You have to believe Stave will be challenged by both Bart Houston and Tanner McEvoy for the starting quarterback spot in 2014. Maybe even freshman D.J. Gillins, who is arriving for spring practices, will earn an opportunity. But whoever is the starter will have to do more in the passing game for Wisconsin to be successful.

As for the receivers, Jared Abbrederis deserves special mention for putting together a stellar senior season without the benefit of a complementary receiver. Abbrederis caught 78 passes for 1,081 yards with seven touchdowns. He also tied the all-time program record for catches at 202 to join Brandon Williams atop the list.

Tight end Jacob Pedersen (39 catches, 551 yards, three touchdowns) and running back James White (39 catches, 300 yards, two touchdowns) proved to be important safety valves for Stave this season. But all three players will be gone next season, and perhaps the biggest area of concern moving forward could be who catches passes for the Badgers.

Rushing offense: A-plus

What other grade can you give after James White and Melvin Gordon combined for more yards than any other tailback duo in the history of the FBS? Gordon closed the season with 1,609 yards rushing, and White added 1,444 yards. The combined total (3,053 yards) broke the old FBS record of 3,004 set by Nevada’s Cody Fajardo and Stefphon Jefferson in 2012. White and Gordon also became the first FBS teammates to each rush for at least 1,400 in the same season.

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During his entire career, White was seemingly overshadowed by someone else. He earned Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors in 2010, but John Clay and Montee Ball each garnered more carries. In White’s sophomore year, Ball surpassed him on the depth chart and became a Heisman Trophy finalist. White remained his backup as a junior. Even this season, Gordon leapfrogged White on the national attention scale early in the year. But White never changed who he was — hard working and humble — and deserved the accolades he received. White’s 4,015 career rushing yards rank fourth in program history behind only Ron Dayne, Ball and Anthony Davis. Not bad.

Gordon, meanwhile, was in the conversation for the Heisman Trophy through the first month of the season. He finished the season averaging 7.8 yards per carry, and he could be a legitimate Heisman threat in 2014 now that he has announced he’ll return for his junior year.

Freshman Corey Clement also gave Badgers fans reason to salivate about next year in limited action. Clement averaged an astounding 8.2 yards per carry and rushed for 547 yards with seven touchdowns. The Gordon-Clement backfield combination could be something truly special next season.

Passing defense: B-minus

Wisconsin will be ranked as a top-15 pass defense in 2013, and there was plenty to like about the way the Badgers played. Freshman Sojourn Shelton emerged as a true playmaker at cornerback, finishing with 36 tackles and a team-best four interceptions. Sophomore Michael Caputo also developed as the season progressed and was second on the team in total tackles (63) behind only linebacker Chris Borland. Throw in the unexpected position switch of Tanner McEvoy to safety, and there were some real positives from young players.

But Wisconsin’s inability to handle the top quarterbacks on its schedule spoke to just how far the Badgers have to go. South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw hammered that point home when he threw as many incompletions as touchdown passes (three) in the Capital One Bowl. Shaw finished 22 of 25 for 312 yards and completed seven passes of at least 20 yards.

In Wisconsin’s four losses against Arizona State, Ohio State, Penn State and South Carolina, the Badgers surrendered at least 300 yards passing three times. Sun Devils quarterback Taylor Kelly dominated with 352 passing yards. Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg carved up Wisconsin for 339 yards and three touchdowns. Even Illinois threw for 319 yards in a 56-32 loss to the Badgers earlier this season.

If Wisconsin truly wants to be an elite team in the Big Ten and on the national stage, it will have to figure out how to limit big plays in the passing game. Simple stuff. Harder to execute.

Rushing defense: A

Much was made about Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda switching the Badgers’ base defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4. But it proved to be even more effective than many had hoped in the front end.

Pending the outcome of a few more bowl games, the Badgers rank fifth nationally in rushing yards allowed per game (102.5). Only two teams — Florida State and Alabama — have allowed fewer than the eight rushing touchdowns Wisconsin surrendered. The Seminoles have allowed five and the Crimson tide seven, though both have bowl games still to play. The Badgers also rank among the top 10 in yards allowed per carry (3.20).

Wisconsin’s linebackers were especially disruptive this season in the new 3-4 scheme, which often seemed to confuse opposing offenses. Chris Borland led the team with 111 tackles despite missing nearly two games. Ethan Armstrong (51 tackles), Conor O’Neill (42), Brendan Kelly (35) and Derek Landisch (33) all chipped in at key moments. Credit also goes to nose guards Beau Allen (20 tackles) and Warren Herring (17, 4.0 sacks).

The Badgers’ 102.5 yards rushing allowed per game rank fourth in program history. And despite the team’s issues on the back end, this is an area of quality that stood out from the rest.

Special teams: B

Let’s start with the kicking issues that plagued Wisconsin for the first half of the season. Kyle French and Jack Russell battled for the starting kicker role in each of the last two seasons, and French simply couldn’t maintain his lead this year because of inconsistency. French made 5 of 8 field goal attempts, and his 38-yard miss against Northwestern appeared to seal his fate because he was benched and won’t be back next season. Russell took over from that point on and, though he struggled early, finished the year converting 9 of 13 field goal tries.

Still, it remains to be seen whether Russell is truly the answer as Wisconsin’s field goal kicker of the future. He missed a 42-yard attempt in the Capital One Bowl against South Carolina. Wisconsin also tried a fake 47-yard field goal, in part, because coaches didn’t feel comfortable Russell could make the kick. The field goal fake failed.

Punter Drew Meyer was solid all season. His numbers weren’t particularly eye-popping, as he averaged only 38.6 yards per punt attempt. But many of his punts came at or near midfield, giving him a shorter field that required more pooch punts. He pinned opponents inside the 20 on 19 of 53 punts.

Freshman Andrew Endicott also did his job well after taking over kickoff duties from French. Endicott tallied nine touchbacks on 57 kickoffs, but there were no major gaffes to speak of, and that’s all you could ask for from your kickoff man.

As for kick and punt returns, Wisconsin had its share of ups and downs. Kenzel Doe struggled on punt return duty when he mishandled a couple of attempts at mid-season. Jared Abbrederis then took over for him, primarily to fair catch the kicks and ensure Wisconsin kept the ball.

Doe made up for some of his shortcomings, particularly in the Capital One Bowl when he showed his explosiveness. He returned a kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown to put Wisconsin back into the game and finished the year averaging 26.5 yards per return.

Overall: B

There’s no doubt Wisconsin did some good things this year. But, just like at the quarterback position, expectations have changed for the entire Badgers team. Wisconsin was in position to close the year on a high note and couldn’t finish against both Penn State and South Carolina. Ultimately, those two results will take some of the luster off Gary Andersen’s first season in charge. The Badgers did not win the Big Ten, did not reach a BCS bowl and did not win their bowl game.

Still, nine wins is a pretty good start for the Andersen era. The running game was spectacular, and Jared Abbrederis will be remembered as one of the all-time great receivers in program history. A 9-4 record probably isn’t what fans wanted when the season began, but it’s plenty respectable. And if Andersen can recruit players to fit his own system and fill in the gaps at a few positions, the future of Wisconsin football looks bright.

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