Adventures in Offense 2013: Wisconsin

Running back James White. - Gregory Shamus

2012 Quick Stats

Passing Offense: 12th in Big Ten, 115th Nationally
Rushing Offense: 3rd in Big Ten, 13th Nationally
Scoring Offense: 6th in Big Ten, 59th Nationally
Total Offense: 7th in Big Ten, 65th Nationally

3rd Down Conversions: 35.57% (69 out of 194 attempts)
4th Down Conversions: 50.00% (9 out of 18 attempts)
Red Zone Conversions: 82.35% (42 out of 51 attempts)
Total Points: 414 (55 TD, 10 FG, 52 extra point, 1 two-point)
Average points per game: 29.6

2012 Record: 8-5 (4-4 in Big Ten)
Record vs. Michigan: 14-49-1
Head Coach Gary Andersen: first year at Wisconsin, 30-31 overall

What's up with the offense?

You can probably count me among the list of people who sincerely believed that new Badger head coach Gary Andersen might or probably would bring all or most of the spread offense he ran at Utah State to Wisconsin, since that's what largely helped him get to 11 wins in his final season with the Aggies. Alas, if you're still among those thinking that, you might be disappointed with what you're about to read here. One of the best ways of figuring out what type of offense a team will likely employ is to look no further than that team's offensive coordinator, and Matt Wells, Andersen's OC at Utah State, is not it. Wells, a Utah State alum who actually played quarterback there from '93 to '96, was tapped to stay on as the head coach, which was probably a good decision by Utah State.

The guy for Wisconsin is Andy Ludwig. Normally when I do these offensive previews I pull my hair out over figuring out what offensive scheme a team runs and how good or not good it's going to be, but thankfully I'm already fairly familiar with Ludwig. I was/am among the Michigan fans who check in on Brady Hoke's former team, the San Diego State Aztecs, to see how they're doing in the wake of his departure (now, of course, going on three years). Ludwig was the Aztecs' offensive coordinator for the past two years.

The part of me that took such an interest in San Diego State wants to say Ludwig was essentially a poor man's Al Borges. Yes, he runs a pro-style, but he was much more hesitant to air it deep and relied much more on both the run game and the defense to bail out the team if things sputtered in the first half or three quarters. Here's a key difference: Ludwig was far more in favor of dual-threat quarterbacks. In the first non-Hoke season SDSU had, Ludwig was minimally successful with returning senior quarterback Ryan Lindley, a typical drop-back guy, whom Al Borges crafted into one of the Mountain West's most dangerous passers.

In the next year, Ludwig had two quarterbacks who could move: Oregon State transfer Ryan Katz and sophomore Aztec Adam Dingwell. Katz and Dingwell had significantly more rushing attempts than Lindley did, and needless to say they actually had positive yards. Ludwig liked that he could provide formations that allowed his quarterbacks some space to scramble. Considering that Gary Andersen went after dual-threat JUCO transfer Tanner McEvoy mere weeks after getting the job, it's safe to say that a mobile QB is probably much more in line with what Andersen and Ludwig want to do at Wisconsin.

In all, Ludwig has coached at more than seven stops. Like Borges, he is a career OC who specializes in quarterback development. Here are some quick stats on the offenses Ludwig has coached to give you a better idea of what progress under him looks like. Cfbstats.com only goes back to 2007, and that's about as far as I'm going to go.

Year Team Win/Loss
Pass Offense Rank
Rush Offense Rank
Scoring Offense Rank Total Offense Rank
2007 Utah 9-4
81st 43rd 68th
79th
2008 Utah 13-0 35th 51st 15th
36th
2009 Cal 8-5 53rd 42nd 47th
50th
2010 Cal 5-7 94th 51st 73rd
90th
2011 San Diego State
8-5
49th
30th
45th 32nd
2012 San Diego State
9-4
107th
20th
36th 61st

Here's what we can glean from those numbers: Ludwig isn't a miracle worker. Like Borges, he has depended heavily on the personnel that he has to work with, but he seems to fair better with talent that is already somewhat developed, in contrast to Borges, who can take a budding talent and create magic. We can also see that Ludwig's rushing units are fairly consistent, but his passing units are all over the place. Again, this is due to the type of passing game he had to work with. In general, he seems to prefer a run-heavy attack.

We also need to apply a healthy dose of context to the seasons where it looks like Ludwig's offenses took a slight dip. Not included in the chart above (again, because if cfbstats isn't willing to go back 50 years, I'm not either) is the fact that Ludwig was the offensive coordinator at Oregon during its Mike Bellotti/pre-Chip Kelly era, for three years. The Ducks were irrelevant and mediocre at that time, posting a 20-17 w/l record. Ludwig was replaced by Gary Crowton in 2005, who was later replaced by Chip Kelly, and I don't really need to go into what happened at Oregon after that.

Ludwig found himself at Utah shortly after Kyle Whittingham replaced Urban Meyer, who had taken the job at Florida. In his second year with the Utes, Ludwig enjoyed the best season of his career as Utah went to its famous 13-0 record. However, because Utah wasn't technically in a BCS conference at the time, it's conceivable that Ludwig saw the job opening at Cal, then a reputed Pac-10 scrapper, as a possible destination spot.

He came into a Golden Bear program that was well established in Jeff Tedford's tenure but was also noticeably on the decline. In two years Cal suffered their first bowl-less season in seven seasons, and Tedford cleaned house on the offensive side of the ball. Ludwig was out of a job until Rocky Long offered him the spot at San Diego State. Although the Aztecs fought tooth and nail for all 8 wins in 2011, it was because their defense was so improved that the following year posted more convincing victories and a better record.

It also meant Ludwig could rely more on the Aztecs' strength, the stout running game behind Walter Kazee and Adam Muema, and less on tricky quarterback passing and desperation plays. This, I imagine, is what Andersen and athletic director Barry Alvarez likely saw in Ludwig that made him a solid candidate for the OC job at Wisconsin.

Ludwig likely won't be asked to do things that push him outside of his comfort zone. He'll have solid returning rushers James White and Melvin Gordon to lean on. Still, this offense should be somewhat more varied than what Badger fans are used to. Andersen has admitted that some spread concepts might be in the works:

"Just because we play in that personnel group doesn't mean we need to pack it all in there and have 20 guys sitting in the middle of the field with offense and defense smashing on top of each other," head coach Gary Andersen said. "We can still spread it. Our tight ends are skilled, they run well, they're athletic enough to get out in space and cause some mismatches in space as well as they can on or off the line of scrimmage.

"There are a lot of positives to that. It can slow down an aggressive defense with their sub packages and not allow them to get as much skill on the field, because they don't know what's coming their way. It may be power football, it may be spread football. (Offensive coordinator / quarterbacks coach Andy Ludwig) will do a great job mixing that and I think the kids are excited about that opportunity. Every kid wants to go play wide receiver, right? It's good for them."

Had someone like Matt Wells been hired, I would have expected a radical departure from the Badgerball of Bret Bielema, which made its bones on eliminating mistakes more than the other team. Andersen has also mentioned that quarterbacks might be more involved in the new offense. I think that's fair to assume, and we'll probably be seeing something like what Ludwig had at San Diego State in 2012: the quarterbacks will likely only run when they absolutely have to (or if the defense is so obviously keying in on the tailback), but when they do they'll surprise people with their athleticism. So if Wisconsin fans liked what they saw out of Russell Wilson in 2011, it's likely Andersen and Ludwig will be aiming for that kind of production when passing plays break down.

Key Players

Although there might be some open competition for the quarterback spot, Joel Stave is the name that is currently floating around Badger circles as the one who'll end up starting in the fall. Reports about spring practice are largely consistent in saying that Stave is far more polished than the other quarterbacks. He went an impressive 15-of-20 for 161 yards and a touchdown in the spring game, outgaining 6th-year senior Curt Phillips, who went 8-of-13 for 82 yards.

A lot of people seemed surprised by Stave's separation, but they really shouldn't be. Following the implosion under center of Maryland transfer Danny O'Brien (who is apparently still with the team), Stave took over the starting job and ended up leading the team in passing with 1104 yards and 6 touchdowns. Granted, Wisconsin's passing offense was the worst in the Big Ten, but the point is that Stave already has a plethora of experience coming into his junior year.

And speaking of Danny O'Brien, things didn't get better in the spring game:

(UPDATE: It was reported that Danny O'Brien left the team in June.)

Lastly for those being seriously considered for the job under center is junior college transfer Tanner McEvoy, who Gary Andersen got two days before signing day. McEvoy is noted as being the best dual-threat quarterback among the junior college ranks during the time of his commitment. Standing at 6'5", 200 lbs., he looks like a plausible option for the Badgers, if not at starter, than at least for depth.

It's practically pointless to talk about Wisconsin running backs at this point because we all know that they're probably going to be good. Yes, longtime leading rusher Montee Ball has gone on to the NFL, but James White looks more than capable of stepping in. He impressed fans as a freshman two years ago and, in 2012, gained the second-most yards behind Ball with 125 carries for 806 yards. Expect those numbers to climb even closer to 1,000-yard territory this year as there isn't a more experienced ball carrier in front of him.

The Badgers also have sophomore Melvin Gordon, who gained a noteworthy 621 yards on only 62 carries in 2012. He got the chance to really showcase his talent in the spring game, with White being held out. However, Gordon was similarly hampered by injury, wasn't able to do much, and had to share a bulk of the carries with fullback Derek Watt. Before he left for Arkansas, Bielema also snagged beefy recruit Corey Clement out of Glassboro, NJ, and in a Q&A with Zach earlier this week, Bucky's 5th Quarter blogger Mike Fiammetta said that Clement is "perhaps already the best power back of the group."

Wisconsin is fortunate to have leading receiver Jared Abbrederis back. The lanky 6'2" receiver out of Wautoma, WI had 49 receptions for 837 yards and 5 touchdowns in a season where it is again worth noting that Wisconsin's passing game was the worst in the Big Ten and Abbrederis was one of the few silver linings of consistency. The Badgers also have tight end Jacob Pederson returning, who made 27 catches for 355 yards and 4 touchdowns. They'll need help from junior Kenzel Doe and tight end Brock DeCicco, a transfer from Pittsburgh, who the Madison Journal Sentinel considers a player to watch this season. You can also expect the running backs to get some passes thrown their way too.

The offensive line has some major issues and is probably going to be Andersen and company's biggest priority if they hope to be as dominant as Wisconsin was from 2009 to 2011. Not only are the Badgers short on scholarship linemen (making depth a massive concern), they were also stifled by injuries throughout all of spring practice, which explains why there was slightly more of a focus on the passing unit and the defense during the spring game. The Badgers have three returning starters on the offensive line in senior left guard Ryan Groy, junior right guard Kyle Costigan (who the Journal Sentinel said underwent knee surgery during the spring), and right tackle Rob Haverstein. As most expect Groy to move to left tackle, redshirt junior Dallas Lewallen is expected to start at left guard, and redshirt freshman Dan Voltz is predicted to start at center.

Conclusion

Offensively, the Badgers' run to their third-consecutive Big Ten championship was improbable to say the least, and they didn't look like their typical selves (in the 2009-2011 sense) until they curb-stomped Nebraska in the actual championship game, winning 70-31. That performance allowed Bret Bielema to get a call from an SEC school, and Barry Alvarez found himself scrambling to find a coach who could continue the success that Bielema enjoyed. I may be in the minority of people who think that Bielema was egregiously underappreciated in Madison, but I will say this for Gary Andersen: he is more proven coming in than Bielema was. (Given that Bielema had never been a head coach before taking the position at Wisconsin, that's admittedly not saying much.)

Andersen's hire of Andy Ludwig means that the Badgers won't go full-on spread as some (including myself) may have expected them to when Andersen did so well with the spread at Utah State. Ludwig is a solid offensive coordinator who I can easily see sticking to the pillars of a traditional Wisconsin offense. He might not own it the way coordinators like Paul Chryst did, but when push comes to shove he'll fall back on the basics and the running game, and if you're a Wisconsin fan that's not exactly a bad thing given what Wisconsin has.

Yet observers can expect Andersen to include some wrinkles and variations in terms of balance. The passing will likely be born more out of spread-like checkdowns in three tight end sets and less of the play-action that Paul Chryst always strove for, but we won't know for sure until this season. We can get some inkling of how Andersen expects to recruit QBs in the future with him picking up Tanner McEvoy the way he did. Ludwig won't be opposed to athletic quarterbacks who can bail him out.

I don't expect the Badgers to light it up on offense or be anywhere close to the more potent offenses of the Big Ten like Nebraska, Northwestern, or Ohio State. Besides, Wisconsin has usually been more of a complete unit when it comes to defining themselves as a program, and actually it has relied more on its defense to win games than its offense. Although the spring game provided very few answers because of injuries, the offense should be decent enough to get by and make Andersen's first year in Madison a smooth one.

Grade: B/B+

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