The thoughts of a journalist/libertarian–conservative/Christian husband, father, Eagle Scout and aficionado of obscure rock music. Thoughts herein are only the author’s and not necessarily the opinions of his family, friends, neighbors, church members or past, present or future employers.
Saturday is going to be an historic sports day in Wisconsin. Thanks to the vagaries of the coronavirus and TV scheduling, it will be the first time the Badger basketball and football teams and Packers will play on the same day.
The day will start at the Kohl Center at 11 p.m. for Louisville at Wisconsin …
… before shifting to Camp Randall Stadium for the 3 p.m. kickoff of Minnesota and Wisconsin for Paul Bunyan’s Axe.
To the northeast, the Packers, presently with the number one NFC seed, host Carolina at 7:25 p.m.
This is the first time the Badgers are playing regular-season football in December, so there have been no home football/basketball doubleheaders I’m aware of. There have been football/hockey doubleheaders back when the hockey Badgers played at the Dane County Coliseum, and, yes, I played at them.
Adapting the schedule of my band days, we would have had a very early Camp Randall practice (when hardly anyone was really awake), then gotten out the band sweaters and headed to the Kohl Center by 10:30 a.m. to start playing when the basketball team hit the floor a few minutes later. After the game, we would have gotten into our band uniforms and headed to Union South for the 2 p.m. concert, headed from Union South to Camp Randall, and hit the field at 2:40 p.m. for pregame. After the Fifth Quarter, off to watch the Packer game, followed by the mandatory post-Badger-game party.
Other than the party or parties, none of that is happening tomorrow, since the band has not been able to play at any Badger football or basketball game this season due to COVID.
Michigan’s report cards continue to regress this season.
While the Wolverines struggled against Michigan State and Indiana the previous two weeks, Saturday’s 49-11 loss against Wisconsin feels like the nadir of the season and possibly Jim Harbaugh’s tenure at Michigan.
Here are our grades for the Wolverines against the Badgers.
Joe Milton’s first two pass attempts were both intercepted, putting the Wolverines in a hole earlier. While he may earn a pass on the first one after it deflected off tight end Nick Eubank’s hands, there is no excuse for the second one. He also missed a wide-open Blake Corum on a wheel route in the second quarter that would be been a sure touchdown that could have gave Michigan some life. He finished 9 of 19 passing for just 98 yards before being pulled in the third quarter. Redshirt freshman Cade McNamara was brilliant on his first drive, delivering three dime throws on a 75-yard touchdown drive, but he completed just 1 of 4 passes after that for zero yards. It appears the Wolverines might have a quarterback battle on their hands. Grade: F
Michigan is badly missing its starting tackles Jalen Mayfield and Ryan Hayes. The Wolverines just aren’t getting any push up front, contributing to the team’s stagnant offense. Grade: F.
Michigan was held to under 50 yards rushing for a second straight game and is getting no explosive plays from the group right now. Hassan Haskins, Michigan’s leading rusher heading into Saturday, received just one carry for 6 yards. True freshman Blake Corum gained just 5 yards on seven attempts, while Zach Charbbonet had three carries for 21 years, including a team-best 14-yarder. Averaging 2.5 yards a carry isn’t going to get it done. Grade: F.
Wide receivers/tight ends
The group isn’t getting enough separation down field to give the quarterbacks some help. Michigan needs someone outside of Ronnie Bell to emerge as a consistent threat. Bell was the only pass-catcher with more than two receptions Saturday. Grade: F.
The Wolverines were missing starting ends Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye Saturday, and it showed. They moved Carlo Kemp outside and rotated several players along the line, but they couldn’t find a combination that was effective. Kemp did record the team’s first sack in three games, but Michigan didn’t register any quarterback hurries against the Badgers. They also were gashed for 341 yards on the ground. Grade: F.
Michigan had no answer for Wisconsin’s jet sweeps as linebackers struggled from sideline to sideline. Wide receiver Danny Davis even rushed for 65 yards and a score on seven carries. And the Badgers’ dominant rushing attack was without two of their top running backs. Michigan only had two tackles for loss, with one coming from linebacker Cam McGrone. Grade: F
With its run game working, Wisconsin didn’t need to attack Michigan’s inexperienced secondary down field. Graham Mertz only went to the air 22 times, completing 12 passes for 127 yards and two scores. Michigan’s defensive backs weren’t at fault for either of the two passing touchdowns, so that’s minor progress. The team also had just one pass interference penalty Saturday, which was called on redshirt freshman cornerback D.J. Turner, who replaced the injured Gemon Green for a few plays in the second quarter. Grade: C-
Quinn Nordin nailed a 46-yard field goal on his only attempt and he is now 2 for 2 this season. The team also had a few solid kick returns. Giles Jackson had two for 66 yards, including a 43-yarder, while Corum had two for 49, including a 32-yarder. However, Christian Turner had a costly roughing the kicker penalty on a Wisconsin punt attempt. Michigan was about to get the ball back late in the third quarter after just scoring to make it a 35-11 game. Grade: B-.
The Wolverines have regressed every week this season, reaching a new low Saturday. Their 28-0 halftime deficit was their largest ever at Michigan Stadium as they were dominated on both sides of the ball. The confidence and energy from the players just isn’t there on a consistent basis, and part of that falls on the coaching staff. Grade: F
The losses are snowballing for Michigan, which had a jumble of mistakes against Wisconsin as the Wolverines continue to reach new depths.
The Wolverines sunk quickly in the first half against Wisconsin, a team that had missed the last two games because of COVID-19 issues and played without a handful of starters Saturday night at Michigan Stadium, and could never climb its way from a deep, deep hole.
Just as was the case last year when the Badgers battered Michigan in the Big Ten opener, they took a 28-0 lead into halftime. Two of the Badgers’ touchdowns came off interceptions of first-year starting quarterback Joe Milton in their dominating 49-11 victory. Milton was intercepted on the Wolverines’ first offensive play of the game when it deflected off the hands of tight end Nick Eubanks.
Michigan is 1-3 for the first time since 1967 when Bump Elliott was coach, having lost three straight, to Michigan State, Indiana and Wisconsin, and is 0-2 at home in this abbreviated Big Ten-only season.
Jim Harbaugh, in his sixth season coaching the Wolverines, did not mince words after the game.
“We were thoroughly beaten in every phase and didn’t really do anything well,” Harbaugh said. “Did not play good, did not coach good. Not in a good place with the execution, not in a good place adjusting and what we were doing schematically. Not in a good place as a football team right now and that falls on me.
“And gotta get after really going back to basics and everything that we do and look at everything we’re doing. Everybody, everybody’s gotta do better and as I said, I’m at the front of the line with accountability.”
“Just demoralizing,” ESPN color commentator Kirk Herbstreit said after the play. “I can’t believe this is the Big House and we’re watching Michigan right now down 28. I can’t believe this is happening.”
“It’s a good thing the Big House is the empty house. There would be deafening boos right now,” play-by-play man Chris Fowler said.
And when Michigan finally moved the ball on its fifth possession, Milton was stuffed on fourth-and-goal at the 1 on a quarterback keeper Wisconsin was ready for.
Hours before Michigan arrived at the lowest point of Jim Harbaugh’s tenure as coach, one of the Wolverines’ old rivals provided an oblique diagnosis of their woes.
On a TV set thousands of miles away from Ann Arbor, former Ohio State coach and current Fox college football analyst Urban Meyer advised that a coach of a struggling team should assume its problems are caused by one of three phenomena: Trust issues among players, selfishness that undermines a collective effort or a dysfunctional environment that spawns entitlement instead of hard work.
As Wisconsin steamrolled Michigan football during a 49-11 rout on a frigid night in Ann Arbor, Harbaugh had to wonder whether a combination of those factors had torpedoed his football team — transforming it from one that was ranked in the preseason to an unsightly mess that is off to its worst start since 1967. The Wolverines, after all, looked discombobulated, lifeless and uncompetitive throughout a disastrous performance that left Harbaugh crestfallen.
“Not in a good place as a football team right now and that falls on me,” he said.
The week before, following a loss to Indiana that was devastating in a different way, Harbaugh tried to sell the idea that the Wolverines were nearing the point of playing well.
But by the end of Saturday night, he had scrapped that rationale and simply accepted the harsh reality.
“Every part is not close to where it should be,” he confessed. “Stopping the run. Stopping the pass. Running the football offensively. Throwing in the passing game. All things are thoroughly not where they need to be in terms of execution, so that starts with me. It starts with our coaches and also every person here.”
Harbaugh promised there would be fixes and that everything would be evaluated. He told reporters Michigan would go “back to the basics” and “try to win by all means necessary.” Harbaugh vowed the Wolverines would reexamine the schemes, the players and the performance of all involved.
Yet Harbaugh acknowledged he doesn’t have a magic potion to cure the Wolverines.
The coach who returned to Ann Arbor with the reputation as a sorcerer of X’s-and-O’s seemed at a loss for answers.
Instead, he was the one asking questions.
“If someone is not executing it, why is that?” he wondered aloud. “Are we communicating? Are we coaching it well enough?”
It was strange to hear Harbaugh like this. For so long, he has been so self-assured — even cocky. In the face of previous defeats, he often exuded confidence and defiance as if he knew the pain was temporary and success was just around the corner.
But after he watched Wisconsin roll through Michigan’s front seven to gain 341 yards rushing, after he saw his starting quarterback Joe Milton throw interceptions on his first two pass attempts, after he witnessed the Wolverines trail the Badgers by four touchdowns at halftime for the second straight year, he simply appeared defeated.
He knows there is no easy solution because he admits that everything is on the table.
“Everything we do is going to aim at improvement,” he said. “Anything we can identify that we can do better.”
The problems, though, are systemic. A wave of transfers has depleted depth and diminished the talent pool. The approach to practice and preparation has been questioned by multiple people inside the program, including offensive coordinator Josh Gattis and receiver Giles Jackson. The coaching — from evaluation of the roster to the play-calling — has also invited skepticism. The culture of Harbaugh’s organization that has allowed complacency to seep in and unwarranted arrogance to mushroom is now under the microscope.
In essence, Harbaugh’s Wolverines have become the quintessential example of the broken team Meyer described on Fox’s pregame show.
The former Ohio State coach saw what had happened to Michigan before Harbaugh did.
Mark Berg couldn’t find his football team. Literally. On the first day of the practice for the 1983 Platteville High School football team the head ball coach questioned whether his players had forgotten about practice. He walked up to the field anyway.
“Oh my gosh,” Berg said as he approached the hill near the practice field. “They slept here all night.”
The team hadn’t been late. In reality they couldn’t wait. Some of the seniors, quarterback Paul Chryst included, organized a tent sleepover on the practice field the night before the start of their season.
“It wasn’t the greatest practice because they probably weren’t sleeping all night either,” Berg told Badger247 through a chuckle recently. “But you know that was kind of the thing…Paul was very concerned about including everybody and being a good teammate. Just a real people person and he got that naturally.”
Long before Chryst was the head coach of the Wisconsin Badgers, he was simply Paul: The quarterback of the local high school football team. He wasn’t vastly different than anyone else that’ll suit up for a game under the lights this Friday. Sure, he threw a pretty ball, and threw it pretty far too. Sometimes, he even called plays. But he walked the halls of Platteville High School no different than anybody else and sat in the same cafeteria surrounded by brick walls and wood boarding.
After a long awaited delay, Wisconsin opens its Big Ten season this Friday night against Illinois at 7 p.m. CT. At that same time, schools around the state will also kick-off for a game under the lights. As barely anyone fills the stands at Camp Randall Stadium and Chryst calls plays for an inexperienced quarterback, parts of the game won’t be much different than his Friday night lights experiences nearly 40 years ago.
“(He was) not the quickest guy in the world,” said former Platteville defensive coordinator Dennis Kueter. “Probably mentally more with it and knew what was going on in a game more than any kid I coached there or helped coach there in 37 years. He was a lover of the game.” Platteville played over at the stadium built by the University of Wisconsin Platteville. As Kueter puts it, the bigger stadium pushed the screaming parents and local critics a little further from the field than most high schools but people still piled into the stands. They even covered a hill in one of the endzones, including a game Chryst’s senior year that had about 6,000 people.
Chryst moved to Platteville before high school in 1979, when his father, George, became the head football coach at University of Wisconsin Platteville. With dad a head coach, Chryst had long been interested in the X’s and O’s as well.
Chryst quarterbacked the Hillmen for three seasons. Though lined up in a Wing-T offense, Berg liked to sling the ball. It worked out well because Berg’s quarterback liked to study the intricacies of the game almost as much, if not more, than his coach liked to throw the ball.
As a junior the pair had discussions about what plays or formations looked good before Chryst called plays in the huddle. So senior year, Berg loosened the leash a bit more. During his senior year, Chryst called a large portion of the plays. He’d signal over at the sideline. Berg would either nod him on or wave him off and send a different signal back.
“It was kind of neat just because he just had such a good grasp,” Berg remembered. “And he understood what we were trying to do and he understood the kids that we were playing.”
Chryst sat a large portion of his senior year with a thigh injury. During that time, after starting since his sophomore year, Chryst helped friend Jace Martens go undefeated while calling the plays alongside Berg from the sideline.
The big thing in the Hillmen’s passing offense back then was reading the safety, Berg said. Out of the Wing-T the Hillmen often ran a traditional Waggle rollout. A tight end came across on an intermediate route. If the safety ran up to cover that tight end, there’d be a running back streaking on a post or another deep route uncovered over the top of the defense.
Chryst hit a pass like this that Berg still remembers today. It was in the state championship at Camp Randall Stadium, the game after Chryst led his team over the defending state champions DeForest while completing 25-of-37 passes for 338 yards. The Hillmen clung to a touchdown lead as the end of the first half approached. They picked up chunk gains on a draw play and a quick throw to the tight end. Then the safety came up too far and Chryst hit the big one. The ball traveled about 50 yards in the air, per a Wisconsin State Journal 1983 game story, before falling into the hands of future Badgers receiver Scott Bestor.
The 57-yard touchdown provided the buffer Platteville needed as the Hillmen won the 1983 Division 4 WIAA State Championship over Mosinee. Chryst completed 14-of-25 passes for 213 yards in his final high school game.
“He could just pick it apart really quick and realize there’s a guy and he would hit him,” Berg said.
Chryst is splattered all over the area surrounding the cafeteria at Platteville high school. There’s a picture of the signal caller to honor his All-State selection. Walk further down the hall and there’s a young, hair-flowing Chryst smiling with the 1983 team. He’s in two trophy cases too. One shrine is shared with Nikki (Taggart) Colleen, who coaches the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream. Then there’s the state championship trophy with Chryst’s and his teammates’ names engraved forever in high school glory.
The following winter the UW Band had a concert in Platteville, at which Chryst was introduced (as if he needed to be introduced) as a new UW recruit. He played several positions at UW because two coaching staffs didn’t think he was better than the not-very-successful quarterbacks who did play. He and I were political science majors; he graduated a semester after I did, and someday I will have to find out if we were in the same classes.
Chryst joins a long line of football coaches bred by Platteville High School. Seven Platteville High School coaches have been inducted into the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame, an honor Chryst has not yet received.
Oh, he will.
The school’s nickname itself, the Hillmen, comes from a head coach. Wilfred Hill worked for Platteville for 44 years and coached over 100 seasons of athletics in various sports. Early on the players were referred to as “Hill’s Men” and the name eventually stuck.
Chryst followed, of course, advanced through the coaching ranks himself. Still he always came back to Wisconsin. He even kept calling plays for the Hillmen, though indirectly.
When Chryst was the coach with the American Football League’s San Antonio Riders from 1991-92, he visited with Berg. Chryst drew a play, a “rocket screen,” on a napkin. Berg installed the play the next Monday.
“We started scoring touchdowns with that son of a gun,” Berg said of the play. “That was kind of our relationship. He would say try this, it’s really good.”
Chryst’s name still comes up at Platteville frequently, said current athletic director Mike Foley. The school preaches the “Hillmen Way,” a pursuit of excellence rooted in being respectful, responsible and ready to succeed.
There are many students that fit the mold. It just so happens to epitomize one student who teachers and coaches remember as a leader of his classmates. It just so happens that a student ended up coaching football games about 75 miles east for a team students care about quite a bit. So it just so happens that back where it all started for Chryst, his glory never ends.
“When we talk to our kids in athletics and our activities Paul Chryst’s name comes up every time,” Foley said.
A group of 10 Midwest politicians are adding to the voices pleading for the Big Ten Conference to overturn its decision to postpone the fall football season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A letter written by Michigan Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield was signed by nine fellow Republican state legislators — including Wisconsin Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Leader Scott Fitzgerald — and sent to Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren and the Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors.
“After hearing from many concerned students, parents and coaches, we have been encouraged to convey our support for their wishes and our responsibility to defend the students’ long-term academic and career interests,” the letter reads.
Leaders from Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio and Pennsylvania also signed the letter.
The letter states the Big Ten’s decision to push back football and other fall sports while other conferences have chosen to play has put the Big Ten and its athletes at a disadvantage, and are costing athletes future opportunities. The ACC, Big 12, and SEC are all on track to play football this fall.
“This is even more frustrating when we think of how our Big Ten athletic programs are leading the way by providing outstanding health and safety protocols. All of that unprecedented planning and teamwork was an unmitigated success, and yet somehow the conference has decided to cast it aside anyway,” the letter reads.
The Big Ten COP/C voted 11-3 early last month to not play football this fall, a move that has sparked anger and dissention inside the conference. President Donald Trump spoke with Warren last week about starting the football season “immediately,” but issues with rapid testing availability, COVID-19’s effects on the heart and other factors remain in the way.
Big Ten COP/C bylaws state 60 percent of the council had to vote to nix the fall seasons, so if a vote to restart them held the same standard, six voters would need to flip their vote. Warren released an open letter Aug. 19 stating that the decision to play fall sports “won’t be revisited.”
“The support among players, parents, coaches and fans is overwhelming. Therefore, we respectfully ask that you take their concerns to heart and work with the leadership at our universities to allow sports to continue safely this fall,” the letter reads.
UW has seen a spike in cases since students arrived, and Chancellor Rebecca Blank said Monday she may shut down campus if students in Madison don’t limit themselves to only essential activity — buying food, going to work, attending classes, getting a COVID-19 test, attending a religious observance or participating in academic activities such as conducting research or studying.
Back in June a Yahoo! Sports writer suggested that the aforementioned Warren was trying to influence the presidential election. In June it was about registering student–athletes to vote and engaging in other political activity. One wonders, though, whether Warren’s decision that obviously affects swing-states Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania is designed to get voters angry enough to not vote for Donald Trump.
(The counter to that argument is that a lot of Trump voters are already angered enough by athlete political activism, which of course always seems to be on the Democratic side, to vow they will not watch pro or college games. National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball TV ratings are not good, though ratings are good for the National Hockey League, the league with the least political activism by players. Regardless of how you feel about athletes as activists, alienating the paying customers is not a sound business strategy.)
Who else isn’t getting on to the field, by the way? Marching bands, and you know how important they are.
There’s nothing quite like a Badgers home football game at Camp Randall Stadium in the crisp fall air.
But Dane County’s stringent, slow, phased-in reopening plan doesn’t allow for the kinds of mass gatherings that University of Wisconsin-Madison home games attract. It could cancel the iconic events —or at least drastically cramp the Camp’s style.
The so-called Forward Daneplan, really more of an order, laid out by Public Health Madison & Dane County, includes strict metrics for businesses to reopen and for Madison life to return to anything approaching normal. Even if the the COVID-19 reduction goals are met, the plan limits outdoor mass gatherings to 250 people maximum, not including employees, until a vaccine is found for the virus.
That’s 250 people in a stadium that seats more than 80,000 rollicking fans. Closing Camp Randall would punch a huge hole through a significant source of revenue for the University of Wisconsin and its expensive athletic department. And it would sock it to hospitality businesses in downtown Madison and beyond, businesses that have already been hit hard by the Evers administration’s two-month lockdown of the state.
“So many businesses in the Madison area — restaurants, bars, hotels, Uber drivers, you name it — rely on these Badger home games as a piece of their revenues,” said Scott Manley, executive vice president of Government Relations for Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce. “There’s a cottage industry built around entertaining people for Badger home games. If the UW isn’t allowed to have Badger home games, those businesses are just going to be destroyed.”
UW spokesman John Lucas in an email told Empower Wisconsin that the local order “does not apply directly to units of a state agency,” but the university will “continue to consult closely with the city and county as conference and university reopening plans continue to develop.”
Responding to a follow-up email asking whether that means the university will hold home football games this fall at Camp Randall, Lucas would not definitively say.
“We’re continuing to work closely with PHMDC and will consult with them as more information becomes available about the shape of a football season,” he said.
In the previous email, Lucas said UW Athletics is aware of the planning phases incorporated into the Forward Dane plan from Public Health Madison & Dane County as it relates to gatherings. He said UW-Madison participates in an ongoing partnership with local and state health authorities.
He said the Big Ten Conference is evaluating plans for a return to competition, “with the health and safety of student athletes and spectators as its most important consideration.”
There’s much at stake.
The UW-Madison athletics department generates a $610 million annual statewide economic impact, according to a study by Econsult Solutions Inc., a Philadelphia-based consulting firm. Badgers sports attract about 1.8 million out-of-state visitors to Wisconsin every year, the report, released last year, found. In Madison alone Badgers sports has an annual economic impact of nearly $400 million.
“Obviously being as close as we are to Camp Randall, that has a huge affect on our fall business,” said Trevor Wilkinson, kitchen manager for Jordan’s Big 10 Pub, at 1330 Regent St., blocks away from the stadium. “We have high hopes that there will be football, but that is as out of our hands as can be at this point.”
Mangers of downtown bars and restaurants who spoke to Empower Wisconsin Wednesday said they’re trying to keep up with local health information that is daily changing. Jordan’s Big 10 Pub, like others, is restricted to curbside service, for now, under the local health orders. Wilkinson said owners hope to bring back some dine-in service, with social-distancing limitations, next Tuesday. The loosening of the restrictions, of course, is subject to change.
The phased-in Forward Dane plan also could stifle Badgers basketball and hockey games. It limits indoor mass gatherings to 100 people maximum, not including employees — again, until there is a vaccine. Again, that could be a matter for UW and local government officials to iron out.
Even in the best-case scenario,pre-vaccine, restaurants, retailers and other Dane County businesses, will only be able to operate at 75 percent capacity. The plan asserts that, in the absence of a vaccine or treatment, “isolation, quarantine and, most notably, strict social or physical distancing such as public health orders like (Gov. Tony Evers’) Safer at Home” are the preferred method of containing COVID-19. While the creators of the plan acknowledge “the strictest of these prevention strategies” come at a “significant cost” to the economy and community, they are more than willing to turn the screw on an extended shutdown if COVID-19 numbers rise.
“(W)e must not reopen too quickly or without the tools in place to minimize the speed of the virus. Doing so could threaten the progress we’ve made and have more significant health and economic consequences,” the public health policy states.
A Dane County spokeswoman said she was seeking clarification from experts and would be in touch. She had not followed up as of publication.
Manley said Dane County’s slow reopening plan puts businesses in peril of shutting down permanently. He said it underscores why it’s economically harmful to have local governments like Dane County create islands of anti-business public health orders.
“Businesses have to stay at 75 (percent capacity) until we have a vaccine, and we don’t know if we will have a vaccine,” the WMC official said. “For those types of businesses, particularly retailers, it’s going to be very, very difficult to remain in business.”
The Wisconsin football team is known for its running backs and offensive linemen.
The Badgers are not known for their quarterbacks, perhaps because of what they are known for instead. (Nor are they known for their wide receivers, even though their pass-catchers include such NFL players as Al Toon, Nick Toon, Tony Simmons, Lee Evans, Chris Chambers and Brandon Williams, plus tight end Owen Daniels.)
The other thing the Badgers are known for is players that come out of nowhere to become star players, such as walk-on J.J. Watt. In fact, the Badgers have produced far more players on Watt’s level than they have succeeded with recruits highly rated by self-proclaimed recruiting experts.
Stocco checked in as the 22nd highest-rated quarterback in UW history. A low three-star prospect, Stocco was the No. 26 ranked pro-style quarterback in the class of 2002, per the 247sports composite. Stocco was a three-year starter for the Badgers and went 29-7 during his career, which saw him throw for 7,227 yards and 44 touchdowns.
Tolzien spent seven seasons in the NFL. A two-year starter, Tolzien went 21-5 and led Wisconsin to a Big Ten Championship and a Rose Bowl berth in 2010. That year, Tolzien had the most efficient season in school history, completing 72.9 percent of his passes for 2,459 yards and 16 touchdowns to just six interceptions.
Tolzien barely made the cut as a three-star prospect and was the No. 49 ranked pro-style quarterback in the 2006 class.
Hornibrook was a mid-three-star prospect and the No. 34 ranked pro-style quarterback in the 2015 class. His career didn’t finish at the way it started, but he could have been rated higher.
As a redshirt freshman, Hornibrook won the starting job by the start of Big Ten play in 2016. During his three seasons as a starter for the Badgers, Hornibrook went 26-6, including a 2-0 mark in bowl games, which includes the Orange Bowl win over Miami (FL). He threw for 5,438 yards and 47 touchdowns, but did have 33 interceptions.
Here’s how the top 10 quarterback recruits for Wisconsin in the 247sports composite era performed during their careers…
10. TYLER DONOVAN
Tyler Donovan is the only Wisconsin native to land a full scholarship from the Badgers as a quarterback in 247sports composite history.
The Arrowhead grad earned the starting job in 2007 and threw for 2,607 yards and 17 touchdowns. A dual-threat, Donovan also ran for 277 yards and five scores on the ground. That season, Donovan led UW to a 9-4 record and a berth in the Outback Bowl.
Donovan was the ninth-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the class of 2003.
9. DEACON HILL
Deacon Hill won’t arrive at Wisconsin until 2021. The Badgers got a very early commitment from the three-star quarterback last June. Hill had offers from Kansas State and Nevada before giving his pledge to Paul Chryst.
Like Graham Mertz before him, UW offered Hill before he was ever a full-time starter at the varsity level. Hill got the nod at Santa Barbara High School in 2019 and all he did was throw for 3,102 yards and 33 touchdowns to just seven interceptions.
8. JACK COAN
The story is still being written on Jack Coan, but his first season as a full-time starter was a successful one.
Coan completed 69.6 percent of his passes as a junior for 2,727 yards and 18 touchdowns to just five interceptions. Statistically, you could argue Coan had the third-best season in school history behind Russell Wilson in 2011 and Scott Tolzien in 2010. Coan led the Badgers to a 10-4 record, a Big Ten West title, and a Rose Bowl berth.
Coming out of Sayville High School in New York, Coan was the nation’s No. 16 ranked pro-style quarterback per 247sports. He had other offers from Michigan, Miami (FL), Nebraska, and West Virginia among others.
7. TANNER MCEVOY
When former head coach Gary Andersen landed this junior college product, it appeared the future of Wisconsin’s offense was changing fast.
Tanner McEvoy originally committed to South Carolina after high school. After just one season, he took his talents to Arizona Western College, where he blossomed into the nation’s top ranked junior college quarterback recruit in 2013.
The Badgers beat out Florida, Oregon, and West Virginia for his services, however, McEvoy could never truly beat out Joel Stave for the starting job. Andersen rolled with McEvoy at the start of the 2014 campaign, but things went from bad to worse after a season opening loss to LSU. Down double-digits at Northwestern in the Big Ten opener, Andersen handed the keys back over to Stave. While UW lost to the Wildcats, they won out in the regular season, claiming another Big Ten West title.
McEvoy tried out wide receiver and showed a lot of promise, but filled a big void for UW at safety. He started 12 games on defense during the 2015 season and led the team with six interceptions.
While he did go undrafted, McEvoy did spend three seasons in the NFL with various teams.
6. SEAN LEWIS
Sean Lewis was graded as a quarterback coming out of high school, but wound up at tight end at Wisconsin. The nation’s No. 14 ranked pro-style quarterback in the 2006 class, Lewis chose the Badgers over Iowa, Northwestern, and Purdue.
The 6-foot-7 Lewis caught just one pass for seven yards during his career, but quickly transitioned to coaching after UW playing days in 2007. Lewis returned his alma mater, Richards High School in Oak Lawn, Ill., and became their head coach. After just three seasons, Lewis wound up on the staff at Nebraska-Omaha as the tight ends coach.
Lewis landed his first Division 1 head coaching job in 2018, taking over at Kent State. In two seasons, he owns a 9-16 record, including a 7-6 mark in 2019.
5. JON BUDMAYR
Jon Budmayr was a three-star recruit and the No. 18 ranked pro-style quarterback in the class of 2009. Injuries derailed the career of Budmayr, who hung up the cleats after the 2010 season.
Fortunately for the Badgers, they got an assistant coach out of the deal. Budmayr became a student assistant in 2012 and 2013. He then worked under Paul Chryst at Pittsburgh as a graduate assistant before returning to Madison in the same role.
Once the NCAA approved schools to hire a ninth assistant in 2018, Budmayr made a seamless transition as UW’s quarterbacks coach.
4. CURT PHILLIPS
Injuries took their toll on the career of Curt Phillips, who was the first 247sports composite four-star quarterback in program history.
Phillips was granted a sixth-year in Madison in 2013 after suffering three separate ACL tears throughout his career. While he only played in three games in 2013, it was the 2012 season where Phillips made his mark.
The Badgers went into the season with Maryland transfer Danny O’Brienat quarterback. After that didn’t work out, former head coach Bret Bielema turned to redshirt freshman walk-on Joel Stave. However, Stave was injured late in the season, leaving Phillips to take the reigns against Ohio State and Penn State to close out the 2012 season.
After close losses to the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions, Phillips took UW into Indianapolis as a heavy underdog to Nebraska in the conference title game. While it was Melvin Gordon, James White, and Montee Ball who ran wild, Phillips was 6-of-8 passing for 71 yards and also caught a pass from Ball that set up a first half touchdown.
Phillips finished his career with 642 yards passing and five touchdowns.
3. D.J. GILLINS
Unfortunately, we never got to see the best of D.J. Gillins during his UW career or beyond.
The former four-star quarterback was a big pull by former head coach Gary Andersen out of Jacksonville. Gillins was the fourth-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the class of 2014 with offers from the likes of Texas Tech, West Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Georgia Tech, and Arizona.
Gillins was thought of as the future of UW’s offense until Andersen left for Oregon State. Once Paul Chryst arrived on the scene, it became clear that Gillins wasn’t a fit for the pro-style offense. The Badgers tried Gillins out at wide receiver, but he ultimately left for Pearl River Community College.
Gillins wound up at SMU and then transferred to UTSA, but suffered a torn ACL at each stop and only played in 10 career games at the Division 1 level.
2. BART HOUSTON
Bart Houston didn’t have the career most expected from him, but credit the California native for sticking around, paying his dues, and helping lead Wisconsin to a Big Ten West title and Cotton Bowl win during his senior season.
At the time, Houston was the first Top247 quarterback the program had ever signed. The nation’s sixth-ranked pro-style signal caller in the 2012 class, Houston chose Wisconsin over UCLA, California, Iowa, Arizona, and Colorado. He was also an Elite 11 finalist — a competition between the best high school quarterbacks in the country.
Houston was a backup for four seasons prior to winning the job in 2016. After leading the Badgers to a huge upset win over LSU, he and the offense began to sputter in the non-conference finale against Georgia State. That allowed Hornibrook to emerge and win the job.
However, Houston still played a vital role in the offense and often provided a spark off the bench. He finished 2016 by completing 65.9 percent of his passes for 1,086 yards and five touchdowns while sharing snaps with Hornibrook.
In his final game as a Badger, Houston was 11-of-12 passing for 159 yards in the Cotton Bowl.
1. GRAHAM MERTZ
Time will well if Graham Mertz lives up to the hype as the top rated quarterback recruit in program history. The former All-American Bowl MVP, Mertz backed up Coan in year one and presumably will do the same in 2020 as well.
The only Top 100 quarterback that the Badgers have ever signed, Mertz was the nation’s third-ranked pro-style quarterback in the 2019 class per 247sports and the 247sports composite. He chose UW over Alabama, Clemson, Georgia, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Oregon, and Michigan to name a few.
In his few games of duty last season, Mertz did look sharp. He completed nine of his 10 pass attempts for 73 yards.
Not on this list are two transfers — Russell Wilson, the best UW quarterback based on his single season after transferring from North Carolina State (his UW quarterback rating: 191.8), and Randy Wright, whose transfer from Notre Dame prompted coach Dave McClain to change his offense from the option to a pro-style offense. The result in Wright’s case was four winning seasons (which had never before happened in Badger history), three bowl games and the program’s first bowl win. The Badgers spent the next decade trying to replace Wright. Also not on this list is Darrell Bevell, who transferred from Northern Arizona to UW, quarterbacking the Badgers to their first Rose Bowl win and their third bowl win in team history.
What is interesting is that three quarterbacks on this list will be on this team by the 2021 season. (Which might be “next season’ depending on what further havoc the coronavirus does to this country.) The Badgers usually (including most of the quarterbacks on this list) have had what is derisively called a “game manager” on this list — someone told to hand off the ball without fumbling and complete safe, short passes.
Matt Zemek of USA Today thinks the Badgers should modify their approach:
If you have followed the past few months of Badgers Wire analysis of Wisconsin football, you know that Super Bowl LIV conveyed a very important message to Paul Chryst and the program at large.
We have discussed all the merits of UW football — the consistency, the dependability, the steadiness, the toughness, the time-tested approach cultivated and sustained by Barry Alvarez for decades. The coaches change, but Wisconsin keeps winning. The Badgers continue to be the best of the Big Ten West. They continue to play in important January bowl games. The program is in a good place. It has remained in a good place for quite some time. The program is doing well.
Yet, if Wisconsin ever does want to make the jump from very good to great — from the upper reaches of college football’s second tier to the very top tier in the sport — we know what has to happen: The Badgers have to be able to throw, and hit, the deep ball with regularity. It is the one true gap (or absence, or deficiency, whichever word you prefer) in the larger identity and profile of Wisconsin football in this golden era for the program, which is now almost 30 years old, dating back to the 1994 Rose Bowl win over UCLA, which got the party started.
This is why the use of Jack Coan and Graham Mertz in 2020 is such an interesting and important point of focus. We wrote about this point when explaining how Steve Spurrier used to juggle quarterbacks at Florida. We also wrote on a broader level about Wisconsin needing to have a Plan B when Plan A wasn’t entirely sufficient, chiefly against opponents such as Ohio State. Wisconsin could not hit the deep ball in second halves against the Buckeyes. The UW offense bogged down and wasn’t able to rescue itself with quick strikes against Ohio State.
How fitting it was, then, that in Super Bowl LIV, the Kansas City Chiefs — stymied by Ohio State’s Nick Bosa and the rest of the San Francisco 49ers — broke free from Bosa’s physical prowess by hitting the long pass. The Chiefs’ ability to finally hit deep balls ignited their fourth-quarter surge and led them to victory.
The 49ers had the most physically imposing team in the NFL this season. Green Bay Packer fans don’t need an explanation of that point. Much like the Nick Saban Alabama teams of the early 2010s, the 49ers were the team opponents simply couldn’t beat with smashmouth ball. The 49ers were the best embodiment of it, so opponents would not win by playing the same style. This is why Gus Malzahn of Auburn has had so much success against Saban: He hasn’t tried to beat Saban at his own game. One could say the same for Hugh Freeze when he coached at Ole Miss and beat Saban multiple times. They didn’t try to beat an opponent at that opponent’s foremost point of strength. They knew they had to use speed to counter Alabama’s brute strength. They knew they had to throw downfield to change the equation.
Yes, the Badgers do not have a Patrick Mahomes on their team. They once had Russell Wilson, but Russell Wilsons don’t grow on trees. To be sure, UW doesn’t have the superstar QB who makes it a lot easier to throw down the field. Nevertheless, against Nick Bosa of Ohio State and the rest of a fire-breathing defense, the Kansas City Chiefs changed the equation by hitting long passes.
Super Bowl LIV reminded Paul Chryst that if he really wants to beat Ohio State and take the next step as a program, completing deep passes has to be part of the picture.
The Badgers need to dig the long ball.
One wonders if, contrary to his claim, Zemek has ever watched UW football. At what point have the Badgers ever been a throwing team, let alone a team that dials long distance on a regular basis?
Why? Because the current approach has worked for sustained success. Since the 1993 season, the Badgers have had two losing seasons. The last time UW didn’t play in a bowl game was the 2001 season. They also have played in more Big Ten championship games than any other team, including even Ohio State. (UW’s six championship games are six more than Michigan, which must be making Bo Schembechler roll over in his grave.)
Being able to run the ball keeps the ball away from the other team’s offense. This more often than not works unless you’re facing a team that can score from anywhere (say, Ohio State), or stops the Badgers from running as they want (i.e. the four Big Ten championship losses), or if UW puts the ball on the ground or in the wrong hands too often (which is a formula for nearly team to lose).
Until the Badgers get a head coach from outside the current program, they will be a run-first and run-second program.
When the NCAA Tournament was called off due to the COVID-19 pandemic, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi released his final seeding and first-round matchups for the tournament anyway, and Badger fans got the bittersweet news that Wisconsin, according to Lunardi, would have been a No. 4 seed–the highest No. 4 seed, in fact.
ESPN has now taken things a step further and used its Basketball Power Index (BPI) to predict the outcome of each game all the way through to the championship round.
Their simulation, which considers “the relative strength of the two teams and the location of the game” for every single game in the bracket predicted that…Badger fans, brace yourselves … WISCONSIN could have been crowned NCAA champions, beating out No. 6 BYU for the rights to hang a banner in the Kohl Center.
ESPN’s Seth Walder, who put this exercise together, explained in his article that normally, BPI is used to provide probabilities of multiple scenarios.
“But here’s the thing,” Walder wrote. “Life is a single sim. The 2020 tournament was only going to be played once. And so that’s what this article is actually dedicated to: a solitary simulation of this year’s tournament. One-and-done, just like March Madness.”
The simulations resulted from a BPI run also don’t provide context, details, for how the wins or losses might have gone down, so in his article, Walder took some creative liberties.
The Badgers’ path to the trophy game, per this BPI simulation, involved crossovers with Marquette, Duke, Maryland, and more. Here’s a look at what could have been, according to Walder:
Just in terms of regular ol’ net efficiency, Iowa had the 24th-best offense in the country. But once we adjust for opponent and account for the tough Big Ten in which the Hawkeyes had to battle, it was the fifth-most efficient offense. And that’s what leads them to a blowout win in the first round of the tournament.
As you can see from the championship projections, BPI was awfully high on Duke this season relative to general perception. Will that result in a championship in Sim No. 2020? It remains to be seen, but it did carry the Blue Devils to a first-round victory.
Kentucky was maybe slightly overseeded as a No. 2 seed from a résumé standpoint — strength of record would have put the Wildcats at a No. 3 seed — but vastly overseeded from an ability standpoint as the 24th-best team in the country, per BPI. It’s irrelevant now — they beat North Dakota State just fine — but will it matter down the line?
Our first upset! Had Selection Sunday actually happened, I would have spent this entire week yelling from the rooftops that Liberty was an excellent underdog to pick. I promise, I would have! After all, we identified the Flames as the second-best 11-plus seed in terms of first-round upset potential a week ago, shortly before the actual tournament was canceled.
Both of these teams are among the 16-slowest pace squads in the country, but Wisconsin’s decent offense is a mismatch against a weak North Texas offense. The Badgers gradually extend their lead over the course of the game, which is never really in doubt.
Marquette finished the season ice cold, with six losses in its final seven contests. But the Golden Eagles can take solace in the fact that BPI does not overreact to recency in college basketball. And they also have this going for them: Markus Howard. And on this day against Houston, Howard finally gets his first NCAA tournament win. Will there be more?
A sloppy first half from Kansas draws some early concern, but the Jayhawks recover and pull away for the expected win.
No. 3 Duke over No. 6 Iowa
Vernon Carey Jr., the most productive player in college basketball this season on a per minute basis according to our win shares metric, leads the Blue Devils into the Sweet 16. And Duke is now a clear favorite to come out of the region because …
No. 7 Providence over No. 2 Kentucky
Another blue blood down in this pretty brutal Midwest region. Even though we think Kentucky is overseeded, the Wildcats are still almost three points per game better than Providence. That’s on average. Not today. Today, the Friars are moving on.
No. 4 Wisconsin over No. 12 Liberty
The Flames had their moment, but they won’t reach the second weekend. They hung tough with the Badgers and kept the scoring margin within single digits, but Greg Gard’s defense helped keep Liberty from ever making a late charge.
No. 9 Marquette over No. 1 Kansas
And Kansas falls! Markus Howard is flying now and he and Marquette are having the tournament that Golden Eagles fans hoped for a year ago. And just like that: Udoka Azubuike, Devon Dotson and the rest of the Jayhawks are done.
No. 3 Duke over No. 7 Providence
Duke is coming into its own this tournament, and playing much closer to what a typical Blue Devils team looks like than the one that played this regular season. They look like one of the best teams in the tournament and making the committee feel foolish for slapping a No. 3 seed on them. Providence is a casualty as a result.
No. 4 Wisconsin over No. 9 Marquette
“Wouldn’t this be something: an all-Wisconsin showdown in the Sweet 16,” Walder wrote of this happenstance.
He added some thoughts on what the win might have looked like for the Badgers: “Wisconsin is favored and … just like that, Markus Howard and Marquette’s Cinderella run comes to a screeching halt. Nate Reuvers records a couple of key blocks down the stretch as Wisconsin’s defense comes through again.”
MIDWEST: No. 4 Wisconsin over No. 3 Duke
It’s not the National Championship game, and it’s only a simulation, but still–sweet, sweet revenge.
Walder’s guess was that it would have been a gripping game, too: “D’Mitrik Trice knocks down a 3 at the horn to put the Badgers over the top and win by one … they’re going to the Final Four!”
EAST: No. 4 Maryland over No. 7 West Virginia
The mighty Big Ten is now 2-2 in the Elite 8, and is guaranteed a rep in the national championship game. [Anthony] Cowan and [Jalen] Smith lead the way again, and West Virginia just can’t keep up with the Maryland offense. The Terps win by 10 and cut down the nets.
WEST: No. 6 BYU over No. 12 Yale
And the Bulldogs’ run is finally over. They took down some goliaths but ultimately it was an underrated No. 6 seed that got the best of them. Childs got the better of Atkinson at both ends of the floor and, as a result, the Cougars are moving on to Atlanta.
SOUTH: No. 6 Virginia over No. 5 Ohio State
The title defense is very much on. Two years ago, the Cavaliers were knocked out as a No. 1 seed in the first round. Now they have a national championship under their belt, and back-to-back Final Fours … at least. It’s an incredible accomplishment for a team that has, in BPI’s estimation, the 220th-best offense in the country. Tony Bennett’s stock is flying higher than ever. UVA completes a bizarre looking and utterly shocking Final Four made up of two No. 4 seeds and two No. 6s. But in a strange season for college basketball, maybe this is what we should have expected.
No. 4 Wisconsin over No. 4 Maryland
The Badgers and the Terps met just once during the regular season, and it ended in spectacular, game-winning-3 fashion. Wisconsin and Maryland have also only met once before in the NCAA Tournament (in 2002) and it ended in a resounding 30-point win for the Terps.
Walder saw this one going more like that first scenario–pretty much exactly like that first scenario.
“Maryland falls behind early but makes a late run and pulls ahead in the final minute. But in the final seconds, history repeats itself: Brad Davison knocks down a 3 to put the Badgers up at the very end, just as he did when these two schools played in January.”
No. 6 BYU over No. 6 Virginia
The UVa offense finally held back the Cavaliers. Hot starts by [Yoeli] Childs and Jake Toolson put the Cougars ahead by double digits at the half, and Virginia struggles to fight its way back into it. While BYU’s run to the finals was also incredibly unlikely, it was actually slightly more likely than Wisconsin’s, though both were just over 2%. Now, the Cougars are very slight favorites to win the national championship.
No. 4 Wisconsin over No. 6 BYU
Walder noted that despite the Badgers’ chance at winning the championship sitting below 1 percent heading into the tournament, they came out with the greater win probability in each individual matchup and indeed, won the dang thing.
“It’s a team effort, but Nate Reuvers leads Wisconsin with 16 points,” Walder guessed. “Gard is lauded for getting his group to play their best when it mattered the most. This is a team that did not begin the season in the AP’s Top 25 and only barely cracked it in the last set of rankings. Not that any of that matters, because the Badgers are now (simulated) champions!”