When you think of ""Wisconsin football,"" what comes to mind?
For generations of Badger fans, it has meant a strong defense that can overpower opponents based on size alone and powerful running backs who fight for yards and slowly push their way down the field. It's low-scoring, it's brutal and it's definitely not pretty, but for years it has worked in the Big Ten.
This idea of ""Wisconsin football"" has become so embedded in the minds of fans that when the team struggled last year, everyone from fans to head coach Bret Bielema talked about how the team needed to get back to playing that way. Wisconsin Football® has become a brand that fans and team personnel follow religiously, as if it were the only way to win games.
But this season, with a surprisingly strong passing game and running backs who have not lived up to their hype thus far, Wisconsin Football® could be thrown out the window.
Against Wofford, the most undersized and overmatched opponent the Badgers have (or will) face this season, Wisconsin racked up 258 yards. Subtract from that the 92 yards gained by Curt Phillips on his fourth-quarter runs and the Badgers only ran for 166 yards against the Terriers.
In his first start, sophomore running back John Clay managed 70 yards on 12 carries, while junior running back Zach Brown gained 63 yards on the same number of rushes. Meanwhile, Wisconsin's quarterbacks threw for 172 yards, with junior quarterback Scott Tolzien completing 15 of his 20 attempts.
Compare that to the running game's 404-yard curb-stomping of Akron in 2008, when P.J. Hill, Clay and Brown dominated the Zips and quarterback Allan Evridge could more or less sit back without much pressure.
Last year, the Badgers were forced to play Wisconsin Football® because there was no other option for the offense; without a good quarterback, the team had to rely on the running backs. But in 2009, it looks like the focus of the offense might change from ""three yards and a cloud of dust"" to one based around its quarterback.
Bielema said in his Monday press conference that he was pleasantly surprised by Tolzien's strong performances in the first few games of the year.
""Going into fall camp, I had a certain level of interest and to see where certain guys responded, and he's the one that just kept moving forward,"" Bielema said. ""When the issues were going on with the ball security at running back, he just was steady. He was solid.""
Many fans are tied to the idea that succeeding in college football, and the Big Ten in particular, requires that a team be able to slowly grind toward points with their running game. But there's no reason why Wisconsin cannot have success with a pass-centered offense.
Obviously, three home games against opponents from weaker conferences will not test a quarterback or team the way the Big Ten schedule will. By the same token, if Clay and Brown were unable to put up big numbers against weaker opponents, what chance will they have against in-conference competition?
Given the weak performances of the Badger running game, some have acted like the sky is falling—that the team is doomed unless the ground game can lead the offense.
But as long as Tolzien maintains the strong play he has shown in his first three starts and the running backs continue to be unimpressive, Badger football could have a new identity. Hopefully, it won't be as one-sided as the Wisconsin offense was in 2008, where shutting down one element meant stopping the team altogether, but having an offense led by its quarterbacks is not necessarily a bad thing.
If this is the new look of the Badger offense, Wisconsin Football® as we know it might not be around much longer. The notion that a team cannot compete in the Big Ten unless it plays that style of football is outdated, and it could be time for the quarterbacks to take control of the offense.
Tolzien will have his work cut out for him against Michigan State Saturday as the Badgers start Big Ten play, a time when Bielema said the team's intensity ""gets racheted up 10 more levels.""
A strong performance against Michigan State could set the stage for a revolution in Wisconsin's style of football. Perhaps 2009 will be the year the Badgers finally realize having a quarterback-centered offense is not necessarily a bad thing.