When the Wisconsin Badgers (5-5) host the Nebraska Cornhuskers (5-5) Saturday at 6:30 p.m. at Camp Randall Stadium, they will find themselves desperately trying to salvage their season.
As if things couldn’t get any worse following a loss to the last-place Indiana Hoosiers, Wisconsin promptly fell flat last week at home against the Northwestern Wildcats. In a game head coach Luke Fickell called “embarrassing,” the Badgers looked thoroughly disjointed and unprepared in every possible facet.
Wisconsin’s season is now a collection of blunders and embarrassments. Gone are the days of mid-October when a respectable loss to Iowa marked worry — the Badgers just lost back-to-back games to a pair of the Big Ten’s perennial losers.
The Badgers displayed an even greater amount of lackadaisicalness against Northwestern, a performance lacking the passion and grit one would expect from a team coming off an eye-opening loss.
This is a major cause for concern. And from top to bottom, everyone seems to recognize this, from the coach to the players to the fans.
“That’s embarrassing, and I take the blame of it and not having guys ready, and not at any phase of the game,” Fickell said after Saturday’s blunder. “It’s very difficult trying to figure out where we are and what we need to do to continue to move forward, but we’re going to have to do that.”
Fickell questioned his preparation tactics after losing to Indiana but said later in the week the team responded well, going as far as to say they had the best Sunday practice of the year.
Yet, after another humiliating loss, Fickell responded again by blaming himself for not having his team ready to go.
Does this team respect its newfound coaching staff? If not, serious problems may lie ahead.
“I think there’s some people that are bought in, and we need to get everybody,” junior safety Hunter Wohler said after the Northwesten loss. “Clearly, we don’t have everyone on the same page.”
Wohler went on to deliver an impassioned nine-minute postgame interview, saying players haven’t shown enough care and effort.
“Someone has to tell people to stop screwing around and stop going through the motions and play. Otherwise, get out,” Wohler said. ““How many guys really do give a shit about this team, about this program, about the culture, about winning and losing and about each other?”
Fans have noticed the program’s troubling downward trend. A chorus of boos rained down on the Badgers as they headed for the tunnel at halftime against the Wildcats.
Fickell’s addition was billed as a Badgers football revitalization. But ten games into the Fickell era, the results have been more troubling than anything former head coach Paul Chryst experienced during his time at Wisconsin.
These concerns are legitimate, and it’s up to Fickell and the Badgers to reverse these worries.
They will get their opportunity on Saturday against Nebraska.
Going into Saturday, both Wisconsin and Nebraska are fighting for a bowl appearance. While both teams have the same record, each comes with drastically different values.
Nebraska, also in its first year with a new coach, is where it was expected to be at this point in the season: building a foundation for the future and fighting for a bowl game. Meanwhile, the Badgers haven’t missed a bowl in 22 years and came into the season expected to fight for a conference championship.
The Badgers don't have to look very far to reverse their fortunes.
“There’s not a single complementary thing right now that we’re doing, and I don’t think we’ve done in the last couple of weeks, to be honest with you,” Fickell said Saturday.
A good place to start would be with Phil Longo’s offense, which didn’t score a touchdown until the last 11 seconds of the game against Northwestern.
Longo brought a new “Air Raid” offensive philosophy to Madison, but the results aren’t pretty. The Badgers are scoring an underwhelming 22.2 points a game — a remarkably low total for a unit that, in the preseason, was compared to Russell Wilson’s 2011 Wisconsin offense, which scored 44.1 points per game.
With star running back Braelon Allen’s availability in question, things may not get any easier. Allen started last week but only carried the ball three times. That left backups Jackson Acker and Cade Yacamelli to take charge, a duo that hasn’t spurred inspiring results.
Considering Nebraska’s run defense ranks third in the FBS, Wisconsin may need to lean on quarterback Tanner Mordecai and the passing game.
But Mordecai has only thrown three touchdown passes this season, and with the passing game in the midst of a constant sputter, it’s hard to see positives in Wisconsin’s offense.
Luckily for the Badgers, Nebraska’s offense is also facing questions after quarterback Heinrich Haarberg suffered an ankle injury in their loss at Maryland last week. Backup Chubba Purdy may get the nod to start for the Cornhuskers.
However, Wisconsin’s defense will surely have their hands full with the Nebraska running game, which ranks first in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game.