As the Wisconsin Badgers (5-4) welcome the Northwestern Wildcats (4-5) to Camp Randall Stadium at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, they will do so at the lowest point they’ve found themselves in since the beginning of the Luke Fickell era.
Coming off back-to-back losses, the most recent of which coming to last-place Indiana, Wisconsin’s once-promising season is becoming a disaster.
Wisconsin entered the season brimming with positivity. Fickell’s bold hire ushered in a new age of Wisconsin football set to be the next chapter in the history of a storied program. But after an offseason of major build-up, it’s become glaringly obvious Fickell’s project hasn’t gone as smoothly as projected.
With losses to Washington State, Iowa and Ohio State, it became apparent that Wisconsin isn’t among the Big Ten’s upper echelon. However, after Saturday’s catastrophic defeat at Indiana, entirely new questions have emerged.
How long will this “rebuild” last? Through his first nine games, why has Fickell’s team looked so lackluster? And after four straight disappointing seasons, is it time to reevaluate our expectations for this program?
While there were already growing concerns, Wisconsin’s loss to the previously 2-6 Indiana Hoosiers has undoubtedly questioned the faith of much of the fanbase. It was an ugly, eye-opening, all-around embarrassment.
Acknowledging this disappointment after the Indiana loss after the game, Fickell said, “All of us get a little bit frustrated if you want to see some things continue to grow, and right now we keep shooting ourselves in the foot with some of the similar situations,” Fickell said said after the game.
Wisconsin has the opportunity to go in one of two directions after a rough beginning to an era — either unravel from the frustration, or use the resiliency gained from this tough stretch to grow and build a foundation as a future winner.
Fickell expressed confidence his team would do the latter.
“There’s that fine line that these guys don’t get rattled. And I think that’s a great thing,” Fickell said Monday. “They can handle pretty much anything we throw at them.”
Even with an unsatisfactory first nine games, the rest of Wisconsin’s season still has meaning. Out of the three games remaining, two will surely be played with increased pride, as Nebraska and Minnesota both hold trophy implications. And surprisingly enough, Wisconsin still has an outside chance at winning the Big Ten West division. Plus, if Wisconsin is able to win out, 8-4 would certainly still be a respectable record in Fickell’s first season.
Responding well to adversity will be critical in the success for the rest of the season and Fickell’s future. That quest will start Saturday against a beatable Northwestern team.
Northwestern is coming off a 10-7 loss at Wrigley Field against Iowa. With an internal hazing scandal rocking the program in August that led to longtime head coach Pat Fitzgerald’s firing, many in the college football circle wrote off Northwestern entirely. But with four wins under their belt, the Wildcats have responded admirably to the daunting adversity.
Led by linebackers Bryce Gallagher and Xavier Mueller, Northwestern’s strength is on the defensive side of the ball. Gallagher ranks fourth in Big Ten in total tackles with 78 and plays a key role in generating turnovers for the Wildcat defense.
In nine games, Gallagher has one interception, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries. Meanwhile, Mueller accumulated 19 tackles last week against Iowa and has 74 tackles on the season.
Gallagher and Mueller could potentially feast on an increasingly weak Wisconsin offense.
Albeit without much of their opening starting lineup, Wisconsin’s offense has struggled in almost every facet. Decimated by injuries last week, Wisconsin entered the contest without star running back Braelon Allen and starting wide receiver Chimere Dike, and the results were not pretty.
Quarterback Braedyn Locke completed only 21 of 41 pass attempts, and Wisconsin’s two running backs combined for a total of 101 rushing yards, leading to a 14-point showing.
With Allen and fellow running back Chez Mellusi sidelined, Locke’s responsibility within the offense has grown. In his three starts, he has attempted at least 39 passes, a reasonably high number for a freshman quarterback gaining his first taste of collegiate experience. However, he’s completed only half of his passes.
Growing pains have been evident. And in their last 24 possessions, the Badgers have scored only four times, an alarming statistic. With the statuses of Allen and Dike remaining uncertain for Saturday, it’s highly possible Wisconsin’s offense struggles continue.
In the face of a trying three months, hosting Northwestern will present the Badgers with an opportunity to salvage what remains of their season. Even though the Fickell era hasn’t started according to plan, these games are still crucial in the development of the program. Responding to adversity is key, and a home game against a team with a losing record should be the ingredients the Badgers need to right their ship.