By Mike Castiglione, Associate College Football Editor
2009 SEASON IN REVIEW: Head coach Bret Bielema quieted some critics with a 10-3 final record and a bowl victory in his third season roaming the sidelines at Wisconsin.
The Badgers jumped out to a 5-0 start, knocking off Michigan State (38-30) as
well as border rival Minnesota (31-28) on the road. But they lost a road
matchup with ninth-ranked Ohio State (31-13) on October 10th, and followed
that up with a 20-10 loss at home to No. 11 Iowa. Those setbacks seemed to
light a fire under the Badgers, who rebounded with a 37-0 win against Purdue,
and two more wins against Indiana and Michigan. They vaulted up to No. 16 in
the BCS rankings entering a November 21st matchup at Northwestern, but wound
up falling to the Wildcats, 33-31. Wisconsin closed its schedule by trouncing
Hawaii, 51-10 to earn a bid to the Champs Sports Bowl to face 15th-ranked
Miami. The Badgers went on to win that contest, 20-14, behind a bruising
OFFENSE: Offensively, the Badgers will go as far as Big Ten Offensive Player
of the Year John Clay can carry them. The redshirt junior running back led the
conference in rushing in 2009 by piling up 1,517 yards and 18 touchdowns. Most
impressively, he did so despite not starting five of the team's first six
games. He gained steam as the season went on, notching at least 100 yards and
a touchdown in each of the final six games. During the spring, Clay had
surgery to correct some lingering issues on both ankles, and he is expected to
have no limitations when the season rolls around.
At quarterback, Scott Tolzien is back for his senior year after bursting onto
the scene and snatching the job at the start of last season. Tolzien led the
Big Ten in passing efficiency (143.0), connecting on 64 percent of his
attempts and finishing the year with 2,705 passing yards, 16 TDs and 11 INTs.
If he continues his progression, it would give the Badgers a dynamic air and
ground tandem to attack opposing defenses.
Junior wideout Nick Toon is back after hauling in a team-high 54 passes for
805 yards and four scores in '09, and he'll headline a deep receiving corps.
However, replacing All-Big Ten tight end Garrett Graham won't be easy,
although the coaching staff is confident in senior Lance Hendricks.
The offensive line figures to be a major strength, as senior left tackle Gabe
Carimi and guard/center John Moffitt were both First Team All-Big Ten
selections a year ago. In addition to those two, the Badgers are deep and
talented at every position along the O-line.
DEFENSE: When opposing coaches called for a run last year against the
Wisconsin defense, the intent was more to show run than to actually gain big
chunks of yardage. After all, the Badgers finished the year ranked fifth in
the country in rushing defense, allowing only 88.2 ypg on the ground. However,
only one starter returns from that defensive line. Defensive end J.J. Watt
started all 13 games and notched 15.5 tackles for loss, but he'll garner some
more attention from blockers now that bookend O'Brien Schofield is no longer
At linebacker, leading tackler Jaevery McFadden must be replaced, but the
coaching staff has high hopes for the linebacking corps. Sophomore Mike Taylor
was tackling everything in his path through the first seven games, but a torn
ACL derailed his season. His replacement, Chris Borland, went on to win Big
Ten Freshman of the Year after posting 54 tackles, 10.5 TFL, five sacks, five
forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, and a slew of other big plays. Taylor
will likely miss the opener after suffering another knee injury this summer,
leaving Borland and senior Culmer St. Jean, who started all but one game a
year ago and ranked second on the team with 63 stops, as the stalwarts in the
middle of the UW defense -- at least at the outset.
In the defensive backfield, three starters return, although the challenge will
be replacing free safety Chris Maragos. His leadership role will be passed on
to three-year starter Jay Valai.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Badgers are in good hands in the return game, as senior
David Gilreath ranks second in Big Ten history in career kick return yards
(2,366) and fifth in school history in punt return yards (639). Redshirt
junior Philip Welch will once again handle the kicking duties. After missing
his first three attempts, Welch made 17 of his final 21, including a couple of
50-plus yarders. Brad Nortman is also entering his third year as the starting
punter after averaging 42.0 yards per punt and placing 17 punts inside the
OUTLOOK: Wisconsin has a senior-laden roster, which is always nice, but as
Bielema said at Big Ten Media Day, it takes more than that to win.
"Because of those players that we return, and because of the way that we
finished the season a year ago, there's a lot of high expectations and a lot
of people saying nice things about us," Bielema said. "But the thing we really
tried to instill since January to where we are today the only way you can
guarantee tomorrow's success is to put your work in today."
With plenty of experience returning from a squad that finished the year ranked
16th in the final AP Poll, confidence is high in Madison. A ninth consecutive
bowl bid seems like a distinct possibility. Can the Badgers find their way to
a BCS bowl? If they can stay relatively healthy, it's not out of the question.
Ohio State and Iowa are garnering the most attention entering the year, but
Wisconsin has the personnel to play with anybody in the Big Ten. The Badgers
avoid Penn State this year, and they get the Buckeyes at home in mid-October.