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B1G 2021: Running Back U, A Wisconsin Offense Preview

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Spoiler: We’re ignoring 2020 again

Before we get started, it’s time for an OTE tradition: A Sporcle quiz that of course you (probably) won’t be able to finish.

I didn’t spend really any time trying to figure it out, but I honestly cannot figure out when “present” is in that quiz.

Obviously this title is semi-inflammatory and hopefully it gets at least a couple angry ClickScrollToCommentsWithoutReading, but it’s important as Wisconsin looks to rebound in 2021.

Excluding the odd, “injury”-riddled, weird, only-counts-when-I-like season of 2020, here’s a quick rundown of Wisconsin’s top rusher and where he finished in the national yardage rankings for the past ten seasons:

2019: Jonathan Taylor - t3
2018: J. Taylor - 1
2017: J. Taylor - 1
2016: Corey Clement - 23
2015: Dare Ogunbawale - 96 (he split carries 60/40 with Taiwan Deal; combined they ranked in the low 20s)
2014: Melvin Gordon - 1
2013: M. Gordon - 10
2012: Montee Ball - 3
2011: Montee Ball - 1
2010: James White - 42 (amazingly, Ball finished 48th and John Clay finished 49th in the country that season. Combined, they rushed for over 3,000 yards)
2009: John Clay, - 8

It’s been an amazing decade plus for fans of Wisconsin running backs, excepting The Dark Times of 2015 and 2016. Why does it matter? Because here’s what Wisconsin did last year:

2020: Jalen Berger - 200; Garrett Groshek - 202; combined, t74

It wasn’t good, and if you watched any Wisconsin Badgers football beyond Graham Mertz’z best Kurt Warner That One Year With The Rams impression against Illinois, you know it wasn’t good. The thing that’s really worrying me is whether this was a 2015-style blip, and Berger will stride his way into the top twenty rushers in the country in 2021, or if the graduation of Groshek will truly be a loss to the offense.

The forgetful among you might be saying, “Wait, in 2015 Wisconsin’s top two rushers combined to have around the 30th best running stats in the country? I would take that in a second!” Sure, it sounds nice, but then you remember that 2015’s stats included Joel Stave throwing 370 passes with a 1:1 touchdown to interception ratio. (He finished with a 125.7 passing rate that year; Mertz had a 125.2 rate last year.)

But back to the worrying. This particular Wisconsin team is not well equipped to throw the ball a ton, or at least not throw it particularly well if they do throw a ton. In my opinion. Mertz had an insane game against Illinois in his first career start, earning the Week 1 Heisman and throwing five of his nine touchdowns for the season. Other than that game, he threw more interceptions than touchdowns. They return two good receivers in Kendrick Pryor and Danny Davis—plus a good amount of receiver potential in Chimere Dike and a lot of reliable experience in Jake Ferguson at tight end—but none of those guys seem to be Rashod Bateman or (insert whoever OSU’s number one WR is here). If Wisconsin has a hard time running the ball with Berger, behind what would be cliche-edly be described as “revamped” but is probably better described as “well, time for all those highly rated recruits to step up” offensive line, does anyone reading this have faith yet that Mertz can carry the offense while the defense (probably) dominates?

Coach Dad is BACK

There is, of course, a Pros column to 2021. Paul Chryst is back calling the plays, which hopefully means a return to the appropriate, respectable Midwestern amounts of playcalling creativity, but at the very least means an improvement over Whoever The Last Guy Was. (Looking for a fun and laid back writing experience? Come work for Off Tackle Empire, where the most basic of research is definitely optional.) I, personally, am of the opinion that Chryst calling the plays means the offense will be better, the passing game more threatening, and thus the running game easier.

Even more relevant for purposes of this stream-of-consciousness piece, Jalen Berger looks due for a gigantic increase in the number of carries. He averaged five yards per carry in 2020, but had to share a lot carries with Nakia Watson and Garret Groshek. While those guys could certainly run forward under the right circumstances, Wisconsin fans never got those “this could be a touchdown run” vibes from them. Berger, on the other hand, seemed to show flashes of his New Jersey predecessor. Except in the bowl game, I guess.

Pro: This guy is one of Berger’s backups:

Wisconsin routinely turns out top 20 running backs year after year, sometimes multiples simultaneously. A Wisconsin running back has finished in the top 10 nationally for 8 of the past 12 seasons, so while Running Back U is both a dumb title and an ill-defined one, it might apply to Wisconsin. If Wisconsin’s going to be good this year, Berger, or whoever gets the carries for Wisconsin, needs to end up in the top 30 at a minimum.

So, is it going to happen?

Yes, obviously. On Wisconsin.

Poll

Where does Berger (or the #1 guy) end up?

This poll is closed

  • 27%
    Top 30
    (41 votes)
  • 44%
    Top 15
    (67 votes)
  • 13%
    No guy gets enough carries
    (20 votes)
  • 14%
    Whatever last place is
    (21 votes)
149 votes total Vote Now