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FOLLOWING A DISAPPOINTING 2007 SEASON in which the Badgers finished behind not only Ohio State and Michigan in the Big Ten, as expected, but also Illinois, all 92 returning players and all seven assistant coaches faced the usual end-of-season "exit" interviews with second-year coach Bret Bielema. Unbeknownst to Bielema, he would get an evaluation too.
In April he popped into Tony Frank's Tavern, a mom-and-pop burger joint on the southwest side of Madison, and was making his rounds when a "grandma-looking lady" replete with a red Wisconsin sweatshirt, earrings, hat and motion-Ws on her cheeks stopped the 38-year-old coach for a word. When conversation turned to the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl, which the Badgers had lost 21-17 to Tennessee, the coach offered his sincerest apology. "Sorry we couldn't pull that one out." "So am I," she snapped back and then lit into him about his play-calling late in that game. "I started laughing," he says, "but she wasn't laughing along. I was floored." The point being, whether your name is Bret Bielema, Barry Alvarez or Pope Benedict XVI, 9-4 isn't going to cut it in Madison these days. Not even close.
To turn things around in 2008, Bielema won't have to rebuild so much as he'll have to reorganize and remotivate his troops. That task starts with a defense that struggled to replace four seniors last year, tumbling from No. 5 in the nation in 2006 to No. 35 last year, a difference of almost two more touchdowns allowed per game. Asked to account for the drop-off, two-time honorable mention All-Big Ten linebacker Jonathan Casillas points to a lack of leadership late in close games. Case in point: a 21-point fourth-quarter collapse against then No. 1 Ohio State. "Some of us on defense, myself included, should be ashamed of the things that happened last year," says Casillas. "I think last year we learned how not to lead."
The return of nine defensive starters, including 2007 defensive team MVP Matt Shaughnessy at defensive end, should help remedy that, provided Shaughnessy fully recovers from a broken right fibula suffered in practice on April 17. Bielema also hopes to get a leadership boost from Dave Doeren, a Bielema type (late 30s; Midwestern roots) whom he promoted to defensive coordinator after firing Mike Hankwitz, a 38-year veteran, in January. The book on Doeren: He's more skilled as a motivator, he's more in tune with college players, and he's someone who can better educate personnel on such matters as the newfangled spread offense, which, as run by seven teams, badgered Wisconsin to the tune of 23 points and 377 yards per game in 2007.
Spread? In the Big Ten? Such is the way of the new wild, wild Midwest, where up to eight teams now run variations. The Badgers' defense will face spread-oriented offenses at least five times in 2008, as well as—hold on to your cheeseheads—almost every week of practice. Rest assured, Madisonians, Bielema's instituting some spread-option plays this spring was largely intended to give the defense live reps against it. For the most part he'll stick with a traditional two-back set. But he also imagines it as a wrinkle for an offense that finished sixth in Big Ten scoring (29.5 ppg) despite leading the conference in time of possession.
When Wisconsin goes spread, Allan Evridge, the most likely successor to Tyler Donovan at quarterback, should be comfortable in the role. Before transferring to Madison two years ago, he worked out of the shotgun and threw for a Kansas State freshman-record 1,365 yards over nine games. He also demonstrated the requisite foot speed and durability at Kansas State, slashing through Nebraska's 26th-ranked defense 30 times for 138 yards and two touchdowns in one 2005 game. Bielema says he doesn't plan to name a starter until late in the summer. He has options in junior Dustin Sherer—who was 5 of 8 for 68 yards in the spring game, including a dropped 15-yarder in the end zone—and true freshman Curt Phillips, who ran the spread option at Sullivan South ( Tenn.) High. Nevertheless, Evridge, the player with the most college starts, is expected to win the spot. That would be a change from last year, when he fumbled the starting position to Donovan less than two weeks before the Washington State opener. Lesson learned, it seems. "I know I can't just sit back and expect anything this year," says Evridge, who dropped 15 pounds and got married this off-season. "Little things set me back [last year], and I can't let it happen again. Simple as that."
Luckily for the Badgers, whichever inexperienced QB lines up under center, he will have plenty of support. The offensive line will rotate in just one new player, center John Moffitt, who's more versed at the shotgun than the departed Marcus Coleman. Senior tight end Travis Beckum will return from off-season shoulder surgery as No. 3 on the team's alltime receptions list. (He needs 67 catches to pass No. 1, Brandon Williams.) And the backfield should be teeming with talent, from 2006 Big Ten freshman of the year P.J. Hill (page 60) to Zach Brown and Lance Smith-Williams (assuming he returns from his mid-July suspension) and freshman John Clay, a 6' 2", 231-pound battering ram of a blue-chipper who's destined to draw Ron Dayne comparisons some day.
To clean up the backfield clutter, Bielema will occasionally employ Smith-Williams, the smallest and fastest of the four backs, in the slot. That move would bolster a weak receiving corps whose most reliable option after Beckum might be sophomore Kyle Jefferson, the only Wisconsin receiver with even three catches in '07. Which brings Bielema to one of his favorite subjects: sophomore return man turned receiver David Gilreath. Heralded as the fastest player in the history of the program (he runs a 4.35 40-yard dash), Gilreath focused on returns as a true freshman and led the Big Ten in punts while finishing seventh in kicks. Now Bielema likens Gilreath's move to receiver to the same transition Devin Hester went through in the NFL last year. "He's extremely raw," Bielema says. "There's so much he has to learn, but I'm looking for one serious leap from him." On the upside, adds Evridge, "he's the type of guy you can't overthrow. [In practice] coaches are always preaching to me to hang the ball out there and let him just get under it. He usually does."
That leaves Bielema with plenty to sort out before the season opener, and he had better do so quickly—so says the Badgers' schedule. After a nonconference slate including Humanitarian Bowl winner Fresno State, Wisconsin faces a Big Ten version of a Murderer's Row: Michigan in Ann Arbor, followed by home night games against Ohio State and Penn State. (It could have been worse; Wisconsin canceled a pre-Michigan game at Virginia Tech.) This will mark just the third time that any team has ever played that threesome back-to-back-to-back, and only Iowa has won even one game in the same stretch, under Kirk Ferentz in 2003. "Those games.... Ohhh, boy," says Bielema. "It's the type of thing that can define a team." And a coach, for that matter.