by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor

Wisconsin HC Bret Bielema has a basic formula he inherited from the Barry Alvarez regime that’s yielded excellent results. Specifically, recruit huge, cheese-fed offensive linemen and “coach ‘em up” to NFL-level performers. Couple the big, bruising OL with hard-hitting, physical running backs and keep a couple of speedy changeup runners at the ready. That formula produced an average of 2,899 rushing yards over the last 5 seasons and a 60-19 SU mark in Bielema’s six years “jumping around” in charge at Madison.

Last season, the Badgers threw in a spectacularly successful wrinkle, inking graduate-school NC State transfer Russell Wilson to fill a QB hole created by the graduation of Scott Tolzien, who had one of the team’s most efficient performances in history in 2010. Wilson fueled a 2011 offense that scored 44 ppg (6th in the nation) and led Wisconsin to a second consecutive 11-win season and Rose Bowl berth by completing 73% of his passes with 33 TD passes while throwing just 4 ints., easily surpassing Tolzien’s efficiency mark, doubling his predecessor’s TD passes and throwing for 700 more yards.

Wilson went to the NFL Seahawks, but Bielema and the Badgers have another potential ace up their sleeves for 2012. Danny O’Brien is the next transfer QB at Wisconsin, arriving with two years of eligibility remaining after graduating from the University of Maryland in just three years. O’Brien was the ACC “rookie of the year” in 2010 after throwing for 2438 yards and 22 scores, but he struggled last season under the guidance of then-new Terp HC Randy Edsall and decided to transfer, choosing Wisconsin over suitors Penn State, Vandy and Ole Miss. O’Brien has a great shot to succeed, just as Wilson did a year ago. Joel Stave made his bid for some playing time at the QB position with a decent effort in the spring, but with vet Jon Budmyer being lost for the season with hip surgery, it’s O’Brien’s job to lose (and he won’t lose it).

Only two starters return on the OL, and two of the departed regulars taken on the NFL’s first and second rounds, so the Badgers must fill in but developing pro-caliber players up front has become routine in Madison. No school has the same record of putting offensive linemen in the NFL over the last half-decade. RS jr. Travis Frederick (2nd-team all-conference LY) is a perfect fit sliding over to the full-time center spot, and the left side is extremely strong with 5th-year sr. left tackle Ricky Wagner anchoring a front five that will be as big as any NFL OL (no surprise there).

With the emergence of RS freshman Melvin Gordon (fastest RB on the team; 159 YR in spring game), Wisconsin is three-deep in quality ballcarriers, with returning consensus all-American Montee Ball (third in the nation with 1923 YR and a record-setting 39 TDs), and high-energy backup jr. James White (713 YR, 5.1 ypc), Wisconsin should surpass 3100 YR for the third straight season.

O’Brien will have more than adequate targets, as jr. WR Jared Abbrederis stretched defenses for 17 ypc on his 55 catches a year ago, while TE Jacob Pedersen (2nd all-conference) continued the recent Wisconsin trend of producing excellent TE/H-backs, making 30 catches and matching Abbrederis with 8 TD receptions.

The Wisconsin defense returns last season’s top two Big Ten tacklers in linebackers Mike Taylor and Chris Borland, who combined for 293 stops and both were named to the first-team all-conference team. Playmaking strong safety Shelton Johnson had 4 interceptions and is joined by corner Marcus Cromartie in the 2ndary.

The defensive line requires some rebuilding, but the Badger “D” that ranked 13th in allowing 19 ppg and was 4th against the pass last season was built around Taylor and Borland. The team was just 60th against the run and 71st in sacks, as the defensive line’s main duty was to chip off blockers and force the runners to face Taylor & Borland one-on-one.

The Wiscy staff is integrating a total of six new assistant coaches, a tribute not only to the quality of the coaches, but also to the quality and character of the players attending Wisconsin. The Badgers have a new offensive coordinator in Matt Canada, who has a reputation as a QB guru and must be salivating at the prospects of directing this version of the Wisconsin attack.

Canada takes over for Paul Chryst, who is heading the Pitt program this season. However, Bielema returns his defensive coordinator (Chris Ash) as well as both associate head coach Charlie Partridge (co-defensive coordinator & DL) and assistant head coach Thomas Hammock (RBs & recruiting coordinator), so continuity should be no problem.

Summary...Bielema, who got married in the offseason, ending his six-year reign as Madison’s most eligible bachelor, has an equation for winning that should find his team in the conference championship game and the Rose Bowl again.


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