Hayes: Somehow, despite transfer portal misses, Wisconsin still has a chance to win the West
It started with what seemed like a steal in transfer portal and has evolved to a cautionary tale so rarely told.
There’s a reason players enter the transfer portal — and it’s not always good.
Sometimes the road twists and turns, and the next thing you know, a sleepy noon kick at Indiana ends with the worst team in the Big Ten throwing Wisconsin’s rapidly changing season of doubt into complete disarray — despite a mountain of hope in the offseason.
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All because of big swings and big misses in the transfer portal at the quarterback position.
Nine games into Wisconsin’s first season under coach Luke Fickell with the pass-happy Air Raid offense, and the Badgers have more wins (5) than touchdown passes (3) from their original starting quarterback.
“We’ve got to go with what we believe is the best way for us to win a football game,” Fickell said after the Indiana loss.
Of all the the ways this could have played out, there was almost no chance it would include so much uncertainty at quarterback.
Fickell hired widely-respected OC Phil Longo away from North Carolina, and Longo not only arrived with the new quarterback-friendly offense — one that focuses on downhill running and efficient quarterback play — the Badgers signed 3 quarterbacks from the transfer portal to compete for the starting job.
Tanner Mordecai arrived from SMU, where he threw 72 TD pass in the previous 2 seasons while running a nearly identical system. It’s rare that a quarterback with that production enters the portal, and more rare that he chooses Wisconsin.
But that was the pull of Longo, who worked with Sam Howell and Drake Maye the previous 4 years at UNC and has developed a reputation as one of the game’s top offensive minds.
It didn’t matter that the roster was set up to keep playing Crawl Ball, Mordecai bought in and quickly became the steal of the portal.
Then Braedyn Locke arrived from Mississippi State, where he was hand-picked by former Bulldogs coach Mike Leach to replace Will Rogers when he left for the NFL — before Rogers decided to return for 2023.
Then there’s Nick Evers, who like Mordecai and Locke, was a former blue-chip recruit. He arrived first in early December from Oklahoma, where lost out to Dillon Gabriel (among others) for the starting job, and needed a fresh start.
Three talented quarterbacks, and 1 who was 24 years old and entering his 6th season of college football — after back-to-back prolific seasons at SMU.
There was nothing that said Mordecai wouldn’t play well and the Badgers wouldn’t transition smoothly. Until he didn’t play well, and until it affected everything Wisconsin wanted to do offensively.
Mordecai broke his right throwing hand 3 weeks ago in a loss to Iowa, and at that point, resembled nothing of what he produced at SMU. He has 3 TDs and 3 INTs, his worst completion percentage as a starter (63%) and is averaging a measly 6.3 yards per attempt.
In case you’re wondering how much worse it could get, here’s your answer: Wisconsin was down 7-0 at halftime when Mordecai left the game, and the offense has since scored 55 combined points in a win over Illinois, and losses to Iowa, Ohio State and Indiana.
That’s 13 points a game.
It hasn’t helped that Wisconsin has lost its best running back (Braelon Allen) and wide receiver (Chimere Dike) for extended time to injury, and the offensive line has been inconsistent much of the season.
Locke (5 TDs, 3 turnovers) hasn’t played that poorly as Mordecai’s backup, but it’s still an ugly struggle to string together 1st downs, much less points. Evers is still an option — but are the Badgers really going to throw another unknown into the mix when they have a road to the Big Ten West Division title?
Mordecai could be ready as soon as this week, but we’ve seen what that looks like. His best quality at Wisconsin has been his ability to break containment and run — something he did at SMU once all pass options were eliminated.
“That’s the challenge for us as we move down the stretch,” Fickell said. “And that’s the challenge I’ve had a little bit for the offense is based on some of the things we’ve got, we might have to be a little bit more creative and find ways to get some of the guys that can make plays on the field — whether that’s with their arm or with their feet.”
Even if the Badgers (5-4, 3-3 in the B1G) can do the unthinkable and win the West Division — it will take winning out against Northwestern, Nebraska and at Minnesota, and 2 Iowa losses — expect significant change in the offseason at quarterback.
Wisconsin will likely again hit the portal, and look for a starting quarterback. Or someone who can compete with and push Locke and Evers.
The struggle at the position isn’t unique to Wisconsin. No team in the West Division has an answer, and all but Minnesota has started a quarterback from the portal.
They took big swings in the portal, but none hit it big like Wisconsin.
None have had their seasons turned sideways by Indiana, either.