Wisconsin football: Badgers' offense still under wraps following 'The Launch'
Cold temperatures blew through Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday afternoon in Madison, but the warm feeling around Wisconsin football remained.
When athletic director Chris McIntosh fired Paul Chryst after a 2-3 start last season, he knew a culture shift was the only way to bring Badgers football back to relevancy.
It’s why there’s a new-found sense of hope cascading through the walls of the Badgers’ locker room. Luke Fickell might not have been a Power 5 coach, but he defied realistic goals during his tenure in Cincinnati. The Bearcats were expected to be a front-runner in the AAC, not College Football Playoff contenders. In back-to-back seasons, Fickell was the leading man toward relevance for the soon-to-be Big 12 contender.
That same hope found in the Queen City has made its way over to Madison. Fickell is ready to launch a new era of Badgers football as more than just a conference contender, but a national one too. And based on the 10,000 fans that sat in the stands to watch “The Launch” on Saturday, they’re ready to welcome this next chapter with open arms.
Of course, programs will always go through a trial period before seeing the end result.
Fickell and staff have 19 weeks to get Phil Longo’s offense kicked into high gear before Buffalo arrives on Sept. 2. The good news? There’s a veteran feel at quarterback leading the charge with SMU transfer Tanner Mordecai. Not to mention the several 2nd-team QBs who very well could push for the title of QB1 if Mordecai regresses.
But no one took leaps forward in the race to command the offense based of Saturday’s glorified practice. In a sense, that could be a testament to the progression of the defense under new coordinator Mike Tressel, but it also could be a sign that Year 1 will come with its bumps and bruises.
While Wisconsin is Badgers’ country, the first 3 drives under Mordecai looked more so like Groundhog’s Day. He airmailed a pass intended for Will Pauling for an interception, then followed with an overshot pick intended for Skyler Bell down the left side. His 3rd one just missed Chimere Dike across the middle of the field. And the 4th? Well, that one falls on the shoulders — or hands, rather — of USC transfer CJ Williams.
That's 3️⃣ INTs for 2️⃣ in this spring game ‼️@ricardohallman6 x @BadgerFootball pic.twitter.com/IglcvWq0uD
— Wisconsin On BTN (@WisconsinOnBTN) April 22, 2023
Mordecai isn’t in jeopardy of losing his starting job for now. The 3-year starter at SMU already has experience playing in Longo’s Air Raid offense under fellow Mike Leach disciple Sonny Dykes. Chemistry is vital for any quarterback and receiver, so more reps throughout the summer could benefit playmakers like Williams and Dike.
There shouldn’t be a quarterback controversy moving into the regular season, but backup Braedyn Locke had his positive moments. Taking snaps with the No. 2 offense, Locke connected with tight end Hayden Rucci and wide receiver Quincy Burroughs for touchdowns.
Locke, who played under Leach’s high-tempo passing offense in Starkville, at least gives the Badgers a substantial backup option.
A new style of Air Raid football
Longo, who joined Fickell after 4 seasons at UNC, isn’t as gung-ho when it comes to the pass as “The Pirate.” Sure, quarterbacks have always been the driving key to success (look back at Jordan Ta’amu, Sam Howell and Drake Maye’s numbers for reference), but his offensive approach is more modern.
Fans caught a glimpse of how critical the running backs are to keep the engine moving. Leading rusher Braelon Allen scored a 3-yard TD to cap off Mordecai’s best drive. He finished with 15 carries for 71 yards. Chez Mellusi broke free a couple of big runs through the 1st half while totaling 12 carries for 67 yards.
Denied 🚫 pic.twitter.com/faOjIVIEcq
— Wisconsin Football (@BadgerFootball) April 22, 2023
Longo’s offense will feature more of a split look when breaking down the run-pass option. The Air Raid formation won’t change. The tempo won’t, either. But the Tar Heels finished top-5 in rushing among ACC programs during Longo’s 4 seasons in Chapel Hill. They produced NFL rushers Javontae Williams and Michael Carter.
Allen, a two-time second-team All-Big Ten selection, could have left via the portal with the coaching staff. He elected to stay in large part due to Longo’s offense. Expect opposing defenses to face trouble against the run when making trips to Camp Randall.
Other ‘The Launch’ fallout …
- Tressel’s defense was the talk of Saturday. They totaled 5 interceptions and 10 sacks. Linebacker Jordan Turner sacked Moredaci twice during the 1st half, while linebacker Maema Njongmeta and defensive lineman Rodas Johnson each were credited with a takedown. Role players like defensive end Gio Paez, inside linebacker Bryan Sanborn, inside linebacker Jake Chaney and outside linebacker Kaden Johnson each got their hands on the QB once.
- No one shined brighter than cornerback Ricardo Hallman in coverage. He played center field tracking down Mordecai’s overthrown pass to Bell for his first pick. On the ensuing drive, Hallman was there again to pick off QB1, this time for the pass intended for Dike. Overall, he finished with 3 interceptions, 3 pass breaks up and several excellent open-field tackles en route to being named “The Launch” MVP.
- Burroughs and Tommy McIntosh likely will be sleepers in the passing game if Saturday was an indication of the regular season. Locke targeted both early and often and helped him finish with a 20-of-36 passing stat line. McIntosh unofficially finished with 5 receptions for 86 yards, while Burroughs totaled 60 yards on 5 receptions. Bell, Dike and Williams likely will see most of the 1st-team reps, but any Air Raid offense needs a cast of promising playmakers.
- Kicking conditions were abysmal Saturday, but this is going to be Wisconsin’s weather reality by late October. Ohio transfer Nathanial Vakos went 1 of 3 on attempts while Nate Van Zelst missed his only opportunity. Last season, Vakos went 19-of-23 on attempts with the Bobcats, so maybe it was just 1st game jitters.
Fans will always be reaching for straws. Sure, “The Launch” proved Wisconsin isn’t ready for take-off at quarterback, but it shouldn’t scare folks away from betting on the Badgers to win the B1G West in 2023.
Mordecai is a proven vet. He’s made offensive switches before during his 6 college seasons, and he’s looked better once cleared on the other side. If all else fails, Longo has a potent run game and an Air Raid passer with upside waiting in the wings. It’s also too soon to rule out former Oklahoma quarterback Nick Evers, though he likely has the most ground to make up.
If fans are looking for solstice, the defense hasn’t missed a beat since Jim Leonhard’s departure. Hallman looks like a bonafide star in the making at cornerback. Njongmeta is going to command respect when defending the run, and Kamo’i Latu looks more relaxed in coverage.
It’s best not to temper or swell expectations after an extra practice. In reality, “The Launch” was simply a watch party to see what needed fixing before the Badgers could be cleared for take-off come this fall.