QUICK LOOK BACK: The Bret Bielema era hit a bit of a skid in ’08. The Badgers went into the season expected to contend for the Big Ten title. They went into the Big Ten Bermuda Triangle — Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State — with a 3-0 record. The Badgers dropped all three, topped it off with a 38-16 loss in Iowa City and pretty much called it a season, including a painfully narrow 36-35 victory over FCS Cal-Poly in overtime. It wasn’t quite over. UW had a hungry Florida State team waiting for it in the Champs Sports Bowl. The Seminoles swallowed Wisconsin, 42-13, and the Badgers finished 7-6, Bielema’s worst in his three seasons. The ’08 season was a step back.
FOURTH DOWN — CONCERNS: Quarterback is a concern. Dustin Sherer heads into his senior season with a solid grip on the job — maybe. Redshirt freshman Curt Phillips impressed enough during spring drills to rise to co-No. 2 on the depth chart alongside Scott Tolzien. Sherer has more experience and performed well at times last season, but UW coaches could opt for the freshman in an attempt to build some continuity at the position. Phillips, who finished the spring game 10 of 16 for 122 yards and two TDs, could be the starter next fall if he continues his progression and if Sherer isn’t sharp. Wisconsin lived through — or tried to live through — P.J. Hill’s health issues. The big back recipe isn’t going to change with sophomore John Clay stepping in, but ankle problems have followed him, including a bruised ankle this spring.
THIRD DOWN — STRENGTHS: If his health cooperates, Clay should fit right into the big back philosophy that has been Wisconsin football in recent seasons. The 6-foot-2, 237-pounder bulled his way for 884 yards and nine TDs, including an impressive 5.7 yards a carry, after taking over for Hill. Clay is a tough, violent runner. That’s a style that works for the Badgers but also puts a strain on the body. Receiver Nick Toon took the go-to mantle in the Badgers’ spring game, catching four passes for 62 yards and a TD. Toon, the son of UW all-American wideout Al Toon, could be a big weapon at 6-3, 214. Look for the name J.J. Watt. The 6-6, 285-pound defensive end started his career at Central Michigan, as a 245-pound tight end. This spring, he went out and won a defensive end position at Wisconsin.
SECOND DOWN — THE TALK: “I like the fact he threw a couple strikes. I think if you ask Curt where he is right now compared to a year ago . . . he’s a lot further along.” — UW coach Bret Bielema said of frosh QB Curt Phillips, who split time with Sherer running the No. 1 offense during UW’s spring game.
“It was something we stressed during the off-season; one guy affects everybody. So rather than penalize the guy that had the penalties, I wanted to make sure everybody felt the effects.” — Bielema said after he forced his team to do 42 up-downs over 200 yards following a spring practice that saw 14 penalties over 118 plays.
FIRST DOWN — THE PLAY: This is going to be an old-school Badgers offense — big back, big line and drain the clock. The Badgers’ O-line has the potential to pull this off. LT Gabe Carimi might’ve been headed to postseason honors if an injury wouldn’t have dented his ’08 season. John Moffitt returns at center. Josh Oglesby, a highly regarded recruit, should make strides at right tackle. LG Jake Bscherer and RG Bill Nagy will be new on the inside. Defense might be what makes or breaks Wisconsin ’09. The Badgers return only five starters and one of those, SS Jay Valai, might lose his job to Aubrey Pleasant. Wisconsin opponents scored 92.9 percent of the time inside UW’s red zone (20-yard line). That is a stat that can’t stand if the Badgers want to rebound from 7-6.