After an identity crisis last fall, Wisconsin football has started to look like its old self again.
The 2009 season won't be remembered for a league championship or signature wins, but Bret Bielema's program got back on track.
Bielema stressed accountability throughout the winter, spring and summer, and the team responded by trimming its penalties and turnovers. The defense got younger but better, as underclassmen like end J.J. Watt and linebacker Chris Borland, the Big Ten's freshman of the year, complemented peaking seniors like first-team All-Big Ten end O'Brien Schofield. Despite losing three multiyear starters up front, Wisconsin tied for third in the Big Ten in sacks (32).
Perhaps most importantly, Wisconsin found a difference-making quarterback in junior Scott Tolzien to balance out the power rushing attack led by Big Ten offensive player of the year John Clay. The Badgers led the league in both scoring (32.8 ppg) and rushing (206.7 ypg).
Wisconsin is certainly a notch below the Big Ten's elite, as evidenced by losses to both Ohio State and Iowa. But unlike last season, the Badgers didn't let failure linger, twice responding from bye weeks to obliterate Purdue (37-0) and Hawaii (51-10).
For the second straight year, Wisconsin's season will end at the Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando, but there's a completely different feeling this time around.
Offensive MVP: John Clay. The sophomore always had the physical gifts to be dominant, but after some early hiccups, he truly embraced his role as Wisconsin's featured back. Clay eclipsed 100 rushing yards in seven of his final nine games, including each of the last five. He was the only Big Ten player to average more than 100 rushing yards a game and finished 14th nationally in rushing (116.3 ypg).
Defensive MVP: O'Brien Schofield. The senior truly saved his best for last, developing into a virtually unstoppable rush end for the Badgers. Schofield tied for third nationally in tackles for loss (22.5) and ranked third in the Big Ten with 10 sacks as he led an assertive Badgers pass rush this fall. Schofield had eight games with multiple tackles for loss.
Turning point: Wisconsin fell behind 21-7 to Fresno State in Week 2 before rallying for a 34-31 double-overtime victory. It spurred the Badgers to a 5-0 start. A second turning point took place after Wisconsin's first bye, which followed back-to-back losses. The Badgers responded from the week off by crushing a decent Purdue team 37-0, marking their first shutout of a Big Ten team since 1999.
What's next: The Badgers search for their first signature win of the season against No. 15 Miami in the Champs Sports Bowl. Wisconsin has yet to beat a BCS conference team with a winning record this season, and Miami's speed and athleticism provides an excellent test. Expectations will be much higher in 2010 as Wisconsin returns a nice core.