This isn't exactly a brand-new development, but the New Year's Day bowl games cemented it as fact: Iowa and Wisconsin won't reach the next level until the passing games get better at each program.
Both the Hawkeyes and Badgers had chances to win their bowl games against SEC teams, versus LSU in the Outback Bowl and South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl, respectively. But the lack of standout quarterback play and big-time receiving targets kept both from getting that done.
LSU shut down Iowa's offensive staple, the running game. The Hawkeyes averaged just 2.1 yards per carry and did not have a run longer than 13 yards. That put more pressure on quarterback Jake Rudock to deliver, but he finished just 9-for-22 for 102 yards with an interception before leaving with a sprained knee.
Backup C.J. Beathard came in and was 4-for-7 for 55 yards and threw a touchdown pass to make it 21-14 with 1:42 left. Beathard also tossed an interception.
Rudock showed good play-making ability at times this season but also had 13 interceptions in his first year as a starter. His pick in the Outback came on a badly underthrown ball. Beathard told the Cedar Rapids Gazette that his understanding is that he'll be given a chance to compete for the starting job again this spring. More competition can only be a good thing for Iowa's quarterbacks. The team made progress in offensive coordinator Greg Davis' second year, but the Hawkeyes still need to find more weapons at receiver.
Wisconsin was able to get its running game revved up against a tough South Carolina defense, rushing for 293 yards as a team and enjoying 100-yard days from both Melvin Gordon and James White. But as has happened too often in big games, the Badgers' offense was unbalanced.
Quarterback Joel Stave went 9-for-13 and threw for two touchdowns but had only 80 yards passing. He also threw an interception, the result of some bad luck when the ball bounced off an offensive lineman's foot. Stave left the game early with a shoulder injury and was replaced by sixth-year senior Curt Phillips, who threw for only 37 yards and had two interceptions.
Stave struggled throughout the year with his accuracy and didn't have good games in his final two contests, both Wisconsin losses. The difference between an ineffective Stave and the brilliant play of South Carolina's Connor Shaw proved crucial in the Gamecocks' 34-24 win on Wednesday. The Wisconsin State Journal's Tom Oates nailed it when he wrote that quarterback play is holding the Badgers back from becoming truly elite.
“If we had all the answers, we would have done it differently and thrown the ball better all year long,” head coach Gary Andersen said after the game. “But we have to if we’re going to take the next step as a program. I know that.”
Bart Houston should push Stave in spring practice, but whoever ends up as the 2014 starter won't have Jared Abbrederis or Jacob Pedersen as receiving options. And Wisconsin hasn't been able to develop many consistent options besides those guys in the past two years.
Neither Stave nor Rudock could finish their bowl games because of injuries. Time will tell if they'll both be starting in 2014, though they certainly have a big experience edge on their competitors for the job. Regardless, if Iowa or Wisconsin want to break through and become more than eight- or nine-win types of teams, better passing games are essential.