Luke Fickell had big plans for the Wisconsin Badgers offense when he became head coach of the football program. Fickell hired Phil Longo to revamp the Badgers’ offense and turn their ground-and-pound pro-style running scheme into a high-octane “air raid” attack.
Many were expecting Longo to construct a dynamic and explosive offense. His past successes and the influx of talented additions from the transfer portal fueled some of that anticipation. The prospect of an up-tempo system and a high-scoring offense seemed to be on the horizon.
However, the Wisconsin Badgers finished 7-6 on the season and averaged a mere 23.5 points per game, marking its lowest scoring total in 19 years.
The Wisconsin football team’s rankings in key offensive metrics—60th in rushing, 72nd in passing, 79th in yards per play, 108th in passing efficiency, and 91st in scoring—paint a clear picture of underperformance.
Injuries to key players, such as starting quarterback Tanner Mordecai and running back Chez Mellusi, were significant. Those injuries forced UW to change its offensive identity mid-season, to varying degrees of success.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced as many injuries as we had this year,” Longo told reporters down in Tampa. “Those are just excuses, but they were very impactful injuries.”
Either way, year one under the new regime didn’t deliver the anticipated Big Ten West title or the explosive offense fans hoped for. While valuable lessons may arise from this season, there’s no denying that the offensive production will now be under a microscope, needing to deliver results.
The Wisconsin Football Offense Must Take a Substantial Step Forward
It’s worth acknowledging that it is no small task to have a new coaching staff come in, manage relationships, establish a culture, implement new systems, and tailor schemes to its inherited personnel.
But the Wisconsin football team had more than enough pieces to produce a better result than the No. 68 finish they had in total offense.
Nonetheless, Phil Longo has typically produced a better product in the second year of running his offense. While at Sam Houston State, they increased their per-game scoring total by more than seven points. It wasn’t substantial during Longo’s stop at Ole Miss, but the Rebels went from 34.6 points per game to 36.2 in the following campaign. At North Carolina, their points per game improved by eight the subsequent season.
“Year two, usually it’s pretty good,” Longo said. “Because you have so many people returning now that understand what it is we’re doing.
“I’m excited about knowing what the advantages of the second year are. That’s when we line up in spring ball; we’ve got eight guys in line that can turn around and tell the two young guys exactly why we’re doing the drill, what we’re doing, how often we’re doing it, how fast we’re doing it. That’s 35 coaches that we didn’t have last year.”
But the further the Wisconsin Badgers get away from those historical results, the only thing that will matter to prospective players and incoming recruits will be what’s happened on the field. Past achievements elsewhere matter less as the pressure mounts to deliver success tailored for the Badgers in a new-look Big Ten.
“Then the other thing is, we’re a lot closer from the get-go from this whole process of playing much more instinctively, which is what the entire offense is predicated on,” Longo said. “Obviously, going into year two, you do something for a year; you’re better at it than you were when you first started. So those are the natural improvements and the natural benefits that you get from the second year.”
The point being, if the Wisconsin football program is going to contend for championships like Chris McIntosh has publicly stated, the Badgers have a considerable amount of work ahead of them.
Plenty of Areas the Wisconsin Badgers Offense Can Improve
Wisconsin football gave fans a glimpse of what the air raid offense is capable of looking like in the ReliaQuest Bowl against No. 13 LSU.
The Badgers posted a season-high 506 yards of total offense and pushed the ball downfield in the passing game with relative ease.
However, starting quarterback Tanner Mordecai and running back Braelon Allen have played their last games for the Wisconsin Badgers, leaving two sizable voids on the Badgers offense that need to be filled.
The coaching staff brought in Miami transfer Tyler Van Dyke to add experience to their quarterback room. Chez Mellusi is also set to return, and the Badgers also brought in Tawee Walker through the transfer portal to provide depth at tailback and mentors for the incoming RBs.
Although the results were uneven throughout the season, the program will have as many as four potential starting spots on the offensive line accounted for, with Jack Nelson, Riley Mahlman, Joe Huber, and Jake Renfro. So, that may be a unit that could see improvement.
But all of that is irrelevant if Wisconsin football doesn’t get more production from their tight ends and wide receivers. Will Pauling and Bryson Green will be focal points. But they’ll need several options behind them to emerge as playmakers. Trech Kekahuna seems like a viable option after his standout performance in the bowl game, but they need someone to claim the other starting wide receiver role on the boundary.
“You have a picture of what you think it [the offense] can be, what you’ve done with it before,” Longo said. “The trick is, when you get somewhere, you really got to meld that with the talent that you have. I’ve always said this, you’ve got to let the talent dictate the direction that you take the offense.”
The direction the Wisconsin football offense heads into 2024 will be among the more notable storylines to follow next season under Phil Longo. Still, there’s reason to believe better days are ahead.
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