BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Five days before Wisconsin’s season opener, back when soaring enthusiasm reflected sky-high expectations, Luke Fickell pondered a question: What does success for Badgers football look like in Year 1 of a new regime?
Fickell, in his pragmatic way, didn’t want to put a record on that success. But he made it clear that he expected his team to play its best at the end of the year. Achieving that goal meant embracing the process, learning how to be consistent and growing each week. And then he delivered this quote:
If we’re in any similar areas in Week 1 to Week 8, then we won’t be playing our best ball at the end of the year. And if you’re not, it’s really hard to be successful and look at a season as being successful.
As Wisconsin players walked off the field Saturday afternoon at Memorial Stadium, having lost 20-14 to a bad Indiana team, it was difficult to say the Badgers were better in any one area than they were when the season began. Wisconsin squandered a golden opportunity to stay in the hunt of a mediocre Big Ten West Division race thanks to poor execution across the board, which allowed Indiana — 2-21 in conference games since 2021 — to beat the Badgers in Bloomington for the first time in 21 years.
We’re past the Week 8 marker. And nine games into Fickell’s first campaign with Wisconsin, the Badgers are nowhere close to where they thought they would be and don’t seem to have the answers for how they crawl out of this hole.
“I think that’s what keeps you lying awake at night, at least it does me,” Fickell said after the game. “Are you finding a way to play your best ball at the end of the year? Are you trending in the direction of getting better? There’s a lot of factors to getting better, but consistency has a lot to do with it. Execution has a lot to do with it.
“If you go out there and you get beat, you get beat. It stinks, but it’s a part of the game. Give them credit. They battled their butts off, they made some big plays, they did a really good job at creating energy and we didn’t.”
Injuries have taken their toll on Wisconsin. There’s no denying that fact. Wisconsin played Indiana without its top two running backs (Braelon Allen and Chez Mellusi), one of its top wide receivers (Chimere Dike) and its starting quarterback (Tanner Mordecai), among others. Kicker Nathanial Vakos was battling an undisclosed injury, which prevented Fickell from sending him out on three field goal attempts of more than 50 yards. But Fickell refused to use those injuries as an excuse, citing a lack of execution by players who should be prepared well enough to perform.
The next football team you find that hasn’t endured injuries during the season will be the first. Good teams find ways to win in spite of adversity. And these Badgers are not playing like a good team.
“I didn’t expect this,” safety Hunter Wohler said. “With the talent we have and the locker room we have, obviously there’s high expectations coming into the year. We haven’t been good on Saturdays. All the work we put in, in the offseason and each individual week, for it to not translate on Saturday, it hurts. We’re going to have to find a way. We have three games to pull this thing together and make something happen.”
It was easy to try to explain away the Badgers’ first three defeats. Wisconsin lost its first road game to Washington State but made a game of it in the second half early in the transition to a new scheme. Wisconsin failed to score a touchdown at home against Iowa, but the Hawkeyes had a stingy defense and knocked Mordecai out in the middle of the game with a broken right hand. Wisconsin lost to undefeated Ohio State but trailed by just a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
This one was indefensible. Indiana’s only victories this season had come against winless FCS foe Indiana State and a two-win Akron team in four overtimes. The Hoosiers entered the day minus-67 in second-half point differential during Big Ten games this season, the worst of any FBS team in conference play.
Frustration clearly wore on the face of Fickell, who is not used to losing. He went 4-8 in his first year at Cincinnati and then won at least nine games in each of the next five seasons. Fickell is still searching for a way to elevate Wisconsin out of a funk that is now spanning the better part of four consecutive seasons. He said he was hard on the team during his postgame speech in the locker room.
“But I also understand they’ve been through a lot,” Fickell said. “From last year maybe and the year before and the ups and the downs. We just can’t continue to revert back maybe into some of the things that we’ve always done. Finding ways to finish is what this game is all about. Regardless if we didn’t play well enough, we all can see that.
“But we still had an opportunity to find a way to win the game at the end. That’s becoming a reoccurring theme for us, and as a coach, I’ve got to find a way to get us over that hump. It’s not just on making plays. It’s on, ‘Hey, what’s the recipe to finding ways to finish?’ And we haven’t done a good enough job of that.”
Safety Austin Brown was asked whether the losing had taken a toll on Fickell and responded: “I’d say yeah for sure. I think it’s taking a toll on all of us.”
Where will the answers come from, if not this season, then in the future? As the Big Ten moves to an 18-team league and no divisions next season, success will be harder to come by, not easier. Wisconsin’s 2024 schedule features league games against USC, Penn State and Oregon, in addition to Alabama in nonconference play.
Wisconsin needs help through recruiting and the transfer portal because the current personnel hasn’t shown enough consistency. Perhaps another year understanding the nuances of different schemes will help. But, as this season has demonstrated, nothing is guaranteed. All the excitement in the world hasn’t prevented Wisconsin from falling to 5-4 overall and 3-3 in the Big Ten.
Wisconsin takeaways: Run game struggles, pass attack not enough in deflating loss at Indiana
Wisconsin’s Air Raid offense under offensive coordinator Phil Longo has yet to regularly showcase its potential. Without Allen or Mellusi, Wisconsin was forced to turn to Nos. 3 and 4 tailbacks Jackson Acker and Cade Yacamelli, who combined to carry 21 times for 96 yards against the Big Ten’s worst run defense. Longo put the game on quarterback Braedyn Locke, who threw the ball 41 times. He has passed at least 39 times in each of his first three career starts.
Locke has flashed at times since replacing Mordecai and has five touchdowns with just one interception. But he has completed only half of his throws and too often hasn’t given his receivers a chance to make a play. During one stretch in the first half against Indiana, he had six passes broken up while completing just five. He missed receiver Will Pauling in the right flat on a fourth-and-2 late in the game that led to a critical turnover on downs with Wisconsin trailing 17-14.
“I think everybody needs to kind of take a look in the mirror and make a choice on what it’s going to be,” Locke said. “I think that we’ll all respond from this and that you’ll see a different team.”
Wisconsin is averaging just 23.6 points per game. Longo hasn’t had a season in which his offense averaged fewer than 32.8 points per game in any season that he was an offensive coordinator over the past 11 years, during stops at Division II Slippery Rock, FCS Sam Houston, Ole Miss or North Carolina. You’d have to go back to 2007 at Minnesota Duluth (22.5 points) to find a worse year offensively for Longo.
Wisconsin’s defense, meanwhile, caved when it mattered most. The Badgers allowed the Hoosiers to roll right down the field on their first drive for a touchdown, surrendering big passing plays on a pair of third-and-long situations. When Wisconsin trimmed the deficit to 10-7 late in the second quarter, Indiana scored a touchdown again. And late in the game, the defense couldn’t get off the field and allowed a field goal to account for the final score. Wisconsin actually out-gained Indiana 344-261. But too many penalties and mistakes at critical times cost the Badgers, as has been the case in multiple games this season.
“It’s always the little things that spiral into being big things,” inside linebacker Maema Njongmeta said. “Whether it’s a penalty here or giving them opportunities down the field, third down after third down. Or not running your feet hard enough on a tackle so they get five instead of three. Those things add up over a game, over a quarter. There’s death by a thousand cuts.”
As Year 1 approaches its conclusion, it’s clear Wisconsin isn’t playing its best football, and that is on everyone in the program. The hope is that Fickell can eventually author the kind of turnaround he was brought to Madison to achieve, even though it clearly will take longer than he or the Badgers wanted.
(Top photo: James Black / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)