February 24, 2010
Assessing the fall's starting passers, in no particular order.
Typecasting. Tolzien showed up to Wisconsin in 2006 as a suitably tall (6'2") but skinny (174 pounds) two-star recruit whose vertical jump was actually listed by Rivals as "0 inches." In other words, just your average, unassuming, within-the-offense Badger quarterback who inexplicably leads nine-win seasons despite possessing no discernible talent -- see Brooks Bollinger, Jim Sorgi, John Stocco and Tyler Donovan before him, all of whom helped guide run-heavy, mistake-averse Wiscy teams to one of the New Year's Day games in Florida against an SEC opponent
Tolzien (now weighing in around 205) fit right into that mold last year, his first year as a starter, emerging from third on the depth chart in the preseason to supplant returning starter Dustin Sherer, hold off more touted redshirt freshman Curt Phillips to put another 10-win season in the books. The ever "heady" junior excelled at sucking in linebackers with play-action to All-Big Ten thumper John Clay and pulling to find open receivers and tight ends open between the 'backers and safeties, a Wisconsin staple from time immemorial. The Badgers wound up with one of the nation's most balanced attacks -- 204 yards per game rushing, 213 passing -- and led the league in total and scoring offense with nine 30-point efforts, only one of which came in a loss.
At his best ... The offense's cloud-of-dust reputation has often obscured the Badgers' willingness to take shots down the field when they do put the ball in the air, and Tolzien quickly developed a rapport with deep threat Isaac Anderson -- in September alone, the duo hooked for an 80-yard touchdown against Northern Illinois and gains of 44 and 45 yards, respectively, in high-scoring triumphs over Fresno State and Michigan State, where Tolzien's 243-yard, four-touchdown effort in a 38-30 win made him the Big Ten's Offensive Player of the Week. Nick Toon would emerge as the reliable big-play threat over the last two months, and Tolzien finished the regular season by averaging 231 yards per game with a 7:2 touchdown:interception ratio in November; he punctuated that run by dropping a season-high 260 yards in the bowl upset over Miami.
For the season, Tolzien led the Big Ten in pass efficiency, tied for the lead in yards per attempt and finished just a hair behind Northwestern's Mike Kafka for the league's best completion percentage. In fact, if you did a blind taste test, it would be almost impossible to distinguish him from a very similar "game manager" who happens to be polishing a rather large ring these days:
... and if you put him opposite a strong defense, with the kind of running game already at his disposal at Wisconsin, there's no reason Tolzien can't be a BCS-caliber quarterback.
At his worst ... Of course, Wisconsin doesn't have Alabama's defense, and as SEC fans will probably be quick to point out, that comparison isn't exactly apples to apples in other important ways: Unlike McElroy, Tolzien missed the best statistical defense in his conference (Penn State), didn't face a single daunting D outside of the conference and certainly didn't draw two of the nation's top five defenses in the postseason. Even counting his solid games in Big Ten play, almost all of Tolzien's success through the air came against some of the worst defenses -- and worst secondaries, in particular -- in the country. And when the running game isn't churning defenders to dust, Tolzien begins to look a lot more like a former two-star recruit in a little over his head physically.
The glaring difference between Tolzien and McElroy on paper is the former's much higher interception total, which directly cost his team a chance to win their two biggest games of the season in back-to-back weeks last October: Tolzien was picked twice in an otherwise decent effort at Ohio State, both of them returned for touchdowns to ensure the Badgers' first loss; and he put up three interceptions the following week against Iowa, allowing the Hawkeyes to storm back from a 10-0 hole in the second quarter for a 20-10 win that knocked the life out of Wisconsin's Big Ten title hopes. It's no coincidence that the Buckeyes and Hawkeyes also held the Badgers to their worst rushing totals of the season, were the only Big Ten defenses to keep John Clay under 100 yards on the ground and combined to sack Tolzien an astonishing ten times. Without support on the ground, Tolzien was very average, at best, and often a sitting duck.
What to Expect in '10. Wisconsin only loses one starter on offense (tight end Garrett Graham), setting up high expectations for a Big Ten title run, and specifically for an offense that rivals the 2005-06 attack under Stocco as the best Badger offenses in recent memory. As always, the attack will be centered around the between-the-tackles assault with Clay, which ought to give Tolzien and a good, veteran group of receivers the run of another string of awful secondaries.
Assuming the Badger D remains the middle-of-the-road unit it's been the last three years, the difference between a top-10, BCS-worthy finish and another fringe top-25 season that ends in Orlando will be Tolzien's ability to loosen up the better defenses on the schedule with big plays in the passing game. That will require better protection, yes, but the offense can't kick into that next gear until Tolzien forced the Ohio States and Iowas to respect his ability to hurt them downfield as much as the Fresno States and Indianas do.