Going into the 2014, questions about Wisconsin's defense were justified, as the Badgers only returned three starters - all in the secondary. But early on in the season, those questions became secondary as the Badgers' quarterback situation became a soap opera. Tanner McEvoy started the season opener against LSU, but struggled in the second half, raising questions as to why Joel Stave didn't play. Over the next few days, head coach Gary Andersen skirted around the truth before finally admitting that Stave had the football equivalent of the "yips."
Over the first half of the season, you got the idea that there just wasn't something right with the Badgers, especially in the first half of games against Western Illinois (Badgers led 9-3 at halftime), South Florida (3-3 tie at halftime), and Illinois (Badgers led 24-17 at halftime). And then there was that 20-14 loss to Northwestern at the start of October. But after a bye week, Wisconsin seemed to right the ship against Maryland and Rutgers to get back into the polls.
Stave emerged off the bench in October from his bout with the yips and now is the starter, though McEvoy still plays. Rather than rotate series, Wisconsin now plans to switch out quarterbacks periodically for plays. Stave is the better passer, though his completion percentage was down as he recovered from the yips. Last week against Purdue, Stave completed over 65% of his passes. On the season, McEvoy is completing 58% of his passes, but it's important to note that in four games this season, he's rushed for more yard than he's thrown. And he's a real threat to run: 158 yards against Bowling Green, 84 yards against Maryland, and 42 yards against Purdue last week. While McEvoy has seen fewer snaps since Stave returned, I suspect we may see a little more of McEvoy this week, considering Nebraska's past issues in defending a mobile quarterback.
Nebraska's nightmare from 2012's Big Ten Championship Game is back as Melvin Gordon is now Wisconsin's featured back. (Of course, it's also important to remember that no starters from that 2012 Nebraska still remain either. Some of Nebraska's best defenders - Nate Gerry, Randy Gregory, Maliek Collins - weren't even students in Lincoln for that game.) On the season, he's rushed for 1,501 yards and 19 touchdowns, averaging 7.6 yards per carry. He's topped 200 yards in three games while failing to top the century mark only once this season. Backup Corey Clement has rushed for 720 yards and seven touchdowns so far, with three hundred yard games this season. Junior wide receiver Alex Erickson, a 6'0" 198 pound former walk-on, has emerged as Wisconsin's top receiver, catching 35 passes this season for 467 yards and three touchdowns. Tight end Sam Arneson is second in passes caught with 19 for 271 yards and three touchdowns.
With only three returning starters, the Badgers' defense was a huge concern prior to the season. It's not anymore, as the Badgers rank #1 in the nation in total defense (allowing 251 yards per game) and #3 in scoring defense (allowing 14.3 yards per game). That being said, it's not as if the Badgers have faced very many potent offenses this season; Bowling Green is their only opponent who ranks in the upper half of division 1-A offensively. Nose tackle Warren Herring injured his knee in the season opener against LSU and missed five games. Now Konrad Zagzebski could be limited after missing much of the Purdue game with an ankle injury. He returned to practice Tuesday, but if he can't go Saturday, he'll be replaced by junior Jake Keefer.
The Badgers' leading tackler is junior safety Michael Caputo with 64, with senior linebacker Derek Landisch second with 49 on the season. Fellow linebacker Vince Biegel had four tackles for loss last week to tie Landisch for the team lead with 12 tackles for loss each. Considering that Wisconsin's defense is highly rated and that the only returning starters were in the secondary, I'm surprised that Wisconsin ranks 105th nationally in interceptions and 108th in turnovers gained.
With Wisconsin ranking 97th in the country in turnover margin, it almost goes without saying that Nebraska must win the turnover comparison this weekend. Turnovers have been Nebraska's biggest problem offensively the last few years, and the Badgers appear to be able to beat opponents in spite of a lack of turnovers. Certainly a powerful rushing offense like Wisconsin's can take advantage of any giveaways that Nebraska might give out on their own side of the field, so Nebraska can ill-afford to cough the ball up in this matchup.
Below, we present our summer time preview of the Wisconsin Badgers.
Preseason Preview of the 2014 Wisconsin Badgers
Nebraska's first Big Ten opponent is also Nebraska's most infamous opponent. In the 2011 conference opener, Wisconsin used three interceptions in a six minute span to turn a deficit into a commanding lead. In 2012, it was Nebraska overcoming the deficit with 20 unanswered points in the second half to win 30-27 at home. But two months later, Wisconsin got the last laugh by jet-sweeping the Huskers to the point of embarrassment. The 39 point loss even led to a "/Wisconsin scores again" meme that lives on to this day.
Melvin Gordon, the Wisconsin running back that ran the jet sweep that Nebraska safety Damian Stafford couldn't contain, spurned the NFL for his junior season in Madison. Last season, the 6'1" 207 pound back averaged 7.8 yards a carry in rushing for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns. But with backfield mate James White now in New England, Gordon will be sharing the load with 5'11" 210 pound sophomore Corey Clement, who rushed for 555 yards and seven touchdowns as a freshman. Judging by Clement's 8.2 yards per carry average, Clement might be even more explosive than Gordon, though much of Clement's yardage came in garbage time. That being said, there will be plenty of carries for whomever earns that third string running back position: either freshmen Taiwan Deal(6'1" 225 pounds) or Caleb Kinlaw (5'9" 180 pounds).
Outsiders might be surprised to learn that there is a quarterback controversy, considering that junior Joel Stave (6'5" 225 pounds) earned honorable mention all-Big Ten honors last season. Stave put up decent numbers (62% completion rate, passing for 2,494 yards and 22 touchdowns last season), though he did throw 13 interceptions. The bigger issue is that Stave doesn't have the mobility that head coach Gary Andersen wants out of his quarterback. Stave sat out spring practice this year due to the lingering effects of a shoulder injury suffered in the Capital One Bowl, which created an opportunity for senior Tanner McEvoy (6'6" 223 pounds) to make a bid to unseat Stave. McEvoy transferred from Arizona Western Junior College in 2013, but couldn't crack the depth chart coming in last year, so he played receiver, then safety, starting four games with 27 tackles. He's a dual-threat quarterback who threw for 1,943 yards and 25 touchdowns with just six interceptions in junior college. He also ran for 414 yards and six touchdowns at Arizona Western. After the first scrimmage this past weekend, observers felt that Stave had the edge, though this is a battle that's expected to continue all preseason. In fact, Andersen has talked about rotating quarterbacks, meaning that both will probably play.
With the top four receivers from last season gone, the receiver situation in Madison is the biggest question Wisconsin faces on offense. Junior Jordan Fredrick (6'4" 210 pounds) caught 10 passes last season for 106 yards, which is the most of Wisconsin's returnees. For perspective, Jared Abbrederis caught 78 passes last season. So who emerges from the pack? Look for senior Kenzel Doe (5'8" 170 pounds) and sophomoreReggie Love (6'3" 210 pounds) to make a move. At tight end, senior Sam Arneson (6'4" 254 pounds) will take over, though don't expect him to put up numbers like Jacob Pedersen. Considering all of the question marks on both sides of the Badger passing game, it's likely that Wisconsin will depend even more on on the ground game in 2014.
When you think Wisconsin football, you think of big and powerful offensive lines, and 2014 should not be any different. Four starters return, led by senior right tackle Rob Havenstein (6'8" 327 pounds), a second team all-Big Ten honoree last season. On the other side, junior left tackle Tyler Marz (6'5" 321 pounds) earned honorable mention all-Big Ten honors as well. The up-and-coming star on the line is sophomore center Dan Voltz (6'3" 313 pounds), who earned second team freshman all-American honors last season.
It's a completely different situation on defense for Wisconsin as only three starters return - all in the secondary. It's an all-new 3-4 defense for the Badgers this season. Senior nose tackle Warren Herring (6'3" 294 pounds) did play a bit as a key reserve last season, with 17 tackles (six for loss). Redshirt freshman defensive end Chikwe Obasih(6'2" 268 pounds) was the player of the year on the scout team last fall and the star of spring practice to emerge as a likely starter.
Senior linebacker Derek Landisch (6'0" 231 pounds) has been a key reserve the last two years with 82 tackles. Keep an eye on sophomore outside linebacker Vince Biegel (6'4" 233 pounds), who had 25 tackles as a freshman reserve. No matter what these guys do this year, there's no way to adequately replace departing all-American Chris Borland.
The Badger secondary is going to need to provide the leadership on defense in 2014, and it'll start with sophomore cornerback Sojourn Shelton (5'9" 172 pounds). He started 12 games as a true freshman and earned honorable mention all-Big Ten honors. He's second among returning Badgers on defense with 36 tackles and led Wisconsin last year with four interceptions and seven passes broken up. Junior Darius Hillary (5'11" 187 pounds) will hold down the other cornerback spot. Junior safety Michael Caputo (6'1" 206 pounds) was the second leading tackler for Wisconsin last season with 63, earning him honorable mention all-Big Ten honors as a sophomore. But the Badgers are still searching for another safety to pair with Caputo after the first week of fall practice, so that's likely a concern.
Many people pick Wisconsin to win the Big Ten West this season, likely on the strength of the Badger running game and the schedule. The Badgers play only Maryland and at Rutgers from the East division, and get Nebraska at home. The passing game is a concern, and the defense is simply a big unknown. There's unproven potential on defense. If it develops like Gary Andersen hopes, the Badgers could be headed back to Indianapolis for yet another Big Ten Championship game. But with so much uncertainty, it's not unreasonable to expect a struggle either. The Badgers get thrown into the fire right off the bat with a season opener against LSU in Houston on Labor Day weekend. Win, and the sky is the limit. Struggle, and the the doubts only get louder.