The third team in the coaching merry-go-round after the 2014 season, Wisconsin is 3-2 with losses to Alabama to open the season and Iowa last weekend. In the opener, Wisconsin trailed 14-7 at halftime only to watch Alabama dominate in the second half. In that game, Badgers running back Corey Clement left the game with a groin injury that was later diagnosed as a sports hernia after an MRI. He was sent to Germany last week for specialized surgery to treat this condition, and could return to play later this month.
In Clement's absence, Taiwan Deal and Dare Ogunbowale have split carries in the Badgers backfield, rushing for 349 and 309 yards respectively this season. No, those are not Melvin Gordon numbers - not even 2014 Corey Clement numbers, for that matter. Ogunbowale is the shiftier guy, while Deal, a redshirt freshman, is the bigger back who can thump along at 220 lbs. Last week, in the loss to Iowa, Ogunbowale only rushed for 28 yards on 11 carries while Deal rushed for 59 yards on 15 carries.
Wisconsin's issues running the ball have put greater emphasis on the passing game, and Joel Stave has produced, for the most part. He's completed 63% of his passes for 1,064 yards and seven touchdowns, with four interceptions. Alex Erickson has been Stave's favorite target this season, catching 26 passes for 350 yards. He suffered a concussion last week, and is still being evaluated to determine if he can play this week. Robert Wheelright is second with 14 catches for 180 yards and three touchdowns. Tight end Austin Traylor is third with ten catches for 156 yards and three touchdowns, but he's likely out after undergoing a procedure on his arm and shoulder Monday.
Part of the problem with Wisconsin's offense is with the offensive line, and no play symbolizes the plight up front was Stave being tripped up by his own protectors and fumbling at the Iowa one yard line last weekend. It doesn't help that injuries have exacerbated the Badgers' lack of experience on the line, as five guys have been in and out of the plans as first year starters.
Defense is the Badgers' calling card in 2015. Wisconsin is 4th nationally in scoring defense (9.6 points per game) and tied for 11th nationally in total defense (278 yards per game). The Badgers are 14th in rushing defense (85 yards per game) and 33rd in pass defense (183.6 yards per game). The Badgers linebacking corps might be the best in the Big Ten with the emergence of true freshman Chris Orr at inside linebacker. Orr replaced Leon Jacobs after Jacobs first was ejected for targeting against Troy and then injured his foot against Hawai'i. All Orr has done is become Wisconsin's second leading tackler with 32 on the season. Outside linebacker Joe Schobert leads Wisconsin with 36 tackles - 13 (!) for a loss, nine quarterback hurries and four forced fumbles. Vince Biegel has 26 tackles at the other outside spot, six for a loss, while T.J. Edwards has 29 tackles at the other inside linebacker spot.
Former quarterback Tanner McEvoy is now splitting his time at both wide receiver and safety; he's rushed six times for 60 yards (and a touchdown), caught three passes for 29 yards, intercepted one pass on defense with 13 tackles on the season.
This is going to be a tough matchup made a little easier by the Badgers injury situation, and that might be the edge Nebraska needs on Saturday to break out of the funk of the first five games of the Mike Riley era - especially if Alex Erickson isn't cleared to play. After the jump, you'll find the preseason preview of the Wisconsin Badgers.
Preseason Preview of Wisconsin
Nebraska's doppelganger in the Big Ten has also been Nebraska's kryponite: similar red and white uniforms, both teams with a heritage of offensive linemen and power football ... and Wisconsin's three blowout victories over Nebraska in four games. The first was bad, the second was humiliating and the third ultimately proved to be terminal for Bo Pelini's tenure at Nebraska. And that, in turn, resulted in a coaching change at Wisconsin as Gary Andersen fled Madison to replace Mike Riley at Oregon State.
The intertwining of Nebraska and Wisconsin gets deeper with new Badger head coach Paul Chryst. Riley hired Chryst as his offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in 1997. When Riley jumped to the NFL in San Diego, Chryst became Riley's tight ends coach. After Riley was fired in San Diego, Chryst spent a year as Wisconsin's tight ends coach before returning to Oregon State with Riley in 2003. In 2005, Barry Alvarez brought Chryst back as his co-offensive coordinator, with Bret Bielema removing the "co-" from his title in 2006. And when Alvarez needed to hire another yet another head coach, Chryst became the natural candidate to return to Wisconsin after a 19-19 record in three years at Pitt. (Working for Steve Pederson, no less...)
Andersen made the decision to not change Wisconsin's offense from the Chryst formula when he took over, so it should be safe to assume that Chryst will run more-of-the-same now that he's in charge of the entire Badger program. He'll have to do that withoutMelvin Gordon, though. But this is Wisconsin; you know there are other backs in the program. Junior Corey Clement (5'11" 217 lbs.) rushed for 949 yards and six touchdowns last season as a backup with a sparkling 6.5 yards per carry average. After that, Wisconsin has three four star freshmen running backs waiting in the wings: Taiwan Deal (6'0" 216 lbs.; redshirted in 2014), Jordan Stevenson (5'9" 190 lbs.) and Bradrick Shaw (6'1" 205 lbs.) You have to assume that at least one of these backs will be up for the challenge in 2015; as SB Nation's Bill Connelly puts it: "Yeah, they'll be fine."
Update: Jordan Stevenson was denied admission to Wisconsin on Thursday, so he'll be looking elsewhere.
Joel Stave (6'5" 220 lbs.) surely will set some sort of mark by playing quarterback for his fourth head coach in his Wisconsin career, if you count Barry Alvarez's two interim stints. The unheralded former walk-on took over as a freshman when Maryland graduate transfer Danny O'Brien struggled, then lost his job briefly last season when he developed a case of the "yips" in preseason practice. Wisconsin struggled quite a bit until Stave started to return to form in October. In 2013, Stave completed 62% of his passes for 2,422 yards and 22 touchdowns with 13 interceptions. Last season, Stave only completed 53% of his passes for 1,350 yards and nine touchdowns with ten interceptions in splitting time with Tanner McEvoy. This spring, McEvoy practiced at safety and a little bit at receiver, but not at quarterback, so it's Stave's job to lose at this point. Junior Bart Houston (6'4" 218 lbs.) is the only other quarterback on the roster with game experience: three pass attempts last season, completing one for a six yard touchdown against Western Illinois last season.
Wisconsin only returns one of last season's top four receivers: senior Alex Erickson (6'0" 196 lbs.), who caught 55 passes for 772 yards and three touchdowns in 2014. After that, it's pretty much a guessing game as to who might emerge. The most promising guy might be junior Robert Wheelwright (6'2" 201 lbs.) who caught seven passes for 79 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game. Last season, he only caught one pass while battling knee and hamstring issues. Sophomore tight end Troy Fumagalli (6'5" 246 lbs.) caught 14 passes last season as a freshman, which should mean even more production this year. But remember: this is Wisconsin, where the passing game takes a back seat to the ground game. It's also worth noting that Ted Gilmore is now Wisconsin's receivers coach; Husker fans should remember the horrific performance of Gilmore's receivers corps during his time in Lincoln.
Only two starters return on the offensive line, but this is still Wisconsin: they'll take a step back in all likelihood, but should be OK. Junior center Dan Voltz (6'3" 311 lbs.) is a two year starter and a second team all-Big Ten honoree last season. Senior left tackleTyler Marz (6'5" 321 lbs.) has also started the last two seasons, and Phil Steele put him on his preseason second team all-Big Ten team. Senior Ray Ball (6'7" 324 lbs.) is slated to take over at left guard; he's never started, but has seen action in 31 games during his Wisconsin career.
It's also safe to assume that there won't be much change on defense with Dave Aranda sticking around as defensive coordinator. With seven returning starters, there's a solid basis to work from in 2015. Up front, senior Arthur Goldberg (6'3" 290 lbs.) slides back outside from nose guard to defensive end to pair up with promising sophomore Chikwe Obasih (6'2" 268 lbs.). Sophomore Conor Sheehy (6'5" 279 lbs.) is being counted on to occupy the middle in Wisconsin's 3-4 lineup, and that's a huge question mark. If Sheehy's not up to the task, Wisconsin will have to move Goldberg back inside or count on freshmen to fill the void.
At linebacker, Wisconsin must replace both inside linebackers but benefit from having both honored outside linebackers back in 2015. Only Ohio State has as good of a combo, who combined for 30 tackles for loss, nine passes defended and four forced fumbles. Last season, senior Joe Schobert (6'2" 240 lbs.) dropped more into coverage and let juniorVince Biegel (6'4" 244 lbs.) rush the passer, but this spring, they've tried reversing the roles to give them more flexibility. Redshirt freshman T. J. Edwards (6'1" 229 lbs.) really emerged in the spring and is poised to start on the inside this fall. A former high school quarterback and safety, he'll certainly have some butterflies when he plays his first game ever at linebacker against Alabama in JerryWorld. Junior Leon Jacobs (6'2" 230 lbs.) did play in all 14 games last season as a reserve with 28 tackles; he'll fill the other inside linebacker spot.
Wisconsin's pass defense ranked fourth in the nation last year, and with three starters back, the Badgers could be even better in 2015. That's because Tanner McEvoy (6'6" 222 lbs.) , who started four games at safety in 2013, is expected to fill the open spot. McEvoy missed three games yet still totaled 27 tackles and four pass breakups. He'll pair up with preseason second team all-Big Ten safety Michael Caputo (6'1" 212 lbs.), who led the Badgers as a junior with 106 tackles. At corner, junior Sojourn Shelton (5'9" 178 lbs.) and senior Darius Hillary (5'11" 188 lbs.) were an effective pair last season and should be even better in 2015. Shelton was an honorable mention all-Big Ten honoree as a freshman but suffered a "sophomore slump" last season. This spring, defensive coordinator Dave Aranda called him the "breakout player" on defense. Hillary earned second team all-Big Ten honors from the coaches last season.
Wisconsin looks like a team that should be the preseason favorite to win the Big Ten West division. It's hard to be terribly concerned about losing running back Melvin Gordon and right tackle Rob Havenstein; it's Wisconsin where they usually just reload each season. Really, the only serious question marks are at nose tackle and inside linebacker. Plus, the Badgers end up drawing Rutgers and Maryland as their east division opponents. When you factor in the returning talent, consistency in the schemes on both sides of the ball, and the favorable schedule, it's really difficult to pick against the Badgers - even if they have to travel to both Nebraska and Minnesota.