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Reviewing the 2017 Wisconsin Badgers

The Badgers are solid on both sides of the ball; Nebraska must prepare to not make mistakes and give the game away.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Wisconsin Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-USA TODAY Sports

The Wisconsin Badgers bring an undefeated record and #9 ranking to Lincoln this week. The Badgers opened the season with a 59-10 victory over Utah State (now 3-2), followed by a 31-14 win over Florida Atlantic (now 2-3) then a 40-6 victory at BYU (now 1-4 without Tanner Magnum at quarterback). Last Saturday, Wisconsin held off Northwestern 33-24 to open Big Ten conference action.

Sophomore tailback Bradrick Shaw injured his knee in the season opener, opening the door for true freshman sensation Jonathan Taylor (5’11” 214 lbs.), whose 129.5 rushing yards per game leads the Big Ten and ranks tenth nationally. Taylor entered preseason practice looking to be fifth on the depth chart until he exploded in a preseason scrimmage in mid-August. In just ten plays, he broke so many tackles that the coaches had no choice but to move him up the depth chart. In his first start, Taylor rushed for 223 yards and three touchdowns; in four games, Taylor has totaled for 518 yards and seven touchdowns, averaging 7.2 yards per carry. Shaw and Chris James have each rushed for 137 yards.

Quarterback Alex Hornibrook 60 of 90 passes for 898 yards and nine touchdowns with three interceptions; he’s been sacked seven times, losing forty yards with no yards gained on the ground. His favorite receiver had been tight end Troy Fumagalli with 15 catches for 236 yards and three touchdowns. Fumagalli missed last week’s game against Northwestern with a left leg injury; he’s officially listed as questionable on this week’s depth chart, though head coach Paul Chryst remarked “Troy, I think we’ll see” on Monday. Sophomore Quintez Cephus has risen up to be the top receiver this season with 14 catches for 233 yards and three touchdowns. Freshman Danny Davis is third with six catches for 152 yards and a touchdown; the emergence of the young receivers has pushed senior Jazz Peavy down the depth chart.

Wisconsin’s defense continues to still be one of the best in the Big Ten, as the Badgers rank second in the Big Ten in scoring defense (13.5 points per game), total defense (247 yards per game) and rushing defense (74.3 yards per game). “Throw the ball” guy may be less concerned; the Badgers are merely fourth in pass defense. (172.8 yards per game) Last week, Northwestern found some success throwing underneath with short passes, completing 29 of 45 passes for 219 yards and three touchdowns. You have to figure that Nebraska will want to try something similar this week.

All of this has been done without linebacker and team captain Jack Cichy, who tore an ACL in August. Just like on the offensive line, it seems that Wisconsin simply cranks out the “next man up” at linebacker. Safety D’Cota Dixon leads the Badger defense with 27 tackles this season while linebackers Chris Orr and T.J. Edwards have 24 and 20 respectively. Edwards is tied with safety Natrell Jamerson for the team lead in interceptions with two. Outside linebacker Garret Dooley leads the Badgers with four sacks (three last week against Northwestern) and 7.5 total tackles for loss.

This week’s game looks like it could be a defensive battle; if Tanner Lee isn’t careful, it’s possible that the defenses could outscore the offenses.

Below the jump, you’ll find the preseason preview of the Wisconsin Badgers.

Based solely on the results of the last two seasons, it’s clear that Wisconsin has fared the best of the four schools (Nebraska, Oregon State, Wisconsin and Pitt) that played head coach musical chairs in December 2014. Even though Wisconsin was the third team in the rotation of that cycle, the Badgers have the best record (21-6) and the only team with hardware (2016 Big Ten West champions).

Offensively, Wisconsin just keeps doing things the Wisconsin way: big physical offensive linemen grading the road for powerful running backs, who are supplemented by competent quarterbacks who are efficient at throwing the ball. Well, at least it was until Melvin Gordon (408) ran out of eligibility. Injuries limited Corey Clement the last two seasons, but now he too is gone. Sophomore Bradrick Shaw (6’1” 208 lbs.) rushed for 457 yards and five touchdowns last season, averaging 5.2 yards a carry as a freshman. But the guy to keep an eye on this season is junior transfer Chris James (5’10” 216 lbs.). In two seasons at Pitt, James rushed for 690 yards, averaging 4.8 yards per carry. He impressed in spring practices with his all-around skill set running, catching and blocking. So much so that the coaches decided that they didn’t need to see much from him in the spring the public will just have to wait and see if he’s as good as advertised.

Also held out of the spring game was sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook (6’4” 213 lbs.) Hornibrook started nine games, though ended up splitting time most of the season with Bart Houston. Houston’s out of eligibility, leaving Hornibrook as the default starter. Houston put up better numbers than Hornibrook (58.6% completion percentage, nine touchdowns, seven interceptions with a 125.8 quarterback rating for the freshman). True freshman Jack Coan (6’3” 199 lbs.) enrolled in January and played well in the spring game (10-17, 121 yards, one touchdown, one interception); ideally, Wisconsin would like to redshirt Coan. If so, then redshirt freshman Kare Lyles (6’0” 224 lbs.) might get the call unless Hornibrook suffers some sort of injury. Lyles struggled in the spring game (2-6, 15 yards), so Lyles might only be used in mop-up roles in 2017.

Wisconsin’s receiving corps will never put up huge numbers, but the 2017 group should perform better the average group of Badgers. Senior Jazz Peavy (6’0” 185 lbs.) lead last year with 43 catches for 635 yards and five touchdowns, but this season, it might be senior tight end Troy Fumagalli (6’6” 249 lbs.) who might put up the big numbers. He caught 47 passes for 580 yards and two touchdowns in 2016, which doubled his numbers from his first two seasons. He’s a serious candidate for the Mackey Award for the best tight end in college football.

Dating all the way back to the Barry Alvarez days, Wisconsin’s offense has been build on the foundation of a big, powerful offensive line. Depending on local talent from the cheese and bratwurst state has become a tradition that continues this season. They’ll have to replace an all-American left tackle this season, but with sophomore David Edwards (6’7” 306 lbs.) splitting time at right tackle after junior Jacob Maxwell (6’6” 323 lbs.) was injured, the Badgers have five offensive linemen with starting experience. Junior right guard Beau Benzschawel (6’6” 316 lbs.) has started 22 games in his first two years and earned second team all-Big Ten honors last season as a sophomore.

Wisconsin’s defense has been rock-solid the last few years, but change is in the air. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda left after the 2015 season for LSU, but after just one season, Justin Wilcox left to take the head coaching job at Cal. But rather than go for a proven coordinator this time, Paul Chryst went full-bore-Wisconsin-way and picked Jim Leonhard to take over. After a ten year run in the NFL at safety, Leonhard spent one season volunteering with Aranda before being named defensive backs coach last season. Now the former Wisconsin walk-on is the team’s defensive coordinator.

Fortunately for Wisconsin’s defense, the Badgers return the entire defensive line and both inside linebackers in their 3-4 alignment. Senior defensive ends Alec James (6’3” 270 lbs.) and Chikwe Obasih (6’3” 267 lbs.) will be paired up with senior nose tackle Conor Sheehy (6’4” 290 lbs.) after an injury filled 2016. Last season’s leading tackler, junior T.J. Edwards (6’1” 246 lbs.) returns along with senior Jack Cichy (6’2” 233 lbs.) at the inside linebacker spots. Edwards totaled 89 tackles last season, with Cichy adding 60 in an injury-shortened season. Junior Ryan Connelly (6’3” 235 lbs.) filled in more than admirably for Cichy, earning Big Ten defensive player of the week honors for an 11 tackle effort against the Huskers.

Replacing TJ Watt and Vince Biegel at outside linebacker is going to be a challenge this season. Senior Garret Dooley (6’3” 250 lbs.) looks to have one spot sewn up; he totalled 40 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss last season filling in for Biegel. Replacing Watt is another matter entirely, as there could be four guys pushing for that spot in August.

Cornerback Sojourn Shelton is another player from last season that will be hard to replace, though Hawai’i transfer Nick Nelson (5’11” 207 lbs.) has the potential to be pretty solid. In 2015 when playing for the Warriors, Nelson had nine tackles and a pass breakup against the Badgers. Nelson totaled 51 tackles and 15 pass breakups for Hawai’i that season; now he’ll start for the Badgers after redshirting last season due to transferring. He’ll join senior cornerback Derrick Tindal (5’11” 183 lbs) , who had 34 tackles, 11 pass breakups and three interceptions last season.

The Badgers enter 2017 as clear favorites to win the Big Ten’s west division, and for good reason. They aren’t a lock to win the division, mind you, but they clearly have fewer question marks going into the season. A favorable schedule has LSU, Michigan State and Ohio State being replaced by BYU, Indiana and Maryland, which means that it’s not out of line to think that the Badgers could roll into Indianapolis 12-0.