A month ago, Wisconsin looked like a serious threat to not only seriously challenge Ohio State for the Big Ten championship but also to make the College Football Playoff. With shutouts in four of their first six games, the Badgers had actually scored as many defensive touchdowns (4) as they had allowed opposing offenses all season. There is a great symbiotic relationship between the Badgers offense and defense. Wisconsin leads the nation in time of possession, as their powerful offense controls the clock and allows their defense to be well-rested and ready to shut down opposing offenses.
Until the fourth quarter against Illinois. The Wisconsin offense turned the ball over twice in the final eight minutes of the game, opening the door for the Illini to score the final 10 points of the game in a 24-23 upset. Similar things happened a week later against Ohio State; the Badgers kept the game scoreless for most of the first half, but as the Badger defense wore down, the Buckeyes took control. And when the Badgers started turning the ball over again in the second half, it was game over.
Last weekend, the Badgers nearly blew a 15 point fourth quarter lead as an ill-timed turnover helped Iowa get back into the game. But a heavy dose of Jonathan Taylor down the stretch sealed the victory for Wisconsin. Taylor rushed for a season-high 250 yards on 31 carries last week, bumping his season total to 1,259 yards (6.1 yards per carry average) and 15 touchdowns. Freshman Nakia Watson (5’11” 229 lbs.) has backed up Taylor, rushing for 279 yards (4.6 yards per carry average) and two touchdowns.
Junior Jack Coan seized control of the starting quarterback job in preseason practice, with touted true freshman Graham Mertz slated for a redshirt season. Coan has completed over 73% of his passes for 1,664 yards and 12 touchdowns with three interceptions. Coan isn’t a threat to run; he’s netted a negative 24 yards rushing this season after subtracting sacks. Mertz has played in two of his four game allotment thus far, completing nine of ten passes for 73 yards.
Reinstated senior receiver Quintez Cephus has topped his pre-suspension 2017 totals with 32 catches for 504 yards and four touchdowns. Sophomore tight end Jake Ferguson has 23 catches for 266 yards and two touchdowns. Last year’s top two receivers, Danny Davis and AJ Taylor have 25 and 19 receptions respectively, each with a touchdown catch. Even Jonathan Taylor is involved with the passing game, with 18 receptions and four touchdowns through the air.
Defensively, the Badgers still rank near the top of the Big Ten in nearly every defensive category. While the blowout loss to Ohio State caused the Badgers to slip behind Iowa and Penn State (for now) to fourth, Wisconsin is a strong second in the Big Ten in rushing defense (84.4 yards per game), passing defense (147 yards per game) and total defense (231.4 yards per game).
Wisconsin will be missing nose tackle Bryson Williams this week due to a leg injury suffered last week; true freshman Keeanu Benton (6’4” 315 lbs.) will take his place. Wisconsin’s defense is led by their linebacking corps, where inside linebackers Jack Sanborn and Chris Orr lead with 51 and 50 tackles respectively. Orr is second in the Big Ten in sacks with 9; outside linebacker Zack Baun ranks third with 7.5. At the other outside linebacker spot, junior Noah Burks has filled in for Izayah Green-May, who’s been limited this season due to a broken thumb.
Junior safety Eric Burrell leads the secondary with 29 tackles and two interceptions on the season, while redshirt freshman safety Reggie Pearson has 24 tackles. The Badgers seem to be rotating quite a bit at cornerback as Faion Hicks, Caesar Williams, Rachad Wildegoose and Deron Harrell have similar statistics this season.
It almost goes without saying that Nebraska’s offense has to not only generate points in this game, but also keep the Badgers offense off the field. That doesn’t mean that the Huskers can’t try to tempo the Badgers; the Badgers have shown themselves vulnerable if their defense stays on the field for more than a few plays each drive. You know the Badgers offense is going to grind the ball out; Taylor will get his yards. The key is not to let Taylor put up gaudy numbers because those small first half gains become huge fourth quarter gains.
(Memo to Purdue and Indiana... if you are going to get worked up over being disrepected, at least wait for someone to actually talk down about you, like Wisconsin’s Zack Baun. Baun’s not wrong at this point in the series.)
Below the fold, you’ll find the preseason preview of the Wisconsin Badgers.
Since Nebraska joined the Big Ten conference, it turns out the Wisconsin Badgers have occupied the spot that Husker fans expected the Big Red to occupy in the conference. Wisconsin has five championship game appearances in eight years; nobody else has more. Wisconsin has won seven out of the eight games between the two schools with five of those games decided by three or more scores. And the Badgers do it in a fashion that old school Nebraska fans absolutely love: a powerful ground attack fueled by monster offensive linemen and fullbacks combined with a suffocating defensive scheme.
That “Wisconsin Way” has survived coaching changes from Barry Alvarez to Bret Bielema, Gary Anderson and now Paul Chryst. Granted, none of these coaching changes were the result of dismissals; there’s a lot of risk in messing around with formulas that are working.
In 2018, the Badgers slumped to an 8-5 record thanks to inconsistent quarterback play and injuries on the defensive side of the ball. Recognizing that the handwriting was on the wall in Madison, Alex Hornibrook transferred to Florida State, where he appears to be second on the depth chart. Junior Jack Coan (6’3” 216 lbs.) appears to have the edge in preseason practices to be the opening day starting quarterback; Coan completed 60% of his passes in four starts last season. But all eyes are on true freshman Graham Mertz (6’3” 216 lbs.), who’s probably the most talented quarterback to wear the red “W” since Russell Wilson made the graduate transfer market a very real thing in college football. To some, it’s not a question of if Mertz will start but rather when Mertz will win the starting job.
Taking the pressure off of whomever starts at quarterback will be junior All-American running back Jonathan Taylor (5’11” 219 lbs.), who rushed for 2,194 yards and 16 touchdowns. Taylor, who averaged 7.1 yards per carry, has rushed for an NCAA record (for freshman and sophomores) 4,171 yards and 29 touchdowns in his career. The only weakness in Taylor’s game? He’s only caught 16 passes in his career, but that’s been a focus of development this offseason. Junior Garrett Groshek (5’11” 216 lbs.) emerged as the backup last season, rushing for 42 yards and a touchdown. Grosheck is also a capable receiver, catching 24 passes for 163yards last season. The Badgers are experimenting with a two-back set with both Taylor and Groshek in the game at the same time And since Grosheck was an all-state quarterback in high school, all sorts of trickeration is possible with that combination. Junior Bradrick Shaw (6’1” 211 lbs.) is recovering from a 2017 ACL injury; he rushed for 822 yards in 2016-17.
Whomever is the quarterback could have a full complement of receivers in 2019. Senior AJ Taylor (5’11” 201 lbs.) led Wisconsin with 521 yards receiving on 32 catches Junior Danny Davis (6’0” 204 lbs.) caught 40 passes last year for 418 yards and a team-leading five touchdown catches. Sophomore tight end Jake Ferguson (6’5” 245 lbs.) only started two games, but his 456 yards and four touchdowns ranked second on the team. Junior Quintez Cephus, who caught 30 passes for 501 yards and six touchdowns in 2017, was acquitted on sexual assault charges earlier this month and had his expulsion from the University reduced to a one year suspension.
It’s a rebuilding year on the Wisconsin offensive line, though like in the old days at Nebraska, it’s more of reloading. Junior center Tyler Biadasz (6’3” 322 lbs.) has started every game in his Wisconsin career and earned first team all-Big Ten honors last season. Junior left tackle Cole Van Lanen (6’5” 300 lbs.) actually played more snaps last season than starter Jon Dietzen, who departs. Sophomore right tackle Logan Bruss (6’5” 308 lbs.) did start three games last season. It’ll be tough the departing All-American’s on the line, but results shouldn’t drop significantly.
On defense, last year’s injury problems leads to increased depth for 2019. Sophomore defensive end Matt Henningsen (6’3” 286 lbs.) was thrust into the starting lineup despite being a walk-on freshman last season, with 32 tackles in ten starts. Lincoln Southeast graduate Bryson Williams (6’2” 306 lbs.) also became a starter as a freshman at nose tackle late last season. Juniors Garrett Rand (6’2” 278 lbs.) and Isaiahh Loudermilk (6’7” 307 lbs.) also are returning from injuries, which should put Wisconsin in a much strong position to start the season on the defensive line than they finished 2018 in.
At linebacker, the losses are deep with three all-Big Ten honorees departing. Senior outside linebacker Zack Baun (6’3” 225 lbs.) is the only returning starter; his 63 tackles last season leads returning players and is eight quarterback hurries led the entire defense. On the other side, sophomore Izayah Green-May (6’6” 223 lbs.) had an impressive spring and summer to stake a claim on the other outside linebacker spot despite only getting a handful of snaps in garbage time last season. On the inside, senior Chris Orr (6’0” 214 lbs.) returns after losing a few pounds to improve his speed; he started 16 games his first three seasons with 82 tackles before redshirting last season.
Injuries last season pressed several young players into action, which should benefit the experience level in 2019. Multiple freshmen were thrust into starting roles last season, and those players should form a strong nucleus the next few years. Sophomore cornerback Rachad Wildgoose (5’11” 190 lbs.) started seven games and led the defense with seven pass breakups last season, while sophomore Deron Harrell (6’2” 181 lbs.) has shown the highest upside in preseason camp. Sophomore Faion Hicks (5’10” 184 lbs.) started eleven games last season and was mentioned by head coach Paul Chryst as one of the most improved players at Big Ten media days. At safety, redshirt freshman Reggie Pearson (5’10” 198 lbs.), sophomore Scott Nelson (6’2” 197 lbs.) and junior Eric Burrell (6’0” 191 lbs.) appear to be the top three. All three played last season, with Pearson maintaining his redshirt by only playing in four games.
No doubt that the holes in the Badgers lineup were a key reason why the media ranked the Badgers third in their preseason Big Ten west poll. Another key reason is the schedule, as Penn State and Rutgers get replaced this year by Ohio State and Michigan State. So I get the skepticism, but I think it’s safe to say that there’s not a huge gap between #1 and #6 in the west division. (At least when looking at it in the summer.) It won’t take much improvement (and a lack of injuries as well) to send Wisconsin back to Indianapolis for the sixth time this decade.