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.
What’s your prediction when the Badgers return to Lincoln
This poll is closed
Salt Creek gets dammed again, and Wisconsin floods out the Huskers yet again.
Huskers make it a battle, but the Badgers come out on top.
Nebraska’s improved depth on the defensive line and at linebacker gives the Huskers the edge to end Wisconsin’s winning streak against the Big Red.
Nebraska resets the narrative and sends a statement to the rest of the Big Ten, as it’s the Badgers who get washed out.