Previewing The Enemy: Wisconsin Badgers
The Wisconsin Badgers (6-3, 4-2 Big Ten) will travel to Beaver Stadium to take on No. 20 Penn State (6-3, 3-3 Big Ten) this Saturday for the first matchup between the two programs since James Franklin’s exciting Big Ten Championship victory in 2016.
Both teams have had disappointing seasons, at least by preseason standards. The Badgers need to win to have a chance at the Big Ten Championship game, and Penn State needs a win to salvage a spot in a respectable bowl game. On a cold Saturday in Happy Valley, expect some good ol’ fashioned Big Ten football.
The Badgers entered the season ranked No. 4 in the AP Top 25 poll, but have since slipped out of the rankings entirely. A week 3 loss to BYU forced the Badgers down to No. 18, and losses to both Michigan and Northwestern were enough for the AP voters to leave Paul Chryst’s team out.
Wisconsin is coming off of a 31-17 win over Rutgers, but starting quarterback Alex Hornibrook is questionable for the game after entering concussion protocol following a sack.
The Badgers still have their eyes on a Big Ten Championship game berth, but it’s an uphill battle. Wisconsin must win out against Penn State, Purdue, and Minnesota, and needs Northwestern to drop two of three contests against Iowa, Minnesota, and Illinois.
Alex Hornibrook is the starting quarterback for the Badgers, but, as previously mentioned, he may not be available come Saturday. In any case, Hornibrook has had an okay season, at least compared to his 2017 numbers. He’s accounted for just 11 touchdowns through the air versus eight interceptions. Before leaving the Rutgers game, Hornibrook went 7-for-16 through the air with 92 yards and two interceptions.
Jack Coan has been decent as Hornibrook’s backup. Coan went 20-for-31 through the air for 158 yards in the loss to Northwestern, although he did cough up the football deep inside Wisconsin territory at the beginning of the fourth quarter. That fumble led to another Northwestern touchdown to put the Wildcats up 31-10. Still, Coan has proven himself a competent replacement for Hornibrook.
Jonathan Taylor is the featured back for Wisconsin, continuing a line of running backs who have been tough to defend against. Taylor has rushed the ball 208 times for 1,363 yards in 2018, including 11 touchdowns on the ground. He’s only a sophomore, but his strength and speed have made him one of the most explosive backs in the nation.
The Badgers don’t rely heavily on the passing game, but they do like to spread the wealth when letting the ball fly. Jake Ferguson, AJ Taylor, and Danny Davis III have 25, 24, and 24 receptions, respectively. Ferguson, a freshman tight end from Madison, averages 14.4 yards per catch and has three touchdowns to his name in his first campaign, proving he can make up for lost production from a departed Troy Fumagalli.
Perhaps it’s not surprising to see a tight end lead this squad in catches, given the pro-style offense Paul Chryst runs. Taylor has 406 receiving yards to his name and the former four-star recruit has been explosive out wide.
Wisconsin’s offensive line is a point of strength. In fact, it always is. Wisconsin is about as predictable as any team in the country, and they will consistently produce NFL linemen. The big men up front have allowed Taylor to become the leading rusher in the country while only allowing 13 sacks on the season. For comparison, Penn State has allowed 21 sacks and Miles Sanders has rushed for 515 less yards.
Jim Leonhard leads a defensive unit that has been good enough, for the most part, in 2018. The 2017 defensive performance, however, has simply not been matched. Bill Connelly’s S&P+ rankings put the Wisconsin offense at No. 10, but the defense at No. 44.
Ryan Connelly, TJ Edwards, and Zach Baun lead the defense from the linebacker positions. Connelly and Edwards have combined for an impressive 126 total tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss, and five sacks. Edwards has even tallied two interceptions. Baun has also put up impressive numbers with 38 total tackles, one sack, and one interception on the season.
The defensive line has been fairly ineffective in getting after opposing quarterbacks. Wisconsin ranks tied for No. 114 in sacks on the season with just 12. Defensive tackle Olive Sagapolu has two of those sacks, and defensive end Matt Henningsen has one. Other than that, there’s not a whole lot to report from the line.
At safety, Eric Burrell leads the defensive backs group with 34 total tackles, and corner D’Cota Dixon follows Burrell on the stats sheet with 28 total tackles. The Badgers have been pretty good at forcing turnovers, as both Madison Cone and Evan Bondoc have two interceptions each.
Ultimately, the lack of pressure from the defensive front should give Trace McSorley or Tommy Stevens ample time to make good decisions through the air. Expect the Nittany Lion offense to bounce back after a horrific showing against Michigan.
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