Leading up to the BYU-Wisconsin football game on Saturday in Madison (1:30 p.m. MT, ABC), I reached out to John Veldhuis, senior staff writer at BadgerBlitz.com, to get the perspective from the Wisconsin side. Here’s what he had to say:
1. Wisconsin has earned a place with the national elite, which means being in the national title discussion. How have the Badgers handled the pressure of expectations? Is there any lingering irritation with the fact that if BYU had been better in 2017, that might have tipped the scales in Wisconsin’s favor when it came to making the college football playoff?
VELDHUIS: I think the Badgers have handled the spotlight about as well as you could have expected them to in the run up to this season. I know a lot of programs talk about not paying attention to the “outside noise” of preseason media expectations, but I think the Badgers mean it when they say it. So far this season, it has been business as usual for UW — and I think being in the mix for a playoff bid last season helps the Badgers because they have practice shutting out the hype machine. And while I certainly think that losing BYU as what you would call a “quality win” played a role in how people looked at Wisconsin’s schedule last year I don’t think there’s any lingering bitterness about it. These games are scheduled so far in advance it is impossible to predict who will be a “quality” opponent when the contracts are signed. For a long time now the Badgers have only tried to worry about controlling the things they can actually control — the players can’t control their schedule, so I don’t think anyone spent a lot of time thinking about that.
2. How different is the current Badger team from the one that dominated the Cougars in Provo last year?
VELDHUIS: The big difference you will see is on the defensive side of the ball, where the Badgers have replaced seven starters from last year’s unit. They are still running an aggressive 3-4 scheme, but it’s filled with younger players who did not have a lot of in-game experience heading in to the start of the season. They have two new starters on the defensive line, two new starting outside linebackers, and three new starters in the secondary — including both cornerback spots. The new group has played well overall during Wisconsin’s first two games of the season, but the toughest part of their schedule is still in front of them.
Wisconsin’s offense should still look the same to the Cougars, since the Badgers only lost two key starters from that side of the ball from their 2017 team. Starting quarterback Alex Hornibrook is back, along with star running back Jonathan Taylor, their entire offensive line from last season, and a deep group of wide receivers and tight ends. They still have a few kinks to work out, but it is an experienced group with several playmakers the Badgers can lean on.
3. Wisconsin has won comfortably in its first two games. What would you say are the biggest concerns for the Badgers at this point? With Big Ten play around the corner, is there any concern that they might not take BYU seriously enough?
VELDHUIS: I think the biggest concerns you can point to are a couple of slow starts on the offensive side of the ball and their general inexperience on defense. It took the Badgers a little more than half of their game against New Mexico to get their offense clicking — in large part because of a couple of turnovers that snuffed out promising drives. The Badgers are going to need to clean those up if they want their offense to reach their full potential this season. I’m also wondering how the Badgers will respond on defense when they get hit in the mouth a couple of times. They responded well against New Mexico after allowing a touchdown on the Lobos’ first drive of the game, but New Mexico’s starting quarterback had to leave the game a few plays later and I think their offense might have put up a little more of a fight he had been able to play the full game. And I don’t think the Badgers are overlooking the Cougars — they might have gotten the upper hand last year, but they recognize that BYU is a physical program that has taken a few steps forward from last year’s performance. A few players have told me that BYU reminds them of a Big Ten team from a physical standpoint, so I think the Cougars will have their full attention this week and on Saturday.
4. Describe the growth of Jonathan Taylor, who is already getting Heisman buzz as a sophomore. Also, who are other Badger stars that Cougar fans should be looking for?
VELDHUIS: Jonathan Taylor burst on to the scene about midway through fall camp last year. The Badgers were looking for a new starter at running back, and despite his youth he ran away with the job after a big performance in the first week of the season against Utah State. After that Taylor has been a machine for the Badgers — he became one of the fastest players to reach 1,000 career rushing yards last year, and ended the year as one of the top tailbacks in the country. After last season ended, Taylor has spent a lot of time working on improving his pass catching skills and spent a lot of time working on holding on to the ball — although it’s clear he still has some work to do there, since he has already lost two fumbles in two games this year. Even still, Taylor has a good mix of speed, size, and balance that help him break off big chunk plays at a regular rate, and he’s entrenched as the focal point of Wisconsin’s offense as long as he can hang on to the ball.
As for other playmakers, keep your eyes on a few of Wisconsin’s wide receivers. Kendric Pryor, A.J. Taylor, and Danny Davis all showed a knack for making things happen last year — and Pryor and Taylor have already broken off a few big plays this season while Davis served a two-game suspension. They give quarterback Alex Hornibrook a few good options to look to both in obvious passing downs and in the play-action game, and I think the depth of Wisconsin’s wide receiver corps gives them a chance to have a very balanced offense this year.
5. How do you anticipate Saturday’s game playing out?
VELDHUIS: I think the Badgers will win by a couple scores, even if it takes them a little while to pull away. The Badgers are going to try and run their normal offense as much as they can — and sometimes it takes a while for Wisconsin’s running game to wear down a defense’s will to get stops on the ground. I doubt it will be like last year’s game, where Alex Hornibrook was almost flawless — but if he and Jonathan Taylor can avoid turning the ball over and Wisconsin’s defense plays at the same level they have so far this season I think the Badgers can pull out about a 35-14 win this weekend.
Daily Herald sports reporter Jared Lloyd can be reached at 801-344-2555 or [email protected]. Twitter: @JaredrLloyd. Instagram: @JaredrLloyd.