247Sports sat down with Badgers247 insider Evan Flood for a thorough Q&A session heading into Saturday’s game between Michigan and Wisconsin. Our questions and his responses are below:
Q: From our bird’s eye view, Wisconsin appears to be relatively banged up right now. What are their latest injury updates heading into Saturday’s game?
Starting defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk is out. He hasn’t put up monster stats, but he’s the most disruptive pass rusher UW has at defensive line. The Badgers are now going to have problems stopping the run on both sides of the line.
The other two to watch are cornerbacks Caesar Williams, who didn’t play against Nebraska, and Deron Harrell who was hurt in the second quarter. Harrell seems more likely to play as it appears he was going through concussion protocol. If one of those guys can’t go, Wisconsin has to use a true freshman in their spot.
Q: Alex Hornibrook is Pro Football Focus’s highest rated quarterback at this point in the season. How much has he improved in your opinion and how legitimate do you think the PFF grade is in this situation?
Flood: I’ve always said this about Hornibrook — the stats will tell you something completely different than the eye test. Statistically, he may go down as the best quarterback in program history over a four-year period. Talent-wise, he’s not up there yet. The truth lies somewhere in the middle.
The biggest improvement to this point has been ball security. Hornibrook had 15 interceptions last season, a lot of which were just unnecessary. Through five games, he’s got seven touchdowns to two picks.
Do I buy the PFF grade? No, but it I get it. As I said, statistics tell a completely different story than what shows up on tape. The quarterback is a reflection of the offense. Wisconsin has practically everything back on that side of the ball — at least enough to be one of the more explosive units in the Big Ten. If he’s elevated his play so much, why have the Badgers struggled to score points and move the ball consistently in every game but one? And in the one game where UW had a solid 60 minutes on offense (Nebraska), Hornibrook was only 13-of-24 passing.
Jonathan Taylor has been running wild all season. It doesn’t all fall on Hornibrook, but if the passing were as good as PFF suggests it is, this offense couldn’t be stopped right now.
Q: Wisconsin gave up nearly 500 total yards to Nebraska at home last weekend. That doesn’t seem to be very Wisconsin-ish. Was their performance last weekend a blip on the radar or a sign of some issues on that side of the ball?
Flood: It’s not a fluke. This defense is struggling and it’s a big concern going into Saturday. Wisconsin doesn’t have the parts for their 3-4 defense that they’re accustomed to.
They have a revamped defensive line and struggle to win on the early downs. If/when the Badgers do get their opponent into 3rd and longs, they don’t have those outside linebackers who have typically dominated the 1-on1’s to create pressure and/or get the quarterback on the ground. All that forces a young secondary to defend longer than they want. The Badgers also don’t have a cornerback you feel good about in 1-on-1 coverage or who can keep the other team’s top receiver in check for 60 minutes.
Against a Michigan offense that’s very balanced and won’t allow Wisconsin to hone in on one particular area, this is a scary matchup for the Badgers.
Q: Who is one player on each side of the ball that doesn’t get the publicity they deserve and could have an impact on Saturday’s game?
Defensively, Olive Sagapolu is the unsung hero of the defense. In the 3-4, he does all the dirty work in the trenches and is relied upon to take on multiple blockers to clear lanes for the linebackers. If Wisconsin is stout against the run, he generally has something to do with it.
Q: Meta question: What is it about the Wisconsin program that they continue to produce elite offensive linemen and running backs? Scouting? Weight program? Do you have any insight into exactly how they do it?
Flood: With offensive lineman, Wisconsin generally doesn’t have to go far to get. A lot them come from their own backyard, which is the one and only position the Badgers can really get consistently from in-state. The state produces a different type of lineman that really meshes with the culture at UW. The state of Wisconsin also isn’t recruited a lot by other schools. With the lack of talent, other programs struggle to dissect tape when a 6-foot-6, 280-pound lineman is beating up on a 5-foot-11 defensive end. It can be difficult to evaluate those matchups. But the state has produced a ton of under the radar prospects, a lot of which begin at UW as walk-ons and in some cases, go onto the NFL.
The position, as non-glamorous as it is, is celebrated more here, because of the tradition. That makes it easy to keep the kids home, but also recruit other lineman from the Midwest. Wisconsin has had a few OL coaches, and one now, that played the position in Madison and went onto the NFL. The Wisconsin culture in general fits right in with a lineman’s personality. It’s not a flashy program, it’s put your head down and go to work.
Q: Your score prediction
Flood: Wisconsin caught some breaks a year ago. I know it’s two different teams, but I still expect Michigan to present the same challenges — this time with a quarterback who’s not going to struggle.
The Wolverines aren’t that explosive through the air, I don’t know if UW’s cornerbacks can match up with the size UM has at wide receiver. The Badgers have also had difficulties with quarterbacks who can extend plays like Shea Patterson. Wisconsin is very reliant on time of possession and controlling the lock. I just don’t know if the defense can get off the field quick enough against this type of balance that Michigan has.
The Badgers have run the ball twice as much as they’ve passed so far in Big Ten. Those numbers aren’t going to work against the Wolverines and their front seven. Unless Hornibrook just comes out slinging it and puts up huge numbers, I don’t see an upset.
Michigan 27 Wisconsin 20