Wisconsin finds themselves with a 4-1 record, with the lone blemish coming at the hands of a salty Brigham Young team that found a way to match the Badgers physically. The Cougars used spread formations and even some jet sweeps to create just enough holes in the Badgers defense. The Badgers out-yarded BYU 394 to 311, but won 24-21 in the one measurement that counts: the scoreboard.
Two weeks ago, Iowa led the Badgers much of the evening until the Badgers scored twice in the final minute to win 28-17. A season opening 34-3 win over Western Kentucky followed by a 45-14 victory over New Mexico started a 3-1 month of September for the Badgers.
This season, sophomore running back Jonathan Taylor continues to be the primary weapon of Wisconsin’s offense. Taylor is averaging 157 yards per game and 6.2 yards per carry. Fumbles still are a problem for Taylor; after losing six last season, he’s lost two more in the first four games of 2018. Backup Bradrick Shaw is still recovering from his ACL injury last season; he’s listed as questionable for this week’s game. Senior Taiwan Deal has been Taylor’s primary backup thus far, averaging 5.8 yards per carry.
Quarterback Alex Hornibrook is completing 67% of his passes, averaging 200 yards each game with six touchdown passes and two interceptions. Sexual assault allegations against roommates Quintez Cephus and Danny Davis have altered the depth chart at wide receiver this season. Davis was reinstated from suspension for the BYU game after charges weren’t filed while Cephus awaits arraignment next week on second and third-degree charges. Junior A.J. Taylor has picked up the slack with 15 catches for 294 yards and two touchdowns. With senior tight end Zander Neuville’s season ending leg injury suffered this week, redshirt freshman Jake Ferguson (6’5” 240 lbs.) will become an even bigger part of the Badgers offense. Ferguson has caught 12 passes for 166 yards and a touchdown so far this season.
Wisconsin’s defense hasn’t performed quite to the same standard that the Badgers had established in recent years.
It’s just not the same ole Wisconsin defense. (Only thru 4 games I know)
Badgers allowing 4.4 yards per rush attempt…
5 years avg has been 3.3 a carry
Wisc is allowing 5.4 yrds per play
5 year avg 4.5
So far in 4 games only 3 sacks, last year they had 42 for the season.
— Mike’l Severe (@MikelSevere) October 4, 2018
Part of that is inexperience in the secondary, where only senior safety D’Cota Dixon, who leads the Badgers with 24 tackles, has returned. Redshirt freshman cornerback Faion Hicks and sophomore Caesar Williams have been the starters to this point; however, both are listed as questionable on this week’s injury chart. Inside linebackers Ryan Connelly and T.J. Edwards have combined for eight of the Badgers 20 tackles for a loss this season; the two are the second and fourth leading tacklers with 22 and 19 respectively.
This Wisconsin team isn’t quite the Wisconsin team that people expected this season. Of course, the 0-4 Nebraska Cornhuskers aren’t the team people expected this season either. So we’ll see what happens Saturday night. Below the fold, you’ll find the preseason preview of the Wisconsin Badgers.
Bill Connelly talks about Wisconsin committing to a “type” in his SB Nation preview of the Badgers. And it works for Wisconsin, not because it’s so much innovative as the fact that Wisconsin simply executes the formula to near perfection. Barry Alvarez implemented, Bret Bielema and Gary Anderson maintained, and now Paul Chryst is seemingly perfecting it.
You see an awful lot of conceptual similarities between what Wisconsin does and what Mike RIley appeared to be trying to do; it’s just that Wisconsin does it the opposite way. Use those fullbacks and tight ends to create a powerful rushing attack which frees up an efficient passing game to make plays. It works in Madison because they’ve got the formula down pat; they know what the heck they are doing and just keep doing it, getting better and better at it. (Unlike Nebraska’s previous regime, who took some of those same concepts except do everything in a opposite manner…and getting results the opposite of Wisconsin…)
At most schools, the offense starts with the quarterback, but at Wisconsin, it starts with the running back. Sophomore Jonathan Taylor (5’11” 214 lbs.) took advantage of an injury to Bradrick Shaw (6’1” 211 lbs.) suffered in the season opener and seized the starting job. Taylor rushed for 1,977 yards and 13 touchdowns last season, averaging 6.6 yards per carry. Shaw returns for his junior season after rushing for 365 yards and four touchdowns last season. Senior Taiwan Deal (6’1” 225 lbs.) has missed most of the last two season with a chronic ankle problem; he was finally healthy enough to participate in spring drills. As a freshman in 2015, Deal rushed for 503 yards and six touchdowns, including 147 yards against Hawai’i.
Alex Hornibrook, contrary to your recollection that he’s been at Wisconsin forever, is a junior. Hornibrook (6’4” 220 lbs.) was a good enough game manager for Wisconsin except for one little issue: interceptions. 25 touchdowns, 2,644 yards and a 62% completion percentage is fine, but 15 interceptions isn’t. (That was second worst in the Big Ten, only one behind another quarterback who also wore a red and white uniform.) Hornibrook capped last season with an impressive performance on the road against Miami in the Orange Bowl, completing 20 of his last 25 passes. Hornibrook’s backup is sophoore Jack Coan, who completed all five of his passes last season in mop-up duty.
Pretty much the entire receiving corps returns for Wisconsin, save for tight end Troy Fumagalli. Junior Quintez Cephus (6’1” 206 lbs) caught 30 passes for 501 yards and six touchdowns before a broken leg ended his season after just nine games. After Cephus’ went out, junior A.J. Taylor (5’11” 201 lbs.) and sophomore Danny Davis (6’0” 194 lbs.) picked up the slack. Taylor caught 31 passes for 475 yards and five touchdowns while Davis caught 26 passes for 418 yards and five touchdowns. Now with Cephus back, the Badgers have their best receiver corps since 2011 with Jared Abbrederis, Alex Erickson and Nick Toon. As for the tight end position, senior Zander Neuville (6’5” 251 lbs.) and junior Kyle Penniston (6’4” 236 lbs.) caught nine and eight passes respectively; their production in the passing game will assuredly increase with Fumagalli’s departure.
Wisconsin’s reputation for offensive lineman resembles Nebraska’s from two decades before, and the 2018 edition might be one of their best. All five starters return, with four of them honorees last season. Senior right guard Beau Benzschawel (6’6” 322 lbs.) and junior right tackle David Edwards (6’7” 319 lbs.) received all-American consideration last season, while sophomore center Tyler Biadasz (6’3” 322 lbs.) and senior left tackle Michael Deiter (6’6” 321 lbs.) were listed on various all-Big Ten lists. Needless to say, this is probably the best offensive line Nebraska will face this season.
On the rise the last few years has been Wisconsin’s defense, which has become consistently one of the best in the conference ever since Dave Aranda started converting the Badgers to a 3-4. Even though Aranda left for LSU three years ago, his successors (first Justin Wilcox and now Jim Leonhard) have embraced what’s been working. Last year, the Badgers led the Big Ten in scoring defense (13.9 points per game) and total defense (262.1 yards per game); two years ago, they were third in the Big Ten and three years ago, second and fourth respectively. So while the Badgers only have four returning starters on defense, the foundation is such that you can expect Wisconsin to still be pretty good.
Senior nose tackle Olive Sagappolu (6’2” 338 lbs.) is the only returning starter on the Badgers defensive line. Last season, Sagapolu had 17 tackles with three sacks. He’s not just a fat guy; he’s a fat athlete capable of this earlier this summer on a white, sandy beach of Hawai’i:
The Badgers need to replace two all-Big Ten defensive ends this season. Sophomore Isaiahh Loudermilk (6’7” 296 lbs.) looks to be one; he had 11 tackles last season, but he’s recovering from offseason knee surgery and may not be ready to play until September. Junior Garrett Rand (6’2” 278 lbs.) was supposed to be the other until suffering a season-ending Achilles injury last month. Next man up could be redshirt freshman Aaron Vopal (6’6” 298 lbs.)
Senior inside linebacker T.J. Edwards (6’1” 246 lbs) returns after an all-American season where he totalled 81 tackles (11 for a loss) with seven pass breakups and four interceptions. Just like when he was just a two-star prospect in high school, the next level said he wasn’t ready to jump, so he’s back. His mate inside, senior Ryan Connelly (6’3” 236 lbs.) led the Badgers with 88 tackles last season. Top reserve outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel (6’4” 230 lbs.) steps up to a starting role this season after notching 39 tackles (including 10 for a loss) last season. SB Nation’s Bill Connelly noted that Wisconsin’s top five linebackers almost totalled more “havoc plays” (tackles for loss, passes defended and forced fumbles) last season than all of Nebraska’s Blackshirsts.
So did the secondary, for what it’s worth…though again, only senior strong safety D’cota Dixon (5’10” 204 lbs.) returns. A first team all-Big Ten honoree last season with 55 tackles and three pass breakups, he’ll have to help guide a bunch of sophomores to replace guys that left for the NFL. Dontye Carriere-Williams (5’10” 185 lbs.) played a lot as the third cornerback last season; as a freshman, he broke up six passes with 30 tackles. The other two likely starters, cornerback Madison Cone (5’9” 178 lbs.) free safety Eric Burrell (6’0” 185 lbs.) combined for just seven tackles and two pass breakups last season.
That inexperience on defense is really Wisconsin’s only weakness this season. Unlike Purdue’s defensive inexperience, the Badgers history of strong defense year after year should be enough to quiet skeptics this season. While nothing is definite, the Badgers look like they should be clear pre-season favorites to win the Big Ten’s West division in 2018.