We’re here, just under one week away from the start of the 2017 season.
Now is a great time to take stock of the team following the answers and questions created by the release of Wisconsin’s first depth chart of the season. There’s a triple-threat at running back, some surprise names on defense and an ongoing offensive line battle that should be interesting.
It’s also important to take a look deep inside the program and find some numbers that will be telling. So, as we roll towards the season, let’s look at the 10 things we know about the 2017 Wisconsin Badgers…stats style.
1: Only one Wisconsin quarterback has ever taken a college football snap
No position will be as talked about or scrutinized in 2017 as the Badgers quarterback group. It’s part intrigue and part worry though, as redshirt sophomore Alex Hornibrook starts the season as the starter for the first time in his career.
Meanwhile, behind him are three completely untested players in Jack Coan, Karé Lyles and Danny Vanden Boom. Coan and Vanden Boom are true freshmen, while Lyles redshirted last season after having hip surgery.
Coan was named the backup entering the season, beating out Lyles. Head coach Paul Chryst noted that it was his steady progression throughout both spring and fall that gives the coaching staff confidence in him should anything happen to Hornibrook.
“I thought he did some good things in the course of practice when he were scrimmaging in some of those situations that weren’t necessarily schematic,” said Chryst at his weekly press conference. “I’ve liked the progress that he’s made. Certainly has a ton more to learn and ways to grow, but I do feel like he had a good camp.”
Vanden Boom seems like a good project to watch for the future, and likely will redshirt this season. However, when it comes to 2017, the coaching staff has to be hoping that Hornibrook can stay healthy and UW gets big enough leads in the second half of its opening two contests to get Coan some real work with the offense.
There is no more scary situation than the thin depth at quarterback for this year’s Badgers.
2: That is the number of touchdowns caught by both returning tight ends last season
Troy Fumagalli has taken all the headlines after a stellar 2016 season, but most would be surprised to know he had just two touchdown receptions last season. Most would also likely never guess that backup tight end Kyle Penniston tied Fumagalli with two touchdown receptions of his own.
Yet, heading in to 2017 that is exactly where we stand. Fumagalli paced all Badgers with 47 receptions for 580 yards last season, but his production was most valuable in between the 20-yard lines and certainly on third downs.
Conversely, Penniston began living up to some of his 4-star hype out of California by having two of his six receptions on the season go for scores. He also turned those six receptions in to 102 yards to showcase some serious potential as a pass-catcher going forward.
Could it be that both Fumagalli and Penniston are ready to be major weapons for Hornibrook in 2017? It sure would be nice to see them catch more than two touchdowns individually this season.
3: Wisconsin has won three straight bowl games heading in to 2017
If you don’t think that is more than some small feat, then you haven’t been paying attention to UW’s bowl game history at all. Only twice before has UW won at least three bowl games in a row.
The first came in 1994 to 96, as the Badgers won the Rose Bowl in 1994 and went on to win the Hall of Fame Bowl and then the Copper Bowl in the following two seasons.
However, Alvarez wasn’t done making sure his charges were postseason winners, this time racking up a program record four straight bowl wins from 1999 to 2002. Once again a new streak would start with a Rose Bowl win, as UW took home both the 1999 and 2000 editions of the Granddaddy of them all, followed up a Sun Bowl win in December of 2000 and a win in the Alamo Bowl in 2002.
Should the Badgers make another bowl game, they’ll have a chance to tie some program history as a team this season.
4: Wisconsin forced just 4.4 penalties per game against opponents last season
Much has been made about UW’s ability to avoid penalties last season, where they led the conference with just 3.4 penalties per game. However, the Badgers weren’t very good about getting penalty calls against opponents either.
Wisconsin ranked just 13th in the Big Ten with 4.4 opponent penalties per game. Part of that is UW’s ability to stay clean on its end of the bargain, but the Badgers also struggled to get penalty calls a lot in 2016.
With some new pieces to the puzzle in 2017, it will be worth watching to see how the penalty situation unfolds. Given Paul Chryst’s attention to detail and penchant for not accepting penalties from his charges, look for UW to stay near the top of the fewest penalties against list.
But, let’s see if Chryst’s group in 2017 can be more adept at creating penalties against opponents as well. Whether one wants to admit it or not, pushing opponents to their limits also includes getting them to make mental mistakes, and thus penalties against.
5: Jazz Peavy topped the team with 5 touchdown receptions in 2016
It was no secret that the Badgers passing attack lacked an ability to get in the end zone last season. Part of that steamed from inexperience at quarterback, but part of it also steamed from a lack of big play receivers in the mix.
However, that wasn’t the case for then-junior wide receiver Jazz Peavy. He broke out last season, leading all wide receivers with 43 receptions and leading the team with 635 yards and five touchdowns.
Wisconsin put up just 14 touchdowns as a team, so Peavy’s five TD receptions accounted for nearly 50 percent of the passing TD production as a team. The 14 passing touchdowns were good enough for just 11th in the Big Ten, and it is certainly a stat UW’s coaching staff would like to see get better this season.
Interestingly enough, the Badgers haven’t thrown more than 22 touchdown passes in the past five seasons and never ranked higher than eighth in the Big Ten outside of Russell Wilson’s one year in town in 2011. That season, Wisconsin led the conference with 34 passing touchdowns.
With a ton of youth getting a look behind Peavy, can the Badgers break out of their passing slump on the scoreboard?
6: That is the number of fumbles lost by the Badgers in 2016
Wisconsin has always prided itself on not making stupid turnovers, especially in the run game. 2016 was no different, as UW lost just six fumbles for the entire season.
A look inside those numbers suggests how little the Badgers compounded any mistake made in 2016 as well, with all six fumbles lost coming in six different games.
Wisconsin played seven ranked teams in 2016, and lost just one fumble in those games. Is it any wonder they beat expectations and went to the Cotton Bowl?
How does this stat translate to 2017? Of those six fumbles lost, four of them happened by four different players that are on this season’s roster. Only Corey Clement and his two lost fumbles are gone from last season.
Running back Bradrick Shaw, wide receivers Jazz Peavy and George Rushing, as well as quarterback Alex Hornibrook each lost a fumble last season. All four are likely key contributors in 2017 and keeping those lost fumble numbers low will be a key stat to watch this season.
7: That is the number of interceptions thrown in 2016 by Alex Hornibrook
Wisconsin is going to ride or die with Hornibrook at quarterback, and there certainly were indications that he could be special in 2016.
However, for all those special moments, there were plenty of head-scratching ones as well. That played out in the fact that he threw nearly as many interceptions (seven) and he did touchdowns (nine).
Most of those interceptions came as Hornibrook tried to squeeze passes in to really tight windows. It was a sign of great moxie, good arm strength and a willingness to take chances.
8: That is the number of freshman listed on Wisconsin’s two-deep to start the season
Transition happens every year, but the 2017 version of the Wisconsin Badgers was supposed to see a good mix of experience and youth. One could say the youth has certainly begun to take over though, as eight true or redshirt freshmen made the opening week two-deep for the Badgers.
We’ve already talked about both true freshmen Jack Coan, but he could also be taking snaps from another freshman, this time redshirt freshman center Tyler Biadsz.
He was the surprise in spring camp and in the end was one of the five best UW offensive lineman and pushed all-Big Ten center Michael Dieter out to left tackle with his play all the way through summer drills.
Oh, and fellow redshirt freshmen Cole Van Lanen and Patrick Kasl are just one injury away from being the left and right tackle pairing for the Badgers this season as well.
Coan’s fellow true freshman Danny Davis is in the two-deep at wide receiver and technically we could say nine players are in the mix as freshmen if you include Jonathan Taylor (who is listed third on the RB depth chart but also as a co-starter). But, since he’s third there are technically only eight freshman in the two-deep.
Defensively, there isn’t as much for the freshmen as there is on offense, but don’t sleep on nickel back Donyte Carriere-Williams. He’s joined as a redshirt freshman by one of my most intriguing players to watch in 2017 — mammoth defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk.
Let’s just say, youth is going to have a big impact on the Badgers in 2017 and that may not be a bad thing considering what we’ve already seen.
9: That is the number of career rushing touchdowns for UW’s starting running backs
Plug-and-play has long been the motto for Wisconsin at running back, but things are different these days. Following the exit of both Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale, there is a huge set of shoes for someone or someones to fill.
Most believed the redshirt freshman season of Bradrick Shaw was enough for him to win the starting job. Spring and fall camp has only muddied the waters, with Pitt transfer Chris James doing more than providing depth.
There also is incoming freshman Jonathan Taylor, who won back-to-back New Jersey state 100-meter track championships. But, could he really be in the mix once thrown in to the deep end in fall camp? Apparently so, because all three were named co-starters for the season opener and all three will see significant time in the backfield against Utah State.
However, there are just nine career rushing touchdowns amongst all three of those co-starters.
Perhaps the biggest question is if they have a huge nose for the end zone. Given limited carries, nine touchdowns returning amongst those three suggests they’ll be just fine. But, this is Wisconsin and rushing touchdowns are the Badgers bread and butter.
10: Wisconsin has won 10 or more games every season under Chryst so far
Sure, it has only been two seasons and all, but the fact that UW has been consistently very good in the face of a third coaching transition in less than four years speaks volumes of the players and Chryst’s own coaching talent.
The old swagger of this program is back, and while it may not be fancy, most opposition dreads playing the Badgers because they once again are back to not caring if you know what’s coming and just beating you with technique and poise.
Wisconsin is coming off another trip to Indianapolis in the face of what experts thought was one of the toughest schedules in the country last season. A win in the Cotton Bowl didn’t hurt expectations either.
As 2017 looms, the Badgers schedule and lack of Ohio State or Penn State from the other division, have plenty of people talking another 10-win season. If it does happen, Chryst would go down as the only coach in program history to win 10-plus games in his first three seasons in Madison.
Think about where that would put him in the echelon of Badgers coaches for a second. Few would’ve seen that coming, yet it seems like a real possibility.
A 10-win season may actually be a bit of a disappointment in 2017, with the hope of progress to a Big Ten title and maybe even the College Football Playoff the real hope of the season for fans and pundits alike.
Badgers fall victim to the trap, lose to Illinois
This is why they don’t play the games on paper. On paper, the No. 6 Wisconsin Badgers should have been able to make quick work of a struggling Illinois Fighting Illini team.
Instead, it was a slog for the Badgers offense and Illinois took advantage of three turnovers for 17 points en route to a shocking 24-23 victory.
With the Badgers driving to potentially salt away a hard-fought victory, Jack Coan threw just his second interception of the season and Illinois drove the ball deep in to Wisconsin territory and kicked a game-winning 39-yard field goal as time expired.
Wisconsin’s usually rugged run game was off, and the stingy run defense was far from that. Yes, Jonathan Taylor went over the 5,000-yard mark for his career on the first carry of the game, but he would put up just 132 yards on 28 carries on the day and UW’s defense allowed a season-worst 141 yards on the ground to Illinois.
Prior to this game, Wisconsin’s worst performance on offense was 97 yards against Northwestern.
Taylor’s struggles included a brutal turnover, as he gained a first down at the Illinois 17-yard line but coughed up the football trying to fight for extra yardage a third time on the play.
Illinois drove the ball down for a touchdown in just 1:19 of game time and what could’ve been a three-score game turned in to a 23-21 lead with 5:53 to play.
Wisconsin drove the ball past midfield on the next possession appearing poised to put the game out of Illinois reach again, but stumbled near midfield.
On a 2nd and 11, Coan attempted to drop a pass to Jake Ferguson in between the zone. However, Tony Adams had backed off the underneath and picked off the pass at the Illinois 47-yard line.
From there, Illinois ripped off big run after big run to get themselves in to field goal range and the rest was history.
Ironically, it was Coan who powered the Badgers offense for most of the day, throwing for 263 yards on 24 of 32 passing.
Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown combined for 153 yards on the day for the Illini on 28 carries, and came up huge when they needed it as the game went on.
Illinois outplayed the Badgers up front on both sides of the ball and deserved this win.
This was easily the most shocking loss in the Paul Chryst era and a date with Ohio State looms large if Wisconsin wants to continue to hope to make it to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game.
A loss next week and all control of their own destiny goes out the window.
Badgers mid-season report card: Defense
As Saturday’s game against Illinois inches closer to kick, it’s also a good time to remind ourselves that we are at the halfway point of the 2019 Wisconsin Badgers season.
UW is 6-0 and ranked No. 6 in the country in both polls (if you want to care about those things). So, how did Wisconsin get here and who has been vital to all of that success so far?
Well, we’re taking a look back at the first half of the season for you. Earlier this week we took a look at our grades for the Badgers offense. Today, we take a look at the defensive side of the ball.
Defensive Line: A+
One of the biggest question marks coming in to the 2019 season was the UW defensive line. With no Olive Sagapolu and two starting defensive ends coming off of major injuries, how would this group look in 2019? Well, the answer is pretty damn good.
Bryson Williams, the starting nose guard, went down with a bad injury early in the season and in stepped true freshman Keannu Benton, who ripped off back-to-back performances that were rated No. 1 on the team by Pro Football Focus.
Isaiahh Loudermilk had a small injury early on and has been very good since his return, while Garrett Rand is doing work on the other side. Perhaps the biggest story is that this group has been disruptive in a major way.
We’ve had Matt Henningsen score a touchdown not once, but twice and the defensive linemen have racked up 3.0 sacks to date. Not too bad for a group of unproven, but talented players.
Another big question mark coming in to the year was if the Badgers could get enough pressure from its linebacker group to make a difference in 2019. Last season was a dramatic drop off in sacks and tackles from loss as a team, but there has been no such issue in 2019. j
Zack Baun has been one of the best players in the country through the halfway point of the season. He’s put up 26 tackles, has one pick-six, 10.5 tackles for loss and 6.0 sacks (tied for 8th nationally) through the first six games of the season.
It’s earned him Pro Football Focus mid-season first-team All-American honors. Considering he didn’t produce at nearly this level last season, it’s been a huge start for the senior.
On the opposite side of him, we’ve seen the combination of Izayah Green-May (missed time with a broken thumb) and Noah Burks become dangerous players in their own right. As a team, Wisconsin has put up 23 sacks through six games, which is more than they had in all of 2018 (19.0).
Jack Sanborn has been great and the pairing of him with Chris Orr has unleashed one of the most athletic and dangerous combinations of inside linebackers the Badgers have had since switching to the 3-4 defense when Gary Andersen arrived.
You could not draw up a more productive start to a season from a linebacker group if you tried.
If you just go by the stats, it is hard to argue that Wisconsin isn’t playing some of its best ball against the pass that we’ve ever seen. I mean, they have allowed a Big Ten low three passing touchdowns and the team has eight overall interceptions, with two going for a defensive touchdown.
But, some of the stats can be misleading, especially those eight interceptions. The good news for the secondary is that five of the eight interceptions are attributed to the defensive backs, with starting safety Eric Burrell picking off a pair of passes.
It isn’t just the starting group that has held up well either. Wisconsin has had a next man up mentality and it has worked well. Colin Wilder and John Torchio stepped up when both Burell and fellow safety Reggie Pearson got tossed for hits to the head against Michigan.
Deron Harrell is credited with four pass breakups and Wilder with five to lead the secondary group in that category.
Overall, it’s hard to pick apart this group, but if there’s one area to watch it is their inconsistency in intermediate and deep balls. Luckily, most offenses don’t have enough time to set up a deep passing game so it hasn’t been much of a worry at all.
Let’s just go over these stats given up by the Badgers defense once again:
4.8 points per game — ranks 1st in the Big Ten and nationally
44.6 rushing yards per game — ranks 1st in the Big Ten and nationally
129.0 passing yards per game — ranks 1st in the Big Ten and nationally
173.7 total yards per game — ranks 1st in the Big Ten and nationally
In fact, Wisconsin’s 173.7 total yards per game given up is 60.3 yards per game better than the next best team — Ohio State — has given up this year.
Given all of that information, how could it not be an A+ so far this season? After all, Wisconsin is the first Big Ten team since the 1962 Minnesota Gophers team to pitch four shutouts in the first six games of a season.
Badgers mid-season report card: Offense
Believe it or not, but we have already reached the middle of the 2019 Wisconsin Badgers football season. I know, it doesn’t seem possible because there seems to be so much football ahead.
You would be right, what with Ohio State, Iowa and Minnesota still looming large on the schedule and all.
But, as we want to look forward, we need to know the foundation that future has been built on. How have the Badgers faired so far in 2019? Let’s take a look position by position.
Offensive Line: A –
All seems to be rosy for the Badgers offensive line. They’ve given up a Big Ten-low of eight sacks and are the No. 2 rushing attack in the league, trailing only Ohio State. While you could say the Buckeyes have yet to face a real defense, they still are consistently putting up better numbers than Wisconsin has.
We’ll see if that holds up, but on the whole it is hard to argue that this group hasn’t been very good. They’ve dealt with a few injuries and haven’t really missed a beat for the most part.
If there’s one area that has put them from an A to an A- in my book, it is their performance in the run game against Northwestern and Michigan State at home. In both cases, Jonathan Taylor really struggled to get going and the offensive line found themselves back on their heels quite a bit. Thus, Taylor’s struggles.
Yes, both Northwestern and MSU are very good defensive fronts, but if you want to earn the top grades, you have to win more than they did up front against those two defensive lines. That’s especially worrisome when you see the defensive fronts that both Ohio State and Iowa can put out there.
This unit is very athletic and certainly can do some special things. But, it needs to be more consistent against high level defenses if the Badgers want to prove they belong in the College Football Playoff conversation. Not having a single member of this group on the Pro Football Focus mid-season All-American list tells me this group hasn’t been as good as potentially then can be by the end of the year.
Running Backs: B
Yes, Jonathan Taylor is a Pro Football Focus and everywhere else mid-season All-American and yes, he’s en route to break all sorts of historical marks, but there’s more to this group than Taylor and for that reason we have to give this group an overall grade of B.
In fact, if you were to take Taylor away from this position group, you would be far lower on the grade. Redshirt freshman Nakia Watson has picked up 53 carries for just 238 yards and is averaging 4.5 yards a carry. While that average isn’t bad, Watson hasn’t shown any flashes of being the next big star running back at Wisconsin with ample opportunities to do so.
Bradrick Shaw and Garrett Groshek haven’t been big factors in the Badgers run game either and Julius Davis appears headed for a complete redshirt. What happens if Taylor goes down? There hasn’t been anyone producing at a high enough level to give us confidence that it’ll just be “next man up” as we’ve seen year over year over year at UW since 1990.
John Chenal and Mason Stokke (pre-injury) have been very good fullbacks in the traditional Wisconsin mold, but they could be a bit better at their blocking technique and that will come with time on the field as both are younger options at fullback.
Overall, this group is doing well, I just downgrade for a lack of a second dynamic option at running back so far this year.
Tight Ends: B+
Much was expected out of junior tight end Jake Ferguson, so much so that many believed he would showcase himself and leave for the NFL after this season. After six games, I’m not so sure that is going to happen.
Yes, Ferguson is second on the team with 15 receptions, but he’s averaging 11 yards a catch and has just one touchdown to his name. Those numbers pace far behind last season.
There just seems to be something missing from the explosive player we saw in 2018, who caught 36 passes for over 450 yards and had four touchdowns to his name.
On the bright side, Ferguson has become a more reliable blocker and that could be the thing that gets him to the NFL a year early. We’ll see what happens the second half of the season though.
As for the rest of the group, it’s been hard to grade because injuries have piled up and not a single other tight end as caught a pass for the Badgers so far this season. So, when I look at Ferguson’s play, it’s hard to not give him a solid grade, but room for improvement and impact in the second half.
Wide Receivers: B-
There is no doubt that getting Quintez Cephus back in a Badgers uniform has been huge. But, with that said, this group has not produced the big plays we’d hope to see after a few years of experience for names like Danny Davis, A.J. Taylor and Kendric Pryor.
Cephus is the only receiver with a touchdown to his name, albeit there have only been eight passing touchdowns on the season. However, the leading TD man is running back Jonathan Taylor, who has four already this year.
Pryor came up big against Michigan State and overall this group has produced well when given the opportunity. But, the inability to get separation and thus stretch the defense holds them back.
Maybe the coaching staff is also holding back what we see from this group, as by-in-large, UW hasn’t had to open up the full offense to win a game this season.
Quarterback: A –
Alright, it’s time for Badgers nation to eat some crow here. Everyone thought that Coan was the second-coming of Alex Hornibrook after his first efforts last season. But, through the first six games, Coan has been anything but the second-coming of Hornibrook. In fact, you could say he’s been the anti-Hornibrook.
He’s been clutch, he’s making the smart decisions and he’s keeping drives alive. Doing that at Wisconsin, with the best running back in college football, is exactly what is needed.
Coan is completing a ridiculous 76.3 percent of his passes, which leads the league and is second nationally only to Joe Burrow at LSU. Now, he has only thrown for 1,119 yards (8th in the B1G) and you could say that isn’t great, but consider how he’s become a complementary piece to the run game and you can see why his efficiency and clutch play matters more.
Additionally, his eight touchdowns to just one interception ratio is phenomenal. Ohio State’s Justin Fields is the only other starter in the Big Ten that has thrown just one pick through the halfway point of the season.
I wanted to give a higher grade, but Coan has struggled to hit the deep ball at times and seems most comfortable hitting the seven to 15-yard passes. That’s fine, but having someone to really stretch a defense out of eight-man boxes would be nice.
Maybe I’m nitpicking, but Coan has established himself as the rightful starter and put to bed most of the critics by becoming the go-to force in the win over Michigan State after a shaky couple of weeks against Michigan and Northwestern.
Having three multiple-touchdown games given what Jonathan Taylor is doing on the ground is impressive through six games.
Defense leads Badgers to win over Northwestern
It sure wasn’t pretty, but the Wisconsin Badgers took down reigning West division champions, the Northwestern Wildcats just the same.
UW’s defense came up big in the 24-15 victory. What happened, which players were the highlights and what needs to be worked on as the 4-0 Badgers go out of conference next week?
Our publisher, Andrew Coppens, comes to you with his full recap of UW’s win.
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