The dust has barely settled on Wisconsin’s 13-1 season in 2017, but as the calendar flips to a new year it is already time to look forward to what the Badgers have in store for them next season.
We start on offense, looking ahead to what could be and how we see things playing out.
Biggest Question Mark:
Who steps up at tight end?
Wisconsin has had one of the best tight ends in the country over the last two seasons, but Troy Fumagalli graduates and that means big shoes to fill. Fumagalli leaves having put up 135 catches for 1,627 yards and 7 touchdowns for his career.
Kyle Penniston came to UW as a much-hyped pass catching tight end prospect, but has yet to really live up to the recruiting hype. He had just seven receptions for 56 yards and one touchdown on the year and 13 receptions for 158 yards and three touchdowns for his career.
Sources I’ve talked to who have seen practice this season say there could be a lot of star power in freshman Jake Ferguson. He’s apparently been a handful for UW’s defense on scout team duty during his redshirt season. Don’t be surprised to see him emerge as a prime option to replace Fumagalli’s production.
It will be interesting to see how senior Zander Neuville responds to being the best blocking-pass catching option for UW as well. He played well before being injured in 2017, but that was as the secondary option. Can he be the No. 1 guy?
Reason to Be Optimistic:
Alex Hornibrook’s Orange Bowl Performance
No topic was more throughly discussed and dissected during the 2017 season than the performance of Alex Hornibrook. For me, the frustration came because you could see he’s got the tools needed to be a dynamic playmaker for the offense and just never put it all together.
That changed in the Orange Bowl, as three for three touchdowns and no interceptions to go along with 258 yards. Wisconsin was able to beat Miami because it had balance on offense.
It was easily the most dangerous the Badgers offense looked all season long, and having Hornibrook show up on the big stage was huge. He can certainly build on that, especially when you take a look at the pass-catching options returning.
Quintez Cephus will be back from a knee injury and sophomore A.J. Taylor came in to his own late in the year. True freshman Danny Davis was a difference maker all season long and Kendric Pryor showed improvement all season long.
It’s as deep and diverse of a receiver group as we’ve seen at Wisconsin and it all came together to show us what 2018 could look like for the Badgers offense.
Reason to be Pessimistic:
Alex Hornibrook the rest of 2017
As fun as it was to see Hornibrook just light up a defense with accurate passing, bold moves and most importantly smart decision making it was just one quality game.
The rest of the 2017 season for Hornibrook was an up and down affair to say the least. On the one hand, he did complete 62.3 percent of his passes for 2,644 yards. On the other hand, he had 15 interceptions to go with 25 touchdown passes.
For every Orange Bowl performance, there were down games like Nebraska, Michigan and Ohio State in the Big Ten championship. If the Badgers can’t get more consistency from Hornibrook it could stunt a potentially great offense just as it is going to be leaned on in a big way.
Projected Starting Lineup:
QB: Alex Hornibrook, Jr.
RB: Jonathan Taylor, So.
FB: Alec Ingold, Sr.
WR: Quintez Cephus, Jr.
WR: Danny Davis, So.
TE: Jake Ferguson, RS Fr.
LT: Michael Dieter, Sr.
LG: Jon Dietzen, Jr.
C: Tyler Biadsz, So.
RG: Beau Benzschawel, Sr.
RT: David Edwards, Jr.
As long as both David Edwards and Michael Dieter return, this Badgers offense could be scary good in 2018. Of course, that also hinges on Hornibrook becoming more consistent, and that could be a big ask.
But, the good news is that every major part of the offense is likely to return and the depth is there to overcome any injury situation.
Jonathan Taylor, three quality receiving options and a veteran offensive line? That’s always a recipe for success. Can the offense handle increased expectations? That’s what 2018 is going to be all about.
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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Wisconsin Badgers vs. Northwestern Wildcats Preview
Wisconsin comes in its fourth game of the season flying high off of an early season benchmark win over Michigan. Up next are the Northwestern Wildcats – a program that has been very competitive against the Badgers over the last decade.
Given that history and how this early season has played out for both teams, what can we expect from the Badgers and Wildcats? Will it be revenge for Jack Coan or will Northwestern get back on track after a 1-2 start to the season.
Watch to find out the names to know, the stats to keep an eye on and more.
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Wisconsin vs. Northwestern: 5 Things to Know
For many fans of the Wisconsin Badgers, the high of victory over Michigan has not worn off. After all, it is just the 16th time in the history of the series that that happened.
But, we’re turning the corner and looking forward to the next game.
That next game is a home contest against the Northwestern Wildcats, also known as the reigning, defending, Big Ten West division champions. Let’s just say what we’ve seen from the Wildcats in 2019 does not resemble anything that we saw in 2018.
Northwestern comes in to this divisional contest on the heels of a 31-14 drubbing by an equally troubled Michigan State offense and sits with a 1-2 record on the early season.
But, overlooking anyone in the Big Ten is a big mistake. So, what do we need to know about this upcoming matchup? Let’s look at the 5 Things to know.
5: Wisconsin has won 5 of the last 6 meetings in Madison
One thing we can always count on in the Wisconsin-Northwestern series is the home team winning, right? After all, Wisconsin has won 5 of the last 6 games in Madison and Northwestern is the same 5 of the last six at Ryan Field in Evanston.
During those last six home games against the Wildcats, Wisconsin is averaging 35 points per game and has given up an average of 14.5 points per game.
In those last six road games in this series, UW is averaging 12 fewer points (23ppg) and has given up an average of nearly 12 more points per game (23.6).
Good thing this one is in Madison, huh?
4: Is the single-game record for pass break ups for Northwestern
Why would this be relevant? Well, that record was just tied last weekend as Greg Newsome II recorded four individual pass break ups in the loss to Michigan State. It was also his career high.
According to the stats, Newsome is averaging 2.3 pass break ups per game as well and that puts him in the national lead.
So far this year, Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan has been remarkably efficient. He’s completed over 76 percent of his passes and has zero interceptions. Newsome is likely to go after the Badgers best performer in Quintez Cephus.
Who wins this battle could be a big factor in who wins the overall game on Saturday.
3: UW leads the country in opponent third down conversion rate
While advanced stats are all the rage, some of the old-fashioned stats are equally telling. One such stat can be third down conversions. Generally speaking, the fewer you allow your opponent to convert on, the fewer chances they have to score points.
It turns out, the Wisconsin Badgers are pretty good at it, allowing opponents to convert on just 10.5 percent of their third down chances so far this season.
The Badgers have allowed opponents to convert on just 4 of 38 attempts so far this season.
For reference, Ohio State is second in the Big Ten with an average of 23 percent. Second nationally is Kansas State at 16 percent.
Northwestern’s offense hasn’t exactly been good — converting just 18 of 48 attempts (37.5 percent) to rank 11th in the Big Ten.
Wisconsin’s offense also leads the Big Ten in 3rd down conversions at 56.4 percent on the season. That mark is also 7th nationally.
Let’s just say, third down has been Wisconsin’s down most of the season.
2: Northwestern’s Joe Gaziano is 2nd in all-time sacks
Know the name Joe Gaziano, commit it to memory and don’t let him get to the quarterback.
I’m guessing that is the message being delivered by offensive line coach and offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph this week and it is a wise move.
That’s because the senior Northwestern defensive end is on pace to become the best sacker of quarterbacks in program history. His fourth-straight season with a sack of Brian Lewerke last week put him tied with Ifeadi Odenigbo (2013-16) for second in Northwestern history with 23.5 career sacks and is now just 4.5 behind Casey Dailey’s program record of 28.
His task won’t be particularly easy on Saturday though, as UW’s offensive line has given up just five sacks in three games and that number has only gone down since the opener.
Wisconsin gave up three sacks to USF and since then has only given up one sack each to Central Michigan and Michigan.
If Northwestern can’t get pressure on Jack Coan and allows him to be comfortable in the pocket, it could be a very long day at Camp Randall for the visitors.
1: Wisconsin leads the nation in game control
What is game control, you may be asking? Well it turns out game control is the amount of time you are able to hold a 14 or more point lead during a game.
Through three games, the Badgers have been up 14 or more points for 76.6 percent of the time per SportsSource Analytics.
Yes, it has come against two bad opponents and a Michigan team that got its soul crushed by the Badgers. But, for a Wisconsin team that has been notorious for playing down to competition, this is about as good an indication of how good they have been as you will find.
Add in Northwestern’s offensive struggles and this game feels like it won’t look much like the competitive ones we’ve been accustomed to and that have some believing this game a rivalry.
Be wary of the trap against Northwestern?
It feels like the classic trap game, right? Wisconsin just dominated an opponent everyone seemed to think was better than them on paper and Northwestern is coming to Camp Randall.
I mean, Northwestern has just one win on the season and is coming off a 31-14 loss to Michigan State that wasn’t as close as the score would tell you.
Given the history of the Badgers and Wildcats this isn’t good news, right? This is your classic Admiral Ackbar moment:
Or is it?
Well, sure, you may point to the fact that Wisconsin has won five of the last six inside Camp Randall and the trouble has really been on the road, but may I remind you that Northwestern got the Badgers 13-7 in 2015 for a split of the last two games in Madison?
Let’s also remember that every year is different from the next, until it start to feel like all the others playing out right before your eyes once again.
Speaking of which, did I mention that Northwestern is notorious for slow starts to their seasons? See 2016 (1-3), 2017 (2-3) and 2018 (1-3) for reference and then see what they did the rest of those seasons.
Well, this year the Wildcats are 1-2 in games prior to their school year even starting.
It all should give Wisconsin some pause because it seems like the Wildcats are historically poised to break out.
But, there’s a big difference between most of those years and this year — in most of those years, the Wildcats were playing good football and just couldn’t find a way to win.
You can’t say that about the 2019 Wildcats to say the least and stats are our friend here.
Let’s just start with the fact that the Wildcats of 2019 have not found a way to score even if it would bite them in the backside. The passing game has just one touchdown to six interceptions, completing just 48.3 percent of its passes for 408 yards.
That’s Wisconsin 2018 levels of bad, if not worse.
Northwestern is also averaging just 15.7 points per game, dead last in the Big Ten. Even Rutgers has managed to score an average of three times a game (21.3 through 3 games).
Through the first three games of last season, Northwestern averaged 24 points per game and topped the 30 point mark in two games (a 31-27 opening game thriller over Purdue and a 34-39 loss to Akron).
In 2017, Northwestern averaged 32.3 points per game in the first three of the year and in 2016 the average points per game were nearly as bad as this year — at 17.3 points per game.
That 2016 season is one this team would like to forget, as they went just 6-6 on the regular season before winning their bowl game over Pittsburgh to eek out a winning season in the end.
On the flip side, the Northwestern defense has usually been able to be counted on. So far this year, they have given up an average of 20.6 points per game, putting them 8th in the league, but right around their averages for most of the past three years as well.
But, Northwestern has faced Stanford, UNLV and Michigan State — three offenses that have largely struggled to get going themselves this year.
Is the Wildcats stat machine an indication of a good defense or just bad offenses they have played against?
Well, we can go to the advanced stats to tell us just how different the Badgers and Wildcats have been this season. Let’s take a look at the plot chart of S&P+ for instance:
For those of you new to this type of chart and rating, the more lower and to the right you are, the better you are. The further to the left and up you are, the worse you are.
So, what you are seeing is the byproduct of just how bad Northwestern’s offense as been. They are way off to the left on this plot chart, indicating they are amongst the worst overall performing teams in the Big Ten.
When you are in the category of Rutgers, you are doing it wrong, oh so wrong.
Take a look at Michigan State, where their defensive rating is so good, but the offense has been so bad (up until last week against Northwestern ironically) that they are where they are on this chart.
Or how about Hunter Johnson, the former 5-star recruit to Clemson that transferred and was expected to be the savior of all things Northwestern’s offense in 2019.
Well, the advanced stats have him as one of the bottom 15 quarterbacks in average PPA.
On the flip side, the metrics have a love affair with Wisconsin right now.
One thing is for sure, we’re going to get an ornery Pat Fitzgerald.
Maybe Fitz will hire one of those experts to get his offense in gear? Either that or hold off for another week, because Wisconsin would like another week of you not figuring out how to advance the ball on offense.
Either way, expecting the normal Badgers vs. Wildcats craziness just shouldn’t be a thing this week. These two teams are going in very different directions and fast.
Does that mean the Badgers will take Northwestern lightly going in to Saturday? Since the majority of this team were on the field for Wisconsin’s soul-crushing loss in Evanston, you can bet they won’t be taking anything for granted on Saturday morning.
Just don’t expect this to be the classic trap game it has been for both teams in the past.
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