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An early look at the 2018 Wisconsin Badgers defense

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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 started on offense, looking ahead to what could be and how we see things playing out on that side of the ball.

Today we take a look at the other side of the coin and preview the Badgers defense.

Biggest Question Mark:

Secondary

Wisconsin entered 2017 knowing they had a deep and experienced secondary. The Badgers look ahead to 2018 not knowing much about what will transpire for its secondary.

Everyone knew that Natrell Jamerson and Derrick Tindal were going to be gone, but losing former Hawaii transfer Nick Nelson was not a foregone conclusion. His big year on the stat sheet told a different story and he has declared for the NFL draft.

That means the Badgers have to replace three of four starters and must also replace oft-used backup safety Joe Ferguson to graduation as well.

Normally there are options to step up and take over, but in 2018 it will be a youth movement for UW’s secondary. Only D’Cota Dixon and nickel back Dontye Carriere-Williams return as players with great experience on the field. Carrier-Williams will only be a sophomore and certainly stepping up in time on the field in 2018, but he did contribute well as a redshirt freshman this season with 30 tackles, six passes defensed and one interception.

Who sits opposite of him and can this group find depth in the offseason certainly are key points to watch.

 

Reason to Be Optimistic:

Change hasn’t bothered UW defense before

Few programs have undergone more upheaval than UW has on defense over the past four years or so. In fact, few have had to go through three different defensive coordinators in three seasons like Wisconsin has.

The good news buried in that sad stat is that whomever has been at the helm of the Badgers defense hasn’t mattered much — the results have always been fantastic.

Dave Aranda came in and transformed a good defense in to a great one and was off to the million-dollar land of the SEC after three years. Then it was one season under Justin Wilcox, who upped the ante and parlayed that in to the California head coaching gig. That was followed by former Badger great Jim Leonhard, who took UW’s defense to the best in college football this past year.

That doesn’t happen by accident. It happens because the Badgers have a group of players who are truly family and play for each other regardless of who is coaching or the turmoil they may experience on or off the field. It’s been the least talked about aspect of what has happened over the past three years — no matter the coach, the players have played at an elite level.

Wisconsin faces another offseason of transition, as seven starters and three other members of the two-deep are gone. There’s also a chance that Leonhard could be coveted by places like Florida State or even in the NFL this offseason too. So, it’s good to know that when asked to step up to tough situations, the defensive group has set the standard of stepping up to the challenge.

 

 

Reason to be Pessimistic:

So many key parts to replace

Wisconsin has a reputation as a developmental program, and rightfully so. You don’t get three-star players and plug and play them as freshman more often than not. But, the 2018 version of the Badgers defense is going to require young players to step up.

Whether that be names like sophomore defensive end Isaaiah Loudermilk or Donyte Carriere-Williams or a host of other young defensive backs, the UW defense is going to need young players to step up in a major way to replace some of the players departing.

But, it isn’t just the youth that needs to step up that could be scary. It’s the fact that Wisconsin has multiple starters to replace along all three position groups. There’s both defensive ends, both outside linebackers and three quarters of a secondary to replace.

We’ll see if UW’s increased efforts on the recruiting trail yield quicker results, because the expectations for this defense won’t change.

 

Projected Starting Lineup:

DE: Isaaiah Loudermilk, So.
NG: Olive Sagapolu, Sr.
DE: Garrett Rand, Jr.
OLB: Andrew Van Ginkel, Sr.
ILB: T.J. Edwards, Sr.
ILB: Ryan Connelly, Sr.
OLB: Zack Baun, So.
CB: Dontye Carriere-Williams, So.
FS: Eric Burrell, So.
SS: D’Cota Dixon, Sr.
CB: Madison Cone, So.

Overall Outlook:

Change is certainly going to the be the big talking point about the 2018 Wisconsin Badgers defense, but change isn’t always a bad thing. Sure, there are question marks surrounding the secondary thanks to its youth movement being forced a year early.

However, you have to like what promise was shown by some of the names expected to step up in 2018. Wisconsin saw great potential from limited playing time for names like Loudermilk and Rand up front, got excellent experience for Carriere-Williams in the secondary and linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel might as well have been a third starter at outside linebacker.

Expecting the Badgers to be the No. 1 defense in the country given all the change may be a bit much. But, don’t be surprised if they exceed national expectations. It’s just what this group has done no matter what has been thrown at it for the better part of the last half-decade.

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Wisconsin Badgers vs. Michigan Wolverines: Preview, Predictions and Prognostications

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After a week without a game, it’s back to the turf at Camp Randall for the Wisconsin Badgers. It’s also time for Big Ten play, as the Badgers welcome the No. 11 ranked Michigan Wolverines to town.

Much has been made of this matchup in the national media, but it’s time to finally put our money where our mouth is and give you all you need to or want to know about the Badgers and Wolverines on Saturday.

Kick is scheduled for 11am CT on Fox, so tune in with us.

Don’t forget, Andrew is 2-0 so far on the season in his predictions and both have been close to the final score as well. Also don’t forget to hit that Subscribe button on the YouTube page while watching this video!

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Wisconsin Badgers vs. Michigan Wolverines: 5 Things to Know

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It feels like forever since the Wisconsin Badgers took to the field for their Camp Randall home opener. That’s probably because it has been a whirlwind start to the year.

Zero points given up, two blowout wins and all seems good. But, now the season gets real as the Michigan Wolverines visit Camp Randall.

The opponents come to Madison off their own bye week, but have largely failed to impress in their first two games of the season, narrowly escaping with an overtime 24-21 win over Army two weeks ago.

So, what should you know about the series, the matchup and these two teams ahead of the big top 15 clash?

Let’s take a look.

5: Wisconsin is looking for win No. 5 in a row at home over Michigan

Few teams have given the Badgers fits more than the Wolverines have historically. But, in the recent past it has been all UW at home to say the least.

Wisconsin has won the last four games played inside Camp Randall, having last lost at home to Michigan in 2001. The winning streak started in 2005, making this winning streak span over the course of multiple classes of UW football.

Things have been much more even overall in the series though, because of the lack of matchups with the two teams on opposite sides of the divisions since the original split in 2011.

The Badgers and Wolverines have split their last 10 meetings, dating to 2002. Over the last 10 years (since 2009), Wisconsin owns a 3-2 record in the series as well.

4: Wisconsin has won 4 straight games with Jack Coan as the starter

Personally, I’ve always been skeptical of these stats thrown around regarding the record of starting quarterbacks. After all, this is a team game and the quarterback can’t win or lose a game on his own.

However, there is little denying just how much Coan has grown and transformed the Badgers offense either. To that end, the Badgers have won four straight games and have scored a ton of points in the process.

During that 4-game winning streak, UW is averaging 48 points per game.

That’s far from a coincidence, as Coan has set his career high for passing yards in three of those four games and has thrown for 8 touchdowns with just 1 interception in those four starts.

As for this season, Coan is currently the best quarterback in the Big Ten. He leads the league in completion percentage (76.3), QB rating (184.5) and yards per game (282). He is averaging nearly 20 yards more per game than the No. 2 ranked QB in the Big Ten — MSU’s Brian Lewerke.

All of that is happening while he is attempting just the 5th most passes in the league (29.5).

Will he be able to keep himself near the top with the Wolverines in town?

3: Michigan has lost just 3 Big Ten openers since 1968

As if you needed any more proof of just how long-term dominant Michigan has been in the Big Ten, try on the fact that they have gone 48-3 over the last 51 seasons in their conference opener.

In fact, in the 113 previous conference openers, the Wolverines are an impressive 86-25-2. That’s to say, history suggests this is going to be a difficult task.

That said, Wisconsin owns two of those 3 wins in Big Ten openers over Michigan. The first came way back in 1981 and the second in 2005 — both of them coming inside Camp Randall no less.

2: UW has only 2 wins in Top 25 matchups between these two teams

As we’ve previously highlighted, success in this series has been fleeting for the Badgers. That has historically been true in matchups between these two schools when they both were ranked in the top 25.

Michigan leads that part of the series 7-2. However, the good news for Wisconsin is that both of those wins have come inside Camp Randall and they are 2-2 in these types of matchups at home.

Those wins came in 1993 and in 2017, which was the last win in the series for the Badgers. Interestingly, those two wins also came as the Badgers were the better ranked team.

On Saturday, the Wolverines come in ranked No. 11 and the Badgers are ranked No. 13 for what it is worth.

1: Wisconsin has the No. 1 defense in the country

Okay, so I’m readily admitting that this number comes with a rather large asterisk to date given the competition level of the teams played to date. But, all you can do is play the opponents in front of you and the Badgers defense has bene utterly dominant in those two contests.

Just how dominant? Well, Wisconsin has allowed just 107.5 yards per game to lead the nation. That number is over 100 yards better than the No. 2 team (102 yards better to be exact).

In comparison, Michigan comes in to this one giving up 272 yards per game as a team — a mark that is fifth in the Big Ten to date.

Additionally, UW has outscored opponents 110-0 and became the first team to score 100 or more points and not give up any in the first two games of the season since South Carolina did it in 1980.

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Can Benton step up to big challenge against Michigan?

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Through two games, the Wisconsin Badgers defense has been the talk of the town. Pitching back-to-back shutouts and doing so with a lot of new players in the mix was equally impressive.

Maybe the competition wasn’t the best, but a young group of players stepped up and the result has been zero points on the board and a 2-0 record.

One name has played above the rest in the group of freshman and sophomores in the mix — true freshman nose guard Keeanu Benton.

He had no choice but to play last week, as regular starting nose guard Bryson Williams went down with an injury late in the week and there isn’t much depth at the position.

If you pay attention to the analytical side of the game, Benton took his opportunity and ran with it though.

You may not see it on the stat sheet (1 tackle, 1 tackle for loss), but Pro Football Focus named Benton the best of all the Badgers in the win over Central Michigan two weeks ago.

He was in the top 10 players in the win over USF in the opener as well. That’s about as good a start as you could have hoped for for the young man.

Benton played 19 of the 45 plays that the Chippewas had last week, accounting for just over 42 percent of all snaps. His grade of 89.1 edged out Jack Coan’s grade of 86.9 for the top spot in that game.

Most importantly, Benton graded out well against the run, with an 89.6 rating in that category alone.

Given that Michigan has tried hard to establish the run early on in the season, having Benton play so well with his limited snaps is going to be huge come game day against the No. 10 Wolverines.

The hope for the Badgers was that Benton could use that experience and build off of it as starter Bryson Williams returned from an injury sustained in the build up to the CMU game.

Unfortunately, as the Badgers get ready for the Wolverines we already know that Williams will be out. He was listed as such on UW’s first injury report for this week.

While we’ve seen great work overall from Benton in the first two weeks of the season, and the Badgers defense has produced great things on paper, this is going to be a much bigger challenge.

Michigan comes in to this game ranked 45th in the country in rushing, having gone for 341 yards in just two games. Admittedly, most of that work was done in the opener against Middle Tennessee, where they ate up 234 yards.

Against a much more stout Army defense, Michigan’s ground game stumbled to just 108 yards on the same 45 carries it had in the opener.

Michigan has punched the ball in to the end zone five times already, including the critical scoring in the 24-21 win over Army in Week 2.

On the other hand, Wisconsin’s run defense has been its bread and butter. UW leads the nation in rush defense, giving up just 41 total yards on 44 carries over the course of the first two games of action. There hasn’t been any touchdowns given up since the Minnesota game to end the regular season last year too.

Benton has been a big help in that effort over the course of his first two games in action and his fellow players are quick to take notice of his efforts early on in his career at Wisconsin.

“Coming in, Keeanu was raw. He still is kind of raw. But he’s a big body, he’s fast, he’s strong, but what we’ve seen from him so far in camp and in the first two games, he’s definitely a playmaker,” defensive end Isaaiah Loudermilk said Monday, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.

Senior captain Chris Orr has also been impressed with what Benton brings to the game.

“He’s big. Big,” Orr said to the Wisconsin State Journal. “When I first saw him, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, put him right there in the middle in front of all of us. Let him eat up them blocks.’ But I think what I’m most impressed about is that he doesn’t just stay on blocks. When he gets double-teamed, he’ll eat the double then split it and go make a play.”

Doing that on Saturday against better overall competition will be a telling sign of where Benton is and where his potential lies.

If he can step up on the big stage against the biggest opponent to date, the sky may just be the limit for him and this Badgers defense.

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What the Badgers need to work on in the bye week

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Two games, two victories, two shutouts and two record-setting performance. It would be easy to think the 2-0 Wisconsin Badgers football team is riding high in to its early bye week.

But, with the challenge of the Michigan Wolverines just around the corner things are not exactly going to go as planned.

So, with a week off to prepare what are some of the areas of concentration and concern heading in to the matchup with the Wolverines?

Get Healthy

I feel like this is a mantra of any team on a bye week, but after only two games it shouldn’t be that bad. But, guess what, Wisconsin is two games in to the season and the injury gods have not been kind to this team.

On Sunday, we learned that starting safety Scott Nelson will miss the rest of the season with a leg injury.

Late last week we knew that five other players were going to miss the Central Michigan game, with two of those being starters on defense in Bryson Williams and Izayah Green-May.

Now luckily, the depth of this team showed up as true freshman Keeanu Benton (1 TFL) played well in place of Williams and Noah Burks (2 tackles, 1 TFL and 1 pass break up) made it seem like there was nothing missing at outside linebacker.

But, there’s no question that playing with a full group of players against Michigan will be advantageous. Let’s see if the Badgers can get Williams and Green-May healthy and my guess is that they will be able to do just that with nearly three weeks of treatment and testing.

Stay Hungry

One of the things that has been clear so far about this team is that they have been playing with a lot of emotion and edge to them. It’s almost as if they spent an entire offseason stewing over a less-than-stellar performance in 2018 and are bound and determined to not let that happen again.

Whatever was bottled up in the offseason was certainly unleashed in the first two weeks of the season. Can UW find a way to continue to play with that edge and fire now that they have no game this week?

Sometimes the bye week can mess with a team, especially one that is rolling like the Badgers are. But, I have a distinct feeling that motivation and focus are not going to waver at all with this coaching staff in place.

Wisconsin also has the advantage of being the underdog in the matchup with Michigan (at least on paper it will) and has a ton of hungry young players looking to make a name for themselves.

What better way to do that than against Michigan with the whole college football world watching you?

This idea of staying hungry doesn’t worry me in the least, but it would be something to watch coming out of the gate against Michigan. If the Badgers look flat or out of sorts, I’d be worried. If not, then look for Michigan to be in some serious trouble on Sept. 21.

New Wrinkles?

Early on this season, we’ve already seen a lot of Jonathan Taylor the running back, but we’ve also seen a lot of JT23 the receiving back and it has produced glorious results.

Even better is the fact that the Badgers coaching staff hasn’t had to get exotic with the play calling early on this season either. There’s been few sightings of Aron Cruickshank end arounds or double running back sets or anything crazy.

Wisconsin has lined up, punched the opposing defense in the mouth up front and done the basics needed to put points on the board.

It will be interesting to see what wrinkles will be added with the extra time and the opponent at hand. Will the Badgers break out a few things that Michigan won’t be ready for or will they stick to the tried and true and just see what happens?

Pass Protection

If there’s one thing we know about Michigan’s defense is that it is nearly the Badgers equal in aggressiveness. Through two games the Badgers have allowed four sacks on the quarterback.

It may not seem alarming, but last season, UW allowed a total of 24 through 13 games for an average of 1.85 per game and that was a bit of a problem in bigger games. Furthermore, 12 of the 24 sacks came in Wisconsin’s five losses last year.

The good news seems to be that UW is going to get some help for the quarterback spot in avoiding some of those sacks this year. Jack Coan may not be a world-record sprinter, but he has shown to be more comfortable stepping up in the pocket and taking off if needed.

But, the Badgers were not really tested so far in terms of overall talent and did give up three sacks against USF in the opener. On the flip side, the offensive line looked much better against CMU and only one sack happened on the day.

Does that indicate improvement or just how bad the Chippewas were? With an extra week to work on things, lets see how the Badgers offensive line works through any potential issues and any adjustments that may be needed.

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