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Badgers Opposition Research: Breaking down Utah State’s offense

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Game week is finally here after a long offseason filled with anticipation and plenty of talk of Wisconsin running the West division once again.

But, it is just that — talk — and on Friday night, Paul Chryst and his Wisconsin Badgers get to go on to Camp Randall’s field and hit someone not in a red and white uniform for the first time since winning the Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Day.

Wisconsin’s first opponent is the Utah State Aggies, a familiar name given that is the school that gave us Gary Andersen and the one that put a real scare in to the Badgers last time around. That was 2012 though, and these two programs are in vastly different positions.

So, let’s take a look at the state of the Utah State Aggies offense heading in to Friday night’s game.

Biggest Weakness: Run Game

We’ll talk more about why the run game is a big weakness in a bit, but let’s just say this part of the game is a major weakness for two reasons. One is the offensive line, and we’ll get to that in a bit.

The second? It’s because there’s a lack of greatness at running back as well.

Utah State senior running back Tonny Lindsey rushed for just 763 yards and six touchdowns last season. Sure, a 5.2 yards per carry average isn’t too shabby, but this is a team that was used to putting up 1,000-yard rushers earlier this decade.

The consistency just hasn’t been there, and while the offensive line hasn’t been helpful it takes two to tango and I’m not sold on Lindsey being a great back. Dare I say running the ball is going to be a chore against the Badgers for the best of teams? I do dar say that.

Utah State doesn’t have one of the best rushing attacks by a long shot, so look for that weakness to be exploited.

Biggest Strength: Wide Receiver

RENO, NV – NOVEMBER 19: Wide receiver Ron’Quavion Tarver #19 of the Utah State Aggies runs with the ball against the Nevada Wolf Pack at Mackay Stadium on November 19, 2016 in Reno, Nevada. (Photo by Jonathan Devich/Getty Images)

While the run game is the weakness, there is a really exciting matchup that will happen on Friday night — Utah State’s young but experienced top group of wide receivers against Wisconsin’s experienced and dynamic set of starting cornerbacks.

Utah State saw two young players jump to the top of the receiving charts last season, as sophomore Ron’Quavion Tarver led the team with 46 receptions, 602 yards and three touchdown catches. Freshman Rayshad Lewis wasn’t far behind with 40 receptions for 476 yards and a pair of TD’s of his own.

Oh, and did we mention that David Yost, who has turned average quarterbacks in to great producers, is the new offensive coordinator at Utah State? Let’s just say this offense is going to rely a lot more on the passing game, so it is a good thing youth showed it was ready to step up last season.

I’m going to be keeping a keen eye on the matchups of Utah State’s Tarver vs. Wisconsin’s Tindal and the Aggies Lewis vs. the Badgers Nelson. You should too, because it likely will be the difference in Wisconsin’s defensive success or failures on the night.

Biggest Question Mark: Offensive Line

It is never fun starting over on the offensive line, but the Aggies are taking it to a whole new level in 2017. They are replacing the entire starting group this season.

However, what could be most telling is that there are two players — Preston Brooksby and KJ Uluave — who have started multiple games last season and aren’t listed as starters this season. Brooksby is the only one of those two listed on the two-deep released ahead of this game.

That is either a sign of strength for the entire group or a sign of real trouble recruiting at the position as a whole.

As it is, the latter seems to be true because four of the five new starters this season were playing football elsewhere in 2016. Four of the five starters also were transfers from the JUCO ranks over the past few months, and the fifth, junior center Quin Ficklin, is a transfer from BYU.

That’s putting a lot of pressure on a group that has never played together to get it right right out of the gate. It also means depth is a major concern and injuries happen frequently on the offensive line.

As for this game, Utah State’s biggest question mark doesn’t exactly have it easy in its matchup.

With a veteran and disruptive defensive line in place for the Badgers, the Utah State offensive line is going to find out a lot about itself and its personnel groupings early on in the season. That’s likely good news for the Badgers and terrible news for a team needing good news up front.

Player to Watch: Kent Myers, QB

One thing the Badgers defense hasn’t enjoyed much in the past few years are quarterbacks who are multiple threats. It hasn’t been easy to contain the likes of J.T. Barrett or Tommy Armstrong for large stretches.

While the name and game of Kent Myers doesn’t bring the fear that Chuckie Keaton did back in 2012, Myers is certainly a dangerous quarterback in his own right.

However, much like Alex Hornibrook for the Badgers, Myers has a lot to prove going in to 2017. After all, he only had 10 touchdowns to eight interceptions last season, while completing just 58.4 percent of his passes. Clearly there is plenty of room for growth, but that was just his first full season as a starter and in 2015 he threw 16 touchdowns to just three interceptions in nine games of action.

The question may be, which version shows up in 2017. If it’s the latter, the Badgers could have their hands full.

With new pieces in Wisconsin’s secondary, this matchup seems to hold a big key to how things will go down in Madison on Friday night.

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Defense leads Badgers to win over Northwestern

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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

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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

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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.

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Be wary of the trap against Northwestern?

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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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