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Can Wisconsin’s offense rise to the occasion against Michigan?

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What do you get when looking in the mirror if you’re Wisconsin and Michigan? Usually it is a game devoid of points and high on defensive production.

But, as these two teams look at each other heading in to the 2018 matchup, its the offense of Wisconsin that will take center stage. 

Ever since the return of the series between these two teams in 2016, the games have become defensive slug fest’s. In 2016 it was a 14-7 victory for Michigan, while last season saw Wisconsin pull out a 24-10 victory. 

With both teams fighting at the top of the Big Ten defensive boards, those results were to be expected. Fast forward to 2018 and this version of the Badgers vs. Wolverines has a strong possibility to look very different. 

Michigan has it’s highly productive defense going, while the Badgers are still trying to find their way on that side of the ball after giving up over 500 yards and 27 points to Nebraska’s offense last Saturday. 

The Wolverines have also found a steadying hand at quarterback in Shea Patterson, which stands in stark contrast to what took place the last two seasons. 

The Ole Miss transfer is completing 68.8 percent of his passes on the year for 1,187 yards and 10 touchdowns to 3 interceptions. Compared to a team that had just nine touchdown passes a season ago, Patterson has certainly made this team more dangerous at quarterback.

It doesn’t help that those players the Badgers usually count on on defense are beginning to drop like flies. 

Starting safety Scott Nelson is out for a half thanks to a targeting call in the second half of the Nebraska game. Then there are names like Isaiahh Loudermilk (leg), Caesar Williams (leg), Deron Harrell (concussion) and Travian Blaylock (leg) all listed on the injury report as questionable or game-time decisions as of Monday afternoon.  

The simple fact is, it all adds up to Wisconsin’s offense having to pave the way to victory in Ann Arbor this week. 

Last weekend that didn’t prove to be a problem, as UW’s offense had an answer for just about everything the Huskers were able to do.

Wisconsin put up over 500 yards of total offense on its own, racking up 370 yards on the ground and going 6 of 12 on third downs to eat away at the Huskers defense. 

It was a great confidence booster to an offense that struggled over the previous two games. Of course, doing it against Nebraska is one thing, doing it against Michigan is a whole different task.

Just how difficult of a task can it be to be successful against this Michigan defense?

No team has converted on more than 46.6 percent of their third down opportunities (Notre Dame in the opener) and the Wolverines haven’t allowed more than 147 yards on the ground to any team so far this season. 

Michigan is No. 1 in scoring (15.8 points per game), passing defense (134 yards per game) and total defense in the league. The Wolverines also rank No. 3 in rushing (96.5 yards per game) defense in the Big Ten. 

The good news is Wisconsin’s run game is by far the best Michigan has faced all season long. UW ranks fourth in the country in rushing yards, averaging 287 yards per game as a team. 

Michigan’s best rushing opponent of the season so far has been Maryland, who are No. 21 in the nation. The Terps are also the team to rack up the most yards on the ground against the Wolverines defense, putting up 147 yards in a loss last week in Ann Arbor. 

UW’s offensive line is certainly more impressive than Maryland’s and the numbers put up by Jonathan Taylor this year are certainly eye-popping. However, it’s one thing to see it on paper and another to get it going fast enough in a game against Michigan.

Getting that run game going early has been inconsistent at best for the Badgers this season and Michigan has been able to bottle opponents up early on. 

That was even the case last weekend against Nebraska, as Taylor had a respectable but not spectacular 65 yards on 18 carries in the first half. He broke things wide open with an 88-yard run, showing that patience and persistence in the run game can pay off. 

But, that was against a bad Nebraska defense that tired out thanks to a lack of quality depth and quality starters. Michigan doesn’t have either of those problems. 

Then there’s the problem of Wisconsin giving up big plays on defense. If those big plays catch them early, UW may have to turn to the passing game to get things to open up. 

Doing that hasn’t been a great idea in the past few seasons either. Does that change in 2018 with a quarterback in his third year behind center?

Yes, Hornibrook has been more efficient with the football and been impressive in last-minute situations. Hornibrook is completing 64 percent of his passes and has 7 touchdowns to just 2 interceptions on the year. 

But, he also has had a tendency to not play well against the best defenses he’s faced during his career. 

In two career starts against Michigan, his best effort was completing 47.7 percent of his passes for 147 yards. He’s also got just two career touchdowns to four interceptions against the Wolverines. 

Against ranked Big Ten opponents, only his game against Michigan State in 2016 stands out and it turned out that MSU was not very good on the year. Take that game away, and Hornibrook has never completed over 57.9 percent against a ranked Big Ten opponent in his career. He also has just four career touchdowns against those same opponents. 

Michigan’s defense has been great against the run. Can Hornibrook buck two years of trends against top level Big Ten opposition? 

Look for Michigan to dare Hornibrook to beat them and look for his early play to be a tell-tale sign of if he’ll be up to the task. 

If so, the Badgers offense may have what it takes to lead the way for a defense so full of question marks heading in to Ann Arbor on Saturday. 

If not, it could be another disappointing result when the Badgers need to get over that hump to complete respect on the national level. 

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Badgers football

Chryst excited by Graham Mertz’s future with Badgers

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No recruit has ever been as hyped as quarterback Graham Mertz has been in Wisconsin Badgers history.

Normally that would lead to coaches tempering their words and expectations. Given head coach Paul Chryst’s history of exactly that, it was a bit surprising to hear him speak with excitement about what Mertz may bring to the table in Madison.

So far, Chryst has been very impressed with how Mertz is handling everything on and off the field.

“Yeah, Graham has got a great personality,” said Chryst at Big Ten media day on Friday. “I think he’s done a nice job of — he came in the spring, and getting to know our teammates, and I think he’s handling — there’s a lot of buzz and talk about him, and I think he’s handled it well, and I think the team has handled it, as well.”

What has impressed the head coach most about his freshman quarterback? Chryst says it is how he is handling everything that has been thrown at him since he entered school in January.

“They’re experiencing a lot for the first time, going to school and being away from home, and there’s obviously a ton of football with it, and I think all three have handled it, and Graham has handled it well, and I’m excited for those three, Graham in particular, that went through spring and then you have summer and now they’ll be able to go into fall camp and it’s not all new to them,” said Chryst.

“But I’ve been impressed with how Graham has handled himself, and I think he’s — again, cares a lot about teammates and is a good teammate himself, a good person, and I think that’s a great place to start.”

Perhaps the most telling statement from Chryst during his time at the podium on Friday, was the one where he actually used the words “excitement” and “Graham” in the same sentence.

“And certainly we’re excited, really excited about Graham,” Chryst said to the media. “He’s early in on the process, and so I like the group that we have. I’m thankful that we’ve got Jack coming back that’s played in games, and certainly looking forward to fall camp and seeing the growth and development of all of them.”

Does that mean Mertz is the immediate savior of the Badgers offense? No.

But, unlike years past, Chryst is at least willing to go out on a limb and live in the excitement of what could happen in the future.

This type of talk should only serve to continue to spark the speculation and the spotlight on the quarterback position in Madison in the next few weeks.

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Best, worst case scenarios for Badgers quarterbacks in 2019

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Believe it or not, the start of the Wisconsin Badgers fall camp is right around the corner and we’re hitting the home stretch of our preview season as well.

Previous Positions:Running Back | Defensive Line | Wide Receiver | Outside Linebacker | Inside Linebacker |

No position has had more of the spotlight and taken up more of our conversation than what is happening at quarterback. After watching the QB play go from ok to disaster in 2018, it is back to the drawing board in many ways.

With Alex Hornibrook off to Florida State for his final season and the highest rated quarterback recruit in Badgers history on campus, this offseason has been full of intrigue.

But, what will the 2019 season look like for the most critical position on this offense? Let’s take a look at exactly that.

Best Case Scenario

The Badgers find out they hit the jackpot with Graham Mertz and he’s spent the time between spring and fall ball getting up to speed on the offense. Mertz immediately shows this is his job and the coaching staff sees it quickly as well.

Either that or Jack Coan comes in and commands the position and the offense with accuracy and an ability to hit the deep ball. The offense gels around him and heading in to the opener at South Florida, Coan is the man behind center by a wide margin.

Yes, there are two best-case scenarios at play. But, that’s because Wisconsin’s coaching staff would really love for someone to flat-out win the starting job early on in fall camp. Will that happen? That’s the million dollar question and don’t count out Chase Wolf from this competition either. He came on strong as spring went along and his abilities give the Badgers offense some different wrinkles that could be intriguing.

No matter whom wins the battle in fall camp, the best case scenario is that that person wins the battle early, the offense can focus on installing around that quarterback and said quarterback shows why he won the job with quality play during the season.

Worst Case Scenario

If we go in to week three of fall camp and there is no winner to the quarterback job, I’m not so confident in this group. Yes, it’s the job of everyone to compete at a high level, but the coaching staff not being able to separate between the bunch isn’t good news.

My worst-case scenario would be no winner coming out of fall camp, we see quarterbacks splitting time in the fall and this offense stalling out in the pass game once again.

Musical chairs at quarterback never seems to work at Wisconsin and that especially played out last season with Coan clearly thrown to the wolves before he was ready to make a full impact after Hornibrook’s injury.

As long as the Badgers can avoid having to play multiple quarterbacks because none of them have wrestled the position for themselves, UW’s offense should be in a better position in 2019 than it was in 2018.

Most Likely to Happen

As much as the fans want to see Graham Mertz come in and be this game-changing quarterback out of the gate, the most likely scenario is that Mertz gets some game action in the non-conference games and Jack Coan is your regular starter.

I can foresee the scenario playing out much like Coan’s true freshman season. The only difference being that Mertz won’t have to give up his redshirt to play in a single game.

It seems like the most likely to happen scenario is that Coan is your starter for the year with Mertz as the man getting the early season reps behind him and then Chase Wolf being the other option to get reps during conference play.

Let’s not forget that Coan is the only quarterback on this roster that has seen more than a complete mop-up duty. Danny Vanden Boom could be an option too, but it seems like Wolf and Mertz passed him up in the spring competition.

As much as Mertz is the future, coaches are paid to win games now and that likely means playing it safe with Coan.

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Best, worst case scenarios for Badgers ILB’s in 2019

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We hope you enjoyed the Independence Day holiday, but it is time to get back to some business and that means continuing our series looking in to every position group for the 2019 Wisconsin Badgers.

Previous Positions: Running Back | Defensive Line | Wide Receiver | Outside Linebacker |

Since we went outside the last time around, today we will focus on a position that has long been a strength of the Badgers program — inside linebacker.

What could happen with this group in 2019? Let’s find out.

Best Case Scenario

Yes, the Badgers face life without an All-American and a steady veteran thanks to the graduations of T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly. But, the good news is that this group was one of the deepest and most productive overall last season.

Veteran Chris Orr will get one starting spot and former 4-star recruit Jack Sanborn will step in to the other starting role. So, the best case scenario for this group is that Orr, who started as a freshman, gets back to that kind of form, and we see quality play from a combination of younger players like Sanborn and freshman Leo Chenal.

No one had a bigger breakout this spring than Chenal did. He came in as an early enrollee, but well under the radar. By the end of spring ball, it looked very much like he won’t be redshirting and will be challenging for a lot of snaps in the fall.

It would be great to see that happen, because Orr has just one year left in the Cardinal and White.

Worst Case Scenario

What would really hurt this group is if Orr or Sanborn were to go down with an injury here. Yes, Chenal looked good in spring ball like I mentioned before and yes Mike Maskalunas has shown flashes of ability, but are they really ready to be thrust in to the majority of snaps at inside linebacker together?

Experience is an issue for this group and I could see an injury exposing that lack of experience in a big way. Even if the Badgers wanted to go with an older player, the only other option would be Seth Currens and he just converted from safety in the spring himself.

Other than that it would be Hunter Johnson or two walk-ons that were here in the spring.

The Badgers only inside linebacker recruit in the 2019 class was Chenal too, so there will be no more help coming in to fall camp.

Most Likely to Happen

The good news is that I don’t see the worst case scenario actually happening, at least not in a major way. Orr’s medical history suggests he could be prone to missing a game or two with a nagging injury, but don’t expect anything crazy to happen.

I also believe we will see the emergence of Sanborn and Chenal as the future of this position for the Badgers. In fact, Sanborn has looked so good in spring and in his limited playing time last season, that I suspect he could be a darkhorse for All-Big Ten honors at season’s end.

Look for this group to be a downhill, hard-hitting and more athletic group than we saw last season and that could make a major difference for those playing behind them.

Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard and his staff have a lot to figure out, but they should feel safe with the talent that is available to them at inside linebacker.

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Best, worst case scenarios for Badgers OLB’s in 2019

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This time next month, the pads may be popping and the 2019 Wisconsin Badgers fall practices will be under way. It’s so close we all can almost taste it.

But, as we look forward to the 2019 season we’re going to try something a bit different. Gone are the usual ways of looking position groups and giving you a fall preview that last’s a week.

Well, that’s because this season is vital to the Paul Chryst era. There’s a changing of the guard going on. After a disappointing 2018 season that saw UW drop Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the first time in 15 years and not win the Big Ten West, the question is if that’s a sign of decline or a blip on the radar.

In order to best answer that question, we’re actually going to start with a look at what needs to happen, what the Badgers need to avoid and what is really likely at every position.

Previous Positions: Running Back | Defensive Line | Wide Receiver

Up today is a look at the outside linebacker position.

Best Case Scenario:

Last year, the outside linebackers contributed just 8 total sacks to a team total of 19. That’s a lot of contribution to the effort, but the effort was far below expectations set by previous groups. Additionally, the graduation of Andrew Van Ginkel means just 2.5 sacks return from the outside linebacker position in 2019.

Those sacks belong to Zack Baun, who got his feet wet as a starter last season and is looking for big things to happen in 2019. The good news is that Baun was one of Wisconsin’s best run-stoppers on the edge.

Ideally, Baun not only is a leader of this defensive group in 2019, but becomes much more disruptive behind the line of scrimmage too.

Wisconsin has a lot of potential that could start opposite of him. Former Alabama transfer Christian Bell, former 4-star recruit Noah Burks and former inside linebacker Griffin Grady all had their moments of shine in spring ball.

In a best case scenario, the Badgers have more than one of that group step up as contributors to an overall group of outside linebackers that don’t have a lot of in-game experience or depth.

Getting this group to contribute double-digit sacks as a whole would be a great step forward.

Worst Case Scenario:

Noah Burks or Christian Bell don’t live up to their enormous potential. It’s as plain and simple as that.

Wisconsin needs them to become pass-rushing specialists in a big way if this defense is going to be as aggressive as it is designed to be. Often times last season, the inability of the front seven to get pressure really hung an inexperienced secondary out to dry.

If UW experiences more of that, it could really be trouble in 2019. The Badgers need this defense to step up its game, and having both of the expected top contenders in replacing Van Ginkel flame out would be a disaster all the way around.

Most Likely to Happen:

Given all the unknowns surrounding the outside linebacker position, this is a difficult position to predict. However, I will say this — Zack Baun will end up as an All-Big Ten performer.

I believe he just scratched the surface of his potential last year, especially since he was just coming off an awful injury history prior to it. If he stays healthy in 2019, I predict he becomes a surprise player to many outside observers in the Big Ten.

That said, I also believe we will see Christian Bell and Noah Burks become a handful for opposing offensive coordinators to deal with. Both have been patient with the talent that was in front of them, but they are bursting with potential when they have seen the field.

So, to answer the question most want to know…I believe this all signals a position group ready to be a major force once again after that down year in 2018.

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