The moment everyone has been talking about all offseason is finally here — the most brutal Big Ten schedule in the history of the conference. Welcome to the gauntlet, Wisconsin Badgers.
However, before the Michigan State game is here it would behoove us to take a look at the state of the program heading in to conference play.
Can this team take its start and make an improbable run to the College Football Playoff, or will its undefeated start to the season be squandered thanks to an onslaught of top competition? Let’s look at how the Badgers stock up heading in to Big Ten play.
The Good News:
The Wisconsin Badgers are 3-0. It simply can’t get any better than that, what with all eyes on the season opener against LSU at Lambeau Field and the expected loss there. Instead, the Badgers out-physicaled the Tigers up front on both sides of the ball and held star running back Leonard Fournette in check en route to a 16-14 victory to start the season.
It then went on to trounce Akron in Week 2 and find a potential playmaker at quarterback in Alex Hornibrook, who directed a late-game comeback win over Georgia State in Week 3.
If you told anyone associated with or covering the Badgers program that they would be 3-0 heading in to Big Ten play, they likely would’ve told you you were crazy. Yet, the team is poised to enter conference play with plenty to like about itself.
Simply put, the non-conference season couldn’t have gone any better when it comes to the W’s and L’s on the board.
The Bad News:
Plain and simple, the Badgers enter conference play as one of the most banged up teams in the country. Coaches won’t ever use injuries as an excuse, nor will they not tell you it is all about the “next man up.”
Those clichés are going to get a severe test for the Badgers, as not only is star running back Corey Clement struggling to get back from an injury, but three total running backs out of four available are injured. One, redshirt freshman Bradrick Shaw has already been ruled out for the Michigan State game this weekend and it seems likely that sophomore Taiwan Deal is going to be a no-go as well.
UW’s offensive line has seen both left guards injured, and Jon Dietzen out for the MSU game while Micah Kapoi may not be able to go either. There’s also starting inside linebacker Chris Orr, who was lost on the first play from scrimmage of the season with an ACL tear, and nickel back Natrell Jamerson out with a broken leg.
Oh, and even special teams has been hit with the injury bug as kicker Rafael Gaglianone is out for the MSU game with a back injury.
Let’s just say there isn’t exactly a lot of good news on the injury front for a team with Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State coming in three of the next four weeks.
If there is a silver lining in all of the injury news, it is that UW has found out it is far deeper than they ever thought going in to the season. No one exemplifies that more than inside linebacker Ryan Connelly, who was supposed to be the fourth linebacker in the group, but was thrust in to a starting role after just one play of the LSU game.
With Chris Orr down, Connelly stepped up against the Tigers and never blinked in an eight-tackle performance that included a key dramatic stop of Fournette out in the open on a screen pass with two offensive linemen in front of him.
The Badgers are going to need more performances like that against top competition from the likes of Brett Connors (OL) and Andrew Endicott (who has never attempted a kick in a college game in his career).
Player Who Has Stepped Up: Derrick Tindal, CB
There was no bigger question mark for the Badgers entering the 2016 season than the secondary. With three starters gone from last season, questions were only natural. However, three games in and the secondary has become less of a liability and more of a strength of this team.
A lot of that is due to first year starting cornerback Derrick Tindal. Following last season as an understudy to both starters, Tindal has taken his opportunity to start and run with it. He is tied for the team lead with four pass break ups already and has an interception to his name too. It doesn’t hurt that he has 10 total tackles, eight of them solo on the year either.
For a team with so many questions at the back of the defense, Tindal has gone a long way to answering them in a positive way.
Player Who Needs to Step Up: Corey Clement, RB
OK, this is actually more like get on the field and stay there. After missing the majority of last season with a sports hernia and a suspension, Clement was expected to be a star and key player for the Badgers offense.
That hasn’t exactly happened, as the injury bug bit Clement once again. He injured himself in the first half of the Akron game and has shown some of the talent that everyone saw in him early in his career. To date, Clement has racked up 197 yards (111 of them in the first half against Akron alone) and three touchdowns.
Clearly the talent is there as well as the production, if only it could be done on a consistent basis.
Can Benton step up to big challenge against Michigan?
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.
What the Badgers need to work on in the bye week
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
Sunday Morning Hangover: What to make of Coan’s confident start
By now, Jack Coan isn’t a total newcomer to the starting quarterback role for the Wisconsin Badgers. But, on Saturday he was making his first career start inside Camp Randall Stadium.
All five of his previous starts would come on the road or in a bowl game.
So, how did Coan handle the home crowd and it being a season opener at Camp Randall nonetheless? Judging by his record-setting numbers it was safe to say it was home, sweet home for the junior quarterback.
After passing for over 200 yards for the first time in his career last week against USF, Coan set personal records for passing attempts, completions, yards and touchdown passes in a single game.
It’s hard to get much better than that.
On the day, Coan would go 26 of 33 for 363 yards and 3 touchdowns. Those numbers were the catalyst to the Badgers 61-0 blanking of the visiting Central Michigan Chippewas.
His 363 yards were the fifth best in a single game by any Badgers quarterback. Coan also became just the 11th Badgers QB to throw for 300 or more yards in a game.
Additionally, his 276 yards in the first half were the most ever by any Badgers quarterback in a single half.
That’s some historic territory for anyone to reach.
However, after sleeping on it, I am still left wondering if this is a sign of things to come or a blip on the radar and we’ll never see this again.
Maybe it’s because I can still remember being there in person to witness Coan fumble and bumble his way to a loss at Northwestern last year.
Maybe that’s the Hornibrook affect in me too? After all, we got totally burned by thinking Hornibrook had turned a corner with his great performance in the bowl win over Miami two years ago.
Instead, Hornibrook reverted right back to the inconsistent and at times terrible version that his more extensive body of work told us was likely who he was.
But, here’s why I think we aren’t seeing a blip on the radar with Coan. It’s his confidence and the fact that we’ve seen him go out and do better each and every week he’s been a starter.
We are seeing progress, which we never really did with Hornibrook under center. If you can’t see that Coan is improving, then you aren’t paying attention.
Last week, despite the first ever 200-yard day for Coan, a lot of attention was paid to the missed wide open receivers on vertical routes. What did Coan do about it? He went out this week and showed he could confidently and accurately hit those deep balls.
“I think it’s important, and certainly we’ve got to be able to — we thought coming into the year we’ve got to do a better job of attacking the whole field, and so when you can do that, it’s good, but I think guys have had confidence in it,” said head coach Paul Chryst after the CMU win.
“I know last week we were 0-2 for those “chunk” plays, but he wouldn’t have cut ’em loose today if he didn’t have confidence in it. So I don’t know that doing it in a game makes you more confident, but it was good to see. It’s nice to be able to hit a couple of those, obviously.”
Additionally, Coan’s relationship early on this season with Quintez Cephus has been something special to watch. With virtually no playing time and no extensive practice time together, the duo has seemed totally in sync to start the season.
Cephus has nine receptions for 169 yards and two touchdowns through two games. He also is averaging 84.5 yards per game, good for fifth in the Big Ten in this early season.
Just to put the difference between Coan and Honribrook in to some perspective for you. Through two games last year, the Badgers had just 26 receptions as a team. This year, UW already has 50.
Wisconsin also has a total of 16 passes for 15 or more yards on the season. That is a quarter of what the Badgers had (64) all of last year and we’re only two games in to the season.
A.J. Taylor (8), Danny Davis (6), Kendric Pryor (6) and Jake Ferguson (6) have all had major impacts in the pass game too.
It means a diverse and talented group is producing quickly this season.
Of course, the challenge of Michigan’s defense awaits the Badgers offense and it certainly will be a step up in competition from the likes of USF and Central Michigan.
However, the Wolverines also won’t be seeing the same old Wisconsin offense they did for the past few years either.
What Coan has brought to the table through two weeks of play should make Michigan think twice about stacking the box against the run all game long.
Wisconsin finally has an outwardly confident quarterback and it feels so very good.
WATCH: Recap of Badgers 61-0 victory over Central Michigan
If you were to draw up a perfect game, well, it would be hard to top what the Wisconsin Badgers put on film on Saturday against the Central Michigan Chippewas.
UW ran, passed and dominated on defense en route to a 61-0 win. What should we take away from this game? What were the highlight moments?
Well of course, Jonathan Taylor scoring four touchdowns in back-to-back games was impressive. But, let our Publisher, Andrew Coppens, get in to the detail in this week’s talkinBadgers recap.
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