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Wisconsin Badgers Football Preview: Defense ruled the day in 2015

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As we begin our look at the 2016 Wisconsin Badgers football team, it is also important to remember where this program was last season. History has a funny way of telling us all about our pasts, and that can often times be true on the football field as it is in any other aspect of life — perhaps even more so.

With the return of Wisconsin’s native son, Paul Chryst, as the new head coach for the Badgers, many weren’t sure exactly what to expect out of the Badgers in 2015. After all, the change at the top meant three head coaches in the matter of four seasons.

That kind of change, especially all the way down to the assistants in the program, can be really hard on a team of young adults. How did the Badgers handle that change and what did 2015 tell us about UW’s future?

Let’s take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly and what it all means.

 

The Good

There’s little doubt that Wisconsin would’ve been in major trouble in 2015 had it not been for one of the best defenses in the country. Once again, defensive coordinator Dave Aranda adjusted and found a defense that would dominate almost every opponent on the schedule.

Just how good was the Badgers defense? It led the Big Ten in scoring defense (13.7), rushing defense (95.4 yards per game), total defense (268.5) and finished second in passing defense (173.2). Those numbers ranked first, fourth, and seventh in the nation respectfully.

Hard to argue against the raw numbers, but even advanced stats show that Wisconsin’s defense was about as dominant as it came in the world of FBS football for 2015. UW finished seventh in the country in defensive S&P+ rating, while never ranking lower than 14th in any specific category either.

Sure, UW would lose a few defensive battles, but when you are giving up fewer than two touchdowns a game to opponents that is more about the offense than anything the defense wasn’t capable of doing.

The Bad

When one thinks of the Wisconsin Badgers, pounding the ball down the throats of their opponents is likely the first thing that comes to mind. After all, UW went in to the 2015 season having had a 1,000-yard running back every year since 2004.

After watching Corey Clement nearly go for 1,000 yards as Melvin Gordon’s backup the previous year, it was likely that a 1,000-yard season was in the offing for the junior from New Jersey. Instead, it went all pear-shaped before the season even got underway.

What was thought to be a groin issue turned in to a sports hernia and that meant Clement was off to Germany to have surgery performed to correct the issue. It cost him the majority of the 2015 season and meant the running back duties fell to a redshirt freshman (Taiwan Deal) and a former defensive back turned running back (Dare Ogunbowale).

Ogunbowale would end up the leading rusher, but gained just 819 yards on the ground to become the first running back to lead UW in rushing with less than 1,000 yards in a decade. Deal mustered up 503 yards and there was even a place for linebacker turned freshman bowling ball, Alec Ingold.

In total, the Badgers managed just 1,954 yards rushing as a team and were just 10th in the Big Ten with 150.3 rushing yards per game.

That was not how anyone saw that season going, but it wasn’t just Clement’s absence either. UW found themselves having to start as many as four freshmen on the offensive line due to injury and transition at various points in the season.

No consistency up front and a lack of experience behind the line was a lethal blow to a usually lethal rushing attack in Madison.

The Ugly

There are seemingly a few games every season that set college football back to its original days as low-scoring affairs. One such contest just so happened to involve the Badgers in 2015, and it was a brutal 10-6 loss to the rival Iowa Hawkeyes.

Not only did the loss cost the Badgers a chance at the West division title, it also was an embarrassment to offensive football. There’s a difference between a defensive battle and downright awful offensive football, and that contest was exactly the later.

The two teams combined for more interceptions (3) than touchdowns (1) through the air, while both teams combined for three lost fumbles as well.

UW mustered up just 86 yards on the ground and Iowa contributed just 77 yards in the pass game themselves.

All of three points were scored in the entire second half of the game, and the two teams combined for as many punts as Iowa had completed passes (9).

Let’s just say this “struggle” between two long-time rivals wasn’t exactly a thing of beauty, even if you like defensive football.

What it Tells Us for 2016

Not every season is a harbinger of things to come, and that can certainly apply to the Wisconsin Badgers. There’s little doubt that 2016 is going to be a new starting point for the program, as Chryst has suffered the loss of his starting quarterback (who started all or parts of every year of his career) and the mastermind of the defense that led UW throughout 2015.

Those losses mean a big battle for the starting quarterback job and a different feel to what should be a similar 3-4 defense under new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox.

What 2015 did tell us that this team needs a healthy Corey Clement and the offensive line to grow up quickly if it is to get to nine wins again. The margin for error seemed small last season, but with MSU, Michigan and Ohio State all in a row to open Big Ten play, that margin for error gets even smaller in 2016.

For the Wisconsin Badgers of 2016, the previous season was all about re-establishing what it meant to be a Badger like it has meant since 1990 and the arrival of Barry Alvarez. Establishing a feeling of home for fans, alumni and ex-players alike was certainly key to establishing a bright future.

So, if anything it is that return to emphasis on what worked for UW in the past that meant the most going forward.

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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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