Even if it doesn’t feel like it outside, spring is in air inside the Don McClain Center. That’s because today starts the Wisconsin Badgers spring football practices.
It also means it is time to put this group under the 2019 microscope and stop wondering what could have been in 2018.
What will be different this year is that the Badgers don’t plan on doing an official spring game. Instead, they will open up Camp Randall for fans to witness a practice on April 13.
Spring ball will end on April 26, but today is the beginning and we’ve got some questions to be answered — some more pressing than others. So, let’s get in to them from least pressing to most.
Is there a deep threat in the passing game?
Quintez Cephus is still awaiting trial on two separate counts of sexual assault, so any hope of him coming back to the Badgers program in 2019 seems to be out of the window. But, in terms of football, there is no question the UW offense missed his presence in 2018.
He was a downfield threat while breaking out in 2017, catching 30 passes for 501 yards and averaged 16.7 yards per catch to go with six touchdowns.
As a team last year, the Badgers averaged just 11.5 yards per catch — a significant drop from 13.2 yards per catch as a team in 2017.
A.J. Taylor did his level best to become a threat last year and was regularly the go-to receiver for both Alex Honibrook and Jack Coan.
Wisconsin needs someone to break out with some speed to get down field if the Badgers offense wants to make a move. Who would that guy be is still a major question.
Young players like Taj Mustapha and A.J. Abbott and Emmet Perry all have a big opportunity in front of them — especially given the open quarterback battle happening.
Who Will Take Ingold’s Place at Fullback?
Wisconsin still loves the fullback, as evidenced by the important role that Alec Ingold played in UW’s offense over the last four years. But, replacing him won’t be easy, because there was little depth and opportunity behind him last year.
Mason Stokke was the main backup, switching from inside linebacker before last season to help with depth. But, is he the answer?
John Chenal, Jack Collinsworth and Coy Warner were also listed as fullbacks last season, but there’s a reason UW went out and got one of the top fullbacks in high school football in this recruiting class too.
Can anyone emerge as the leader before said incoming freshman, Quan Easterling, shows up on campus in the fall? The Badgers bruising run game and versatility on offense as a whole depends on finding a quality answer here.
Is there a reliable backup to Jonathan Taylor at RB?
Last season the Badgers thought they would be loaded at running back, but a bad injury to Bradrick Shaw seemed to derail the explosive depth behind him Taylor.
With Taiwan Deal gone and Shaw’s future still in doubt, the Badgers have a big hole to fill behind Taylor. All indications are that Nakia Watson was both physically and mentally ready to go last season but the Badgers were able to redshirt him instead.
This season, Watson could be the second man in the backfield, but will have to show that in spring ball. Julius Davis was added in the 2019 class, but he won’t be on campus until the fall.
Then there is the question of Garrett Groshek. He emerged as a huge pass-catching weapon out of the backfield and someone capable of taking a carry or two as well. But, is he really the guy that can give you quality production with multiple carries?
My money is on Watson emerging as the second-choice, with Groshek in the mix and continuing to develop as a pass catcher. Maybe we could even see two-back sets with Taylor and Groshek to help keep defenses guessing? It would be a novel concept considering what happened last year.
How Will the Offensive Line Adjust?
Change happens every year in college football, and for the Wisconsin Badgers they likely thought that would include losing three offensive lineman to the NFL.
Instead, Tyler Biadsz surprised a lot of people and returned for his redshirt junior season. But, the Badgers ended up losing a third starter this offseason anyway, as oft-injured Jon Dietzen decided to hang up the cleats and call it a career.
We also found out on Monday that both Cole Van Lanen and Biadsz wouldn’t play this spring to keep them healthy and repair anything needed in the offseason.
That means all but one spot on the offensive line will be a new face in spring ball. We’ll see a battle to back up Biadsz between Kayden Lyles and Jason Erdmann.
On the outside we’ll likely get to see a lot of Tyler Beach, Logan Bruss and Michael Furtney. Additionally, inside we’ll likely get to see if David Moorman can make the jump to starter and if either Lyles or Erdmann will slide out from center to right guard to replace Michael Dieter.
Depth will get a test in the spring as usual and that can only be a good thing come fall. Will the Badgers find answers to whether that depth is good or still a work in progress though?
Will Anyone Emerge as QB Battle Winner?
Chryst has let anyone and everyone know that expecting a winner of the open quarterback battle to happen in the spring may be a long shot. Still, the question remains as to who will emerge at the position?
Will any of the four scholarship quarterbacks in the mix — Jack Coan, Danny Vanden Boom, Chase Wolf or highly-touted freshman Graham Mertz make a leap?
It would be nice to see at two separate themselves in the spring, setting up a good competition throughout summer workouts and in to fall camp. Coan has the most experience, but also was very inconsistent in his five games played.
Was it because of his ability or because the coaching staff tried to keep the gameplan too tight with him behind center? What about Vanden Boom and Wolf, who both flashed in camp last year before fading down the stretch.
My money is on Coan and Wolf to look the best of the returning quarterbacks, but the $1 million question is what about Mertz?
Everyone in the fanbase wants to see Mertz jump up and grab the job from the get-go, but that may be unrealistic. Just look at what happened to 4-star quarterback Artur Sitkowski at Rutgers last year and numerous others who were thrown in too soon.
Wisconsin has the luxury of not pushing him too fast, but that luxury could go by the wayside if none of the other three show the growth and confidence that will be needed.
Simply put, the Badgers passing game can’t be in the 100’s once again this year. It would be a shame to waste the final season of star running back Jonathan Taylor because of a bad passing game again.
Being able to come out of spring ball confident that there is at least one, if not more players capable of leading this offense would be a dream come true. Will it actually happen though?
Defense leads Badgers to win over Northwestern
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
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
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.
Be wary of the trap against Northwestern?
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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