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Wisconsin Badgers Spring Preview: 5 questions on offense

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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?

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Badgers fall victim to the trap, lose to Illinois

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This is why they don’t play the games on paper. On paper, the No. 6 Wisconsin Badgers should have been able to make quick work of a struggling Illinois Fighting Illini team.

Instead, it was a slog for the Badgers offense and Illinois took advantage of three turnovers for 17 points en route to a shocking 24-23 victory.

With the Badgers driving to potentially salt away a hard-fought victory, Jack Coan threw just his second interception of the season and Illinois drove the ball deep in to Wisconsin territory and kicked a game-winning 39-yard field goal as time expired.

Wisconsin’s usually rugged run game was off, and the stingy run defense was far from that. Yes, Jonathan Taylor went over the 5,000-yard mark for his career on the first carry of the game, but he would put up just 132 yards on 28 carries on the day and UW’s defense allowed a season-worst 141 yards on the ground to Illinois.

Prior to this game, Wisconsin’s worst performance on offense was 97 yards against Northwestern.

Taylor’s struggles included a brutal turnover, as he gained a first down at the Illinois 17-yard line but coughed up the football trying to fight for extra yardage a third time on the play.

Illinois drove the ball down for a touchdown in just 1:19 of game time and what could’ve been a three-score game turned in to a 23-21 lead with 5:53 to play.

Wisconsin drove the ball past midfield on the next possession appearing poised to put the game out of Illinois reach again, but stumbled near midfield.

On a 2nd and 11, Coan attempted to drop a pass to Jake Ferguson in between the zone. However, Tony Adams had backed off the underneath and picked off the pass at the Illinois 47-yard line.

From there, Illinois ripped off big run after big run to get themselves in to field goal range and the rest was history.

Ironically, it was Coan who powered the Badgers offense for most of the day, throwing for 263 yards on 24 of 32 passing.

Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown combined for 153 yards on the day for the Illini on 28 carries, and came up huge when they needed it as the game went on.

Illinois outplayed the Badgers up front on both sides of the ball and deserved this win.

This was easily the most shocking loss in the Paul Chryst era and a date with Ohio State looms large if Wisconsin wants to continue to hope to make it to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game.

A loss next week and all control of their own destiny goes out the window.

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Badgers mid-season report card: Defense

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As Saturday’s game against Illinois inches closer to kick, it’s also a good time to remind ourselves that we are at the halfway point of the 2019 Wisconsin Badgers season.

UW is 6-0 and ranked No. 6 in the country in both polls (if you want to care about those things). So, how did Wisconsin get here and who has been vital to all of that success so far?

Well, we’re taking a look back at the first half of the season for you. Earlier this week we took a look at our grades for the Badgers offense. Today, we take a look at the defensive side of the ball.

Defensive Line: A+

One of the biggest question marks coming in to the 2019 season was the UW defensive line. With no Olive Sagapolu and two starting defensive ends coming off of major injuries, how would this group look in 2019? Well, the answer is pretty damn good.

Bryson Williams, the starting nose guard, went down with a bad injury early in the season and in stepped true freshman Keannu Benton, who ripped off back-to-back performances that were rated No. 1 on the team by Pro Football Focus.

Isaiahh Loudermilk had a small injury early on and has been very good since his return, while Garrett Rand is doing work on the other side. Perhaps the biggest story is that this group has been disruptive in a major way.

We’ve had Matt Henningsen score a touchdown not once, but twice and the defensive linemen have racked up 3.0 sacks to date. Not too bad for a group of unproven, but talented players.

Linebackers: A+

Another big question mark coming in to the year was if the Badgers could get enough pressure from its linebacker group to make a difference in 2019. Last season was a dramatic drop off in sacks and tackles from loss as a team, but there has been no such issue in 2019. j

Zack Baun has been one of the best players in the country through the halfway point of the season. He’s put up 26 tackles, has one pick-six, 10.5 tackles for loss and 6.0 sacks (tied for 8th nationally) through the first six games of the season.

It’s earned him Pro Football Focus mid-season first-team All-American honors. Considering he didn’t produce at nearly this level last season, it’s been a huge start for the senior.

On the opposite side of him, we’ve seen the combination of Izayah Green-May (missed time with a broken thumb) and Noah Burks become dangerous players in their own right. As a team, Wisconsin has put up 23 sacks through six games, which is more than they had in all of 2018 (19.0).

Jack Sanborn has been great and the pairing of him with Chris Orr has unleashed one of the most athletic and dangerous combinations of inside linebackers the Badgers have had since switching to the 3-4 defense when Gary Andersen arrived.

You could not draw up a more productive start to a season from a linebacker group if you tried.

Secondary: A

If you just go by the stats, it is hard to argue that Wisconsin isn’t playing some of its best ball against the pass that we’ve ever seen. I mean, they have allowed a Big Ten low three passing touchdowns and the team has eight overall interceptions, with two going for a defensive touchdown.

But, some of the stats can be misleading, especially those eight interceptions. The good news for the secondary is that five of the eight interceptions are attributed to the defensive backs, with starting safety Eric Burrell picking off a pair of passes.

It isn’t just the starting group that has held up well either. Wisconsin has had a next man up mentality and it has worked well. Colin Wilder and John Torchio stepped up when both Burell and fellow safety Reggie Pearson got tossed for hits to the head against Michigan.

Deron Harrell is credited with four pass breakups and Wilder with five to lead the secondary group in that category.

Overall, it’s hard to pick apart this group, but if there’s one area to watch it is their inconsistency in intermediate and deep balls. Luckily, most offenses don’t have enough time to set up a deep passing game so it hasn’t been much of a worry at all.

Overall: A+

Let’s just go over these stats given up by the Badgers defense once again:

4.8 points per game — ranks 1st in the Big Ten and nationally
44.6 rushing yards per game — ranks 1st in the Big Ten and nationally
129.0 passing yards per game — ranks 1st in the Big Ten and nationally
173.7 total yards per game — ranks 1st in the Big Ten and nationally

In fact, Wisconsin’s 173.7 total yards per game given up is 60.3 yards per game better than the next best team — Ohio State — has given up this year.

Given all of that information, how could it not be an A+ so far this season? After all, Wisconsin is the first Big Ten team since the 1962 Minnesota Gophers team to pitch four shutouts in the first six games of a season.

Enough said.

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Badgers mid-season report card: Offense

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Believe it or not, but we have already reached the middle of the 2019 Wisconsin Badgers football season. I know, it doesn’t seem possible because there seems to be so much football ahead.

You would be right, what with Ohio State, Iowa and Minnesota still looming large on the schedule and all.

But, as we want to look forward, we need to know the foundation that future has been built on. How have the Badgers faired so far in 2019? Let’s take a look position by position.

Offensive Line: A –

All seems to be rosy for the Badgers offensive line. They’ve given up a Big Ten-low of eight sacks and are the No. 2 rushing attack in the league, trailing only Ohio State. While you could say the Buckeyes have yet to face a real defense, they still are consistently putting up better numbers than Wisconsin has.

We’ll see if that holds up, but on the whole it is hard to argue that this group hasn’t been very good. They’ve dealt with a few injuries and haven’t really missed a beat for the most part.

If there’s one area that has put them from an A to an A- in my book, it is their performance in the run game against Northwestern and Michigan State at home. In both cases, Jonathan Taylor really struggled to get going and the offensive line found themselves back on their heels quite a bit. Thus, Taylor’s struggles.

Yes, both Northwestern and MSU are very good defensive fronts, but if you want to earn the top grades, you have to win more than they did up front against those two defensive lines. That’s especially worrisome when you see the defensive fronts that both Ohio State and Iowa can put out there.

This unit is very athletic and certainly can do some special things. But, it needs to be more consistent against high level defenses if the Badgers want to prove they belong in the College Football Playoff conversation. Not having a single member of this group on the Pro Football Focus mid-season All-American list tells me this group hasn’t been as good as potentially then can be by the end of the year.

Running Backs: B

Yes, Jonathan Taylor is a Pro Football Focus and everywhere else mid-season All-American and yes, he’s en route to break all sorts of historical marks, but there’s more to this group than Taylor and for that reason we have to give this group an overall grade of B.

In fact, if you were to take Taylor away from this position group, you would be far lower on the grade. Redshirt freshman Nakia Watson has picked up 53 carries for just 238 yards and is averaging 4.5 yards a carry. While that average isn’t bad, Watson hasn’t shown any flashes of being the next big star running back at Wisconsin with ample opportunities to do so.

Bradrick Shaw and Garrett Groshek haven’t been big factors in the Badgers run game either and Julius Davis appears headed for a complete redshirt. What happens if Taylor goes down? There hasn’t been anyone producing at a high enough level to give us confidence that it’ll just be “next man up” as we’ve seen year over year over year at UW since 1990.

John Chenal and Mason Stokke (pre-injury) have been very good fullbacks in the traditional Wisconsin mold, but they could be a bit better at their blocking technique and that will come with time on the field as both are younger options at fullback.

Overall, this group is doing well, I just downgrade for a lack of a second dynamic option at running back so far this year.

Tight Ends: B+

Much was expected out of junior tight end Jake Ferguson, so much so that many believed he would showcase himself and leave for the NFL after this season. After six games, I’m not so sure that is going to happen.

Yes, Ferguson is second on the team with 15 receptions, but he’s averaging 11 yards a catch and has just one touchdown to his name. Those numbers pace far behind last season.

There just seems to be something missing from the explosive player we saw in 2018, who caught 36 passes for over 450 yards and had four touchdowns to his name.

On the bright side, Ferguson has become a more reliable blocker and that could be the thing that gets him to the NFL a year early. We’ll see what happens the second half of the season though.

As for the rest of the group, it’s been hard to grade because injuries have piled up and not a single other tight end as caught a pass for the Badgers so far this season. So, when I look at Ferguson’s play, it’s hard to not give him a solid grade, but room for improvement and impact in the second half.

Wide Receivers: B-

There is no doubt that getting Quintez Cephus back in a Badgers uniform has been huge. But, with that said, this group has not produced the big plays we’d hope to see after a few years of experience for names like Danny Davis, A.J. Taylor and Kendric Pryor.

Cephus is the only receiver with a touchdown to his name, albeit there have only been eight passing touchdowns on the season. However, the leading TD man is running back Jonathan Taylor, who has four already this year.

Pryor came up big against Michigan State and overall this group has produced well when given the opportunity. But, the inability to get separation and thus stretch the defense holds them back.

Maybe the coaching staff is also holding back what we see from this group, as by-in-large, UW hasn’t had to open up the full offense to win a game this season.

Quarterback: A –

Alright, it’s time for Badgers nation to eat some crow here. Everyone thought that Coan was the second-coming of Alex Hornibrook after his first efforts last season. But, through the first six games, Coan has been anything but the second-coming of Hornibrook. In fact, you could say he’s been the anti-Hornibrook.

He’s been clutch, he’s making the smart decisions and he’s keeping drives alive. Doing that at Wisconsin, with the best running back in college football, is exactly what is needed.

Coan is completing a ridiculous 76.3 percent of his passes, which leads the league and is second nationally only to Joe Burrow at LSU. Now, he has only thrown for 1,119 yards (8th in the B1G) and you could say that isn’t great, but consider how he’s become a complementary piece to the run game and you can see why his efficiency and clutch play matters more.

Additionally, his eight touchdowns to just one interception ratio is phenomenal. Ohio State’s Justin Fields is the only other starter in the Big Ten that has thrown just one pick through the halfway point of the season.

I wanted to give a higher grade, but Coan has struggled to hit the deep ball at times and seems most comfortable hitting the seven to 15-yard passes. That’s fine, but having someone to really stretch a defense out of eight-man boxes would be nice.

Maybe I’m nitpicking, but Coan has established himself as the rightful starter and put to bed most of the critics by becoming the go-to force in the win over Michigan State after a shaky couple of weeks against Michigan and Northwestern.

Having three multiple-touchdown games given what Jonathan Taylor is doing on the ground is impressive through six games.

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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.

Don’t forget to subscribe, hit that notifications bell and you’ll never miss a single video the rest of the year!

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