It certainly is not subtle knowledge that the success of the Wisconsin offense starts and ends with its overpowering running game, with bruiser John Clay, a 255-pound junior, leading the way for the Badgers while senior quarterback Scott Tolzien, an efficient passer, guides UW's attack.
To ASU and Pac-10 fans, Wisconsin's offense is strikingly similar to Stanford's last season with Toby Gerhart, as the Cardinal focused on a power attack with a great offensive line and group of tight ends.
The most efficient passer in Badger football history, Tolzien entered the season with a 65.1 career completion percentage and an efficiency rating of 143.6. A first-year starter in 2009, he netted Honorable Mention All-Big Ten recognition and has totaled 388 passing yards with one touchdown, two interceptions and has completed 71.4-percent of his passes.
Last season, Clay led the Big Ten in rushing (1,517 yards) and was named the conference's Offensive Player of the Year and entered 2010 with high expectations as a Playboy All-American. Thus far, Clay has lived up to expectations by ranking among the nation's top-10 in rushing, having totaled 260 yards with four touchdowns on 60 carries.
Sophomore Montee Ball, a force in his own right at 236-pounds, is Wisconsin's top reserve running back and has totaled 110 yards with two scores in two games this year.
Statistically, redshirt freshman Jared Abbrederis is the team's top active receiver if Gilreath and Toon are out of action, having hauled in five receptions for 58 yards, while senior Isaac Anderson has caught three passes for 36 yards and senior Kyle Jefferson has been involved in the pass game as well. In 2009, Anderson was one of the team's better receivers as he caught 30 passes for 480 yards.
Though Wisconsin's wide receivers don't bring much flash to the offense, the team historically has stockpiled great tight ends and this year is no exception.
Senior Lance Kendricks, a preseason All-American by multiple outlets and a member of the Lombardi and Mackey Award watch lists, has caught four passes for 65 yards and the Badgers' only touchdown pass this season after catching 29 passes for 356 yards and three scores a year ago. Redshirt freshman Jacob Pedersen has worked his way into the lineup in his first collegiate season on the field, posting two receptions for 21 yards.
As talented as Clay is at running back, the success of Wisconsin's offense emanates from its brutish, mammoth offensive line led by All-America candidates Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt. The Badgers boast size and tenacity at every position and their front line is and has for years been the driving force behind the team's steadiness.
Though it is the first page from ‘Football 101,' there is little doubt that this matchup will be determined by the line play.
The Badgers likely will plan to make things easy on themselves, as the main objective will be to plow over ASU's defensive front and pepper in timely, intelligent pass plays.
For the Sun Devils to hold their own on defense, they will have to overcome Wisconsin's power with athleticism. Blow-for-blow, ASU does not hold an advantage to try for a four-man front to condense the pocket, so the Sun Devils will need to strategically implement members of the back seven into the scheme to apply pressure on Tolzien and his running backs.
Above all, through the first two games it was frequently apparent that the Sun Devil defense might have allowed its collective ego to be over-inflated by preseason hype of national statistic dominance, as the play on the field has not matched the lofty predictions.
Defensively the Devils will need to practice much more patience and discipline than what has been exhibited in the first two games and not let Wisconsin or its crowd aggravate them to the point of committing unnecessary penalties.
Especially early in the game, as Wisconsin will surely rely on Clay to lay the offensive foundation, if the Badgers are able to string together successive first downs, the Sun Devils must not fall victim to frustration and sloppy urgency and accumulate encroachment or roughing penalties out of a desperate desire to make defensive stops.
To help beef up the line and combat Clay's power rushing, ASU likely will pair James Brooks and Jamaar Jarrett, who typically share time at strong side end and combine to weigh nearly 550 pounds, as the starting ends instead of having them rotate at the same spot.
ASU enters this game as a two-score underdog and if the defense allows drives to extend beyond their expiration date because of penalties, the Sun Devils' chances of victory will plummet. If the Devils give Wisconsin the mulligans that it has provided their first two opponents, it may be a long day in Madison. Conversely, if the Sun Devils play smart, quick, aggressive and persistent defense, the Camp Randall crowd could be in for a shock.
Defensive Personnel Preview
Defensively, the Badgers have a stout front seven that helps solidify an excellent run defense thus far, led by defensive end J.J. Watt very strong unit of linebackers.
At linebacker, the Badgers are deep and talented, and Wisconsin will welcome Borland, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year for 2009, back to the lineup after missing last week's game due to a shoulder injury. Last season, Borland and St. John combined for 117 tackles, 14.5 tackles-for-loss, 4.5 sacks and four fumble recoveries.
Blake Sorensen has had an excellent season so far as a starting linebacker, leading the Badgers with 12 tackles after tallying 40 as a junior in 2009.
Mike Taylor, an all-conference contender, recorded 46 tackles in an injury-shortened season in 2009 and has a wealth of talent to join Borland, Sorensen and St. John in the linebacker rotation.
Watt, an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten member last year, regularly wreaks havoc in opposing backfields and has picked up 3.0 tackles-for-loss to date in 2010 after totaling 15.5 last season. Other standouts on the line include Louis Nzegwu and Jordan Kohout, who have combined for 11 tackles and 2.0 of Wisconsin's 4.0 sacks this year.
When ASU has the ball, if the Sun Devils can prevent the front seven from occupying the backfield Steven Threet and company have the potential to make plays in the pass game.
The trick, however, will be to keep Wisconsin's defense honest because ASU's rushing effort last week versus NAU fell far below expectations so there's a likelihood that the Badgers will give little respect to ASU's run game. Look for Wisconsin to dare the Devils to run and bank on winning the trench battles while looking to limit Threet's passing windows.
In this exchange, it comes down to focus and desire for ASU's offensive line. Penalties and porous protection must be kept at a minimum, and the Sun Devil blockers absolutely have to play to the best of their collective ability as a group to enable ASU to truly challenge Wisconsin's defense.
Additionally and sadly, dropped passes remain the Achilles Heel of the Sun Devil offense. If Threet is awarded pocket time to make his progressions, ASU's receivers must bring better focus to Madison than what has been seen in Tempe thus far because clean opportunities downfield may not be abundant and therefore have to be properly executed.
Thirdly, the Wisconsin crowd can be a factor against ASU's concentration level, which mainly can impact the offensive line, receivers and quarterback. Game momentum will likely play a huge role in ASU's offensive efficiency.
Overall, Wisconsin's defense is talented but not amazing – there are strengths that can help limit the Sun Devils, but also weaknesses that can give ASU opportunities to strike. If the Devils can point the pistol up, not down, and avoid constant shots to the foot in penalties, dropped passes and other errors, ASU can make opportunistic strikes on offense.
Special Teams Preview
Wisconsin has done very little in the return game, averaging only 14.5 yards on six kickoff returns and 2.3 yards on three punt returns as a team.
At the risk of being overly dramatic, this could be the biggest game for ASU under Dennis Erickson. To win at a nationally prominent program would give the Sun Devils a world of momentum as the team enters a horrendous stretch during the month of October.
This trip to Madison is a big-time gut check for everyone in Maroon and Gold, and the pride of the program – under the cloud of a two-year skid – desperately needs a substantial, newsworthy boost.
Over the past decade, the Sun Devils only have three wins on the road versus BCS conference teams outside the Pac-10, none of which – at Colorado (2006), at Northwestern (2004) and at North Carolina (2003) – came against a ranked opponent.
ASU's performance last week against NAU, despite an eventual 21-point win, pumped the pessimistic fires full of diesel fuel, allowing the expectations of many to plummet prior to the Devils' venture to Madison.
The most perplexing part of predicting this game is the litany of unknowns; through two games we Sun Devil fans really have no absolute clarity on what can be expected of this year's team.
With an improved offense, a potentially dominant defense and dynamic special teams group the Devils have the components to be successful in Madison and beyond, but in the same respect enough red flags have surfaced in two weeks to neuter the excitement for 2010.
The most seemingly equal recent comparison fans can make in this matchup is ASU's battle at Georgia last season, which likely would have been a Sun Devil win if this year's offense and special teams were on that field.
Injury News and Lineup Notes
• Tight end Trevor Kohl will return to action after missing the NAU game.
Five Questions: ASU at Wisconsin
• Can ASU's defense stop or limit John Clay?
• How will ASU react to playing in a loud Big Ten environment?
• Can the Sun Devil offensive line buy time for Steven Threet and ASU's running backs?
• Will ASU's receivers limit the dropped passes?
• Can the team as a whole play with discipline, focus and avoid foolish penalties?