Know Your Foe: Wisconsin

For virtually the entire off-season Sun Devil fans have been talking about the team's challenging four-game stretch in the 2013 season. The first one of those exigent contests has finally arrived as Wisconsin visits Tempe on Saturday night. To gain more insight on ASU's upcoming opponent, Badgernation.com Publisher Benjamin Worgull fielded questions from Devils Digest's Sparky's Huddle members.

There is probably only so much Wisconsin observers can glean from two shutout wins against much inferior opponents. Nonetheless, what did you take away in terms of positives and negatives after the first couple of contests?

Worgull: You take little positives here and there from both sides of the ball, but I don't put a ton of stock into Wisconsin walloping two overmatches teams, especially when Tennessee Tech didn't get past Wisconsin's 45-yard line.

Offensively the running game is off to a fast start, but again hasn't been challenged. Still it's impressive to see three tailbacks run for over 100 yards each in the first two games of the season. The offense was a mess at the beginning of last year, especially on the offensive line, and never quite looked in sync. That certainly isn't the case right now.

Quarterback Joel Stave has looked good, not great, in two starts, but played much better in week two. He still had a tendency to stare down receivers and rely too much on targeting senior Jared Abbrederis, which has resulted in interceptions the past two weeks. Although he's started only eight games, Stave had turned into a better game manager, leader and quarterback this season, including completing 13 straight passes following his second-quarter pick. This will be, without question, his toughest challenge yet as a quarterback.

The shutouts are impressive from a defensive perspective at face value, but once it's known that Wisconsin hasn't even scratched the surface with the amount of blitzes, pressures and disguised formations it has the ability to do. Senior linebacker Chris Borland – arguably the best linebacker in the country – has been realistic about the team's two wins, saying he expected a pair of shutouts and actually was disappointed the unit didn't play better.

The big negative right now is the special teams, primarily the kicking game. Both kickers on Wisconsin's roster missed easy kicks last week (junior Kyle French an extra point and sophomore Jack Russell a 31-yard field goal). Since UW likely won't be able to march up and down the field at will on Saturday, the kicking game will need to come through at some point, and there's not much confidence right now in the unit.

How would you rate the coaching transition in Madison? What area do you think this staff excels than the previous one and in what aspects is the jury still out on?

Worgull: To be honest, the transition couldn't have gone any better with a new head coach and seven new assistants coming to Madison. The players, fans, boosters, etc. love Gary Andersen, who can easily be described as a player's coach, someone who is even keeled and shies away from the spotlight (basically the anti-Bret Bielema on a number of levels). He has brought a new energy to the program that probably was needed after a frustrating 8-6 campaign last season. Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, like Andersen, stays pretty steady, not getting too high or too low depending on the situation and demanding a lot out of his offense. Ludwig's main goal is in line with Andersen's, and that's to develop the passing game to make Wisconsin a truly balanced offense instead of a unit that is all about the run.

Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is an aggressive-minded coach who switched Wisconsin from the 4-3 defense it has run for decades to a 3-4. Andersen has labeled Aranda as a ‘mad scientist' with all the little nuisances and wrinkles his defense can do. By everyone's admission, the defense has been very vanilla in the first two weeks, so it'll be interesting to see what this group can do when they are finally turned loose.

Looking back at 2012 what changed for the Badgers between their horrible start and their strong finish?

Worgull: "Strong finish" is being generous, as "limped to the finish line" was more accurate. The only reason Wisconsin was in the Big Ten championship game was because Ohio State and Penn State were both ineligible, so losing to both schools in overtime was like a NFL preseason game (i.e. you would like to win, but it doesn't affect the grand scheme). The only bright spot of the season for Wisconsin fans was emptying the playbook and exploiting Nebraska's overrated defense to the tune of 70 points in the conference championship game to clinch a third straight conference championship and a trip to Pasadena. Once Wisconsin got to Southern California, the Badgers resulted back to their plodding ways and lost for the third straight time in the Tournament of Roses.

So what changed between the start and the finish? Wisconsin beat the bad teams on its schedule – Illinois, Purdue, Minnesota and Indiana – and that was enough to earn them a championship appearance. When it came time to play the good teams, last year's squad simply wasn't talented enough and the coaching staff, for whatever reason, couldn't fully fix the problems.

Speaking of transitions how has the move to a 3-4 defense been received and does the team have enough depth to make its coaches feel comfortable with its depth?

Worgull: Wisconsin's strength this season is its defense, particularly the front seven, which has six seniors, and one junior who start and another two seniors and three juniors who rotate in. Because of that experience, the players were able to embrace the massive amount of installations given to them during the spring.

Since the coaching staff is not permitted to have contact with the players over the summer per NCAA rules, the coaching staff made videos of practice and voiced over the instructions for each position. Those videos became a popular offseason study session for players, who could be coached by their position coach without their coach being in the room. Throw in the entire team getting iPads to study practice film off of, the defense was able to quickly pick up the scheme and has made it look like they've been playing in the 3-4 system for years.

As far as the rest of the defense, namely the secondary, how do you feel it will match up speed and athleticism wise, as well as experience, with the Arizona State receivers? How can the defense simulate the ASU offense in practice?

Worgull: It truly is hard to say because Wisconsin hasn't played a team with good receivers yet in the 2013 season and the Badgers lack stellar receivers who can really challenge the secondary in practice. Wisconsin's secondary will be the position to watch on defense and the spot Arizona State might be able to exploit. While the front seven is loaded with experience, the secondary had three players who made their first opening day start two weeks ago. They are group that has quickness and talent, but how will that translate when they have to go against a receiver with those same characteristics?

On paper, the Sun Devils have an advantage in this area, which puts more pressure on the front seven to throw pressure on the quarterback to make rushed decisions.

We all know that Wisconsin's offense is heavily predicated on the run, but how do you feel about its passing game capabilities and overall ability to play up tempo?

Worgull: Again, it's hard to say because Wisconsin has thoroughly dominated both opponents by simply picking them apart in both the run and the pass. I think the passing game has taken considerable strides in the past two weeks and the one advantage the group has is that it goes against Wisconsin's defense daily in practice. It was a common occurrence during fall camp that the defense would dominate the offense in team drills and scrimmages. While that concerned the fans about the inability of the offense to move the ball consistently, the group was encouraged that they could move the ball against any defense if they could find ways to move the ball against the Badgers defense. We'll find out Saturday if that thought process is correct.

What do they feel will be Wisconsin's biggest challenge coming into this game and what advantage(s) do you feel they will enjoy?

Worgull: Overall, the biggest challenge Wisconsin is going to face is dealing with a talented defense and a spread offense for the first time this season. It's no secret that Wisconsin's first two games didn't test them at a high level, so it might be a challenge to match the intensity at certain points during the game. Of course the same could be said about Arizona State, which didn't look to be under too much stress against Sacramento State.

The Badgers have struggled in pass years against spread offenses, so it'll be interesting to see how the 3-4 defense attacks the Sun Devils' offense. Wisconsin also has struggled in the kicking game in the early parts of the season, as both kickers have either missed field goals or extra points. On the road in a hostile environment, that could make the difference between a win and a loss.

I think the talent and the depth of Wisconsin's run game will be the advantage the Badgers have, as the trio of James White, Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement all complement each other really and keep each other motivated, rested in what promises to be a challenging climate.

Stave performed well in the first two weeks against subpar defenses. Would do you expect him to perform at that high of a level with a major step up in talent or do you think the offense leans even more than they normally would on the run?

Worgull: Wisconsin's success on offense against good teams always depends on the play of the quarterback and the ability to make the Badgers a balanced offense. Too often last year we saw the Badgers struggle to move the football against good defenses (i.e. Michigan State, Ohio State and Stanford) and the main reason was the Badgers didn't have a consistent passing game. Coincidence or not, the Badgers didn't have Stave for the entirety of those three games.

Stave has the ability to make throws to all three levels of the defense (short, intermediate and deep) and that should, in theory, open up alley ways for Wisconsin to move the ball. However, the Badgers need to be able to establish a running game because Wisconsin is not good enough right now to be any team strictly through the air.

Regardless of the outcome in this week's game what are the general expectations in Madison from the 2013 Badgers?

Worgull: I have seen a lot of national pundits pick Wisconsin to go 9-3 in the regular season, but I think, and many others in my neck of the woods probably agree, that this team has too much talent and too easy of a schedule to not win at least 10 games and compete for a division and conference championship for the fourth straight year. While this weekend is an important game, the big game as far as Wisconsin is concerned is in two weeks at Ohio State. Not only is it a divisional game for the Badgers, it represents Wisconsin's last road game against a ranked team this season. Not only does the schedule not include games against Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska this season, Wisconsin second and third toughest conference games on the schedule (arguably Northwestern and Penn State) are both at home.

What are your keys to the game as well as well prediction?

Worgull: Offensively Wisconsin has got to be balanced and show Arizona State it can move the ball down the field using the run or the pass. Defensively the secondary has got to make plays, create turnovers and not allow the big hit. Overall, the Badgers can't let the climate or the atmosphere affect them.

Just like the last time these two teams played, I think whichever team performs better on special teams will come away with a victory, as field position will be critical in this contest. As of today, I am leaning toward picking Wisconsin by three. Watching this team work for the past two months, I see a defense that can be one of the best in the country and an offense that can do just enough to scare some teams. I'll be anxious to see if I am right on Saturday.


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