After circulating three starting quarterbacks largely due to injuries in 2012, this season has started with a greater level of continuity with Joel Stave standing as the top option for the Badgers. The top passer for Wisconsin last season, Stave totaled 1,104 passing yards with six touchdowns and three interceptions in eight games.
The 6-foot-5, 225-pounder has a strong arm and stable game experience to his credit, though he has been prone to some errors and has thrown an interception in each of the first two games of the 2013 season.
Aside from periodic poor decisions, Stave's shortcomings include a lack of mobility as he was deep in the red (-51 yards) in net rushing yards in 2012, though his current total stands at a positive nine for 2013.
Former top-10 national quarterback prospect Bart Houston has seen limited action this season as Wisconsin's backup behind Stave, completing the only two passes he has thrown.
The headline of the Badger team through two games in 2013 has been the play of its trio of absolutely sensational running backs, including the FBS active all-time leading rusher James White, long-distance game breaker Melvin Gordon and standout true freshman Corey Clement.
Though he has played backup to John Clay and Montee Ball his first three seasons, White has remained one of the nation's premier running backs as he topped 1,000 yards as a true freshman in 2010 and in his first three seasons totaled 2,571 rushing yards on 422 carries (6.1 avg.) with 32 touchdowns while starting only two of his 39 total games played. Far from a one-trick pony, White has also caught 32 passes for 365 yards with one score and has seen regular action on kickoff returns. At 5-foot-10, 195-pounds, White can do a little bit of everything and will have to be closely accounted for by the Sun Devil defense every play he's on the field. So far in 2013, White leads Wisconsin with 33 carries and ranks second on the squad with 252 rushing yards.
As if White's accomplishments don't make the Badger ground game intimidating, first in line behind him stands Gordon, who totaled 621 rushing yards with three scores in 2012 on an astronomic average of 10.0 yards-per-carry. Almost comically, Gordon's average has increased thus far in 2013 as he has a team-high 284 rushing yards on 22 carries for a 12.9-yard average through two lightly-contested affairs. Different from White, however, Gordon is not much of a factor in the pass game.
Completing the team's tremendous trio is blue chip true freshman Corey Clement, the No. 31 running back in the 2013 class who picked the Badgers primarily over Nebraska and Notre Dame. In his first two games of college duty, Clement has exploded out of the gates with a total of 250 yards on 29 carries with a team-high three rushing touchdowns.
Competition level notwithstanding, the trio has been nothing short of amazing in the season's first two games as in each contest all three players surpassed 100 rushing yards and scored at least one touchdown.
At wide receiver, the Badgers boast one of the Big Ten's best in senior Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin's clear leader at the position with 10 receptions for 184 yards and three of Wisconsin's five total touchdown receptions thus far in 2013. Abbrederis entered the 2013 as the active FBS career leader with a 16.6-yard average on his receptions, while he also stood eighth in school history with 2,059 receiving yards prior to the season's first game.
Behind Abbrederis' senior leadership, however, stands a list of receivers with a much smaller list of career achievements with sophomore Jordan Frederick listed as a potential starter and junior Kenzel Doe and freshman Alex Erickson among the two-deep.
Frederick has hauled in four passes for 50 yards in the first two games and Doe has totaled two receptions for 19 yards. Erickson has yet to catch a pass in his Wisconsin career.
Last season, Frederick caught 17 passes for 196 yards with one touchdown while Doe totaled 121 receiving yards on 16 receptions in 13 games.
At tight end, Wisconsin has one of college football's best in Jacob Pedersen the 2012 Kwalick-Clark Big Ten Tight End of the Year, a First-Team All-Conference member and a 2013 Preseason All-American. Last season, Pedersen hauled in 27 passes for 355 yards with four touchdowns after catching 30 passes for 356 yards with eight scores as a sophomore in 2011. Thus far in 2013, Pedersen ranks second to Abbrederis with five receptions for 69 yards.
Last time these teams met, the tight end position was frequently targeted for the Badgers as Lance Kendricks, now with the St. Louis Rams, hauled in game-highs of seven receptions for 131 yards and a touchdown against the Devils.
Wisconsin frequently operates out of multiple tight end sets, with Brian Wozniak listed as a co-starter with Pedersen and Sam Arneson and Brock DeCicco listed as reserves. Arneson has two catches for 17 yards and Wozniak has one six-yard touchdown catch to his credit thus far in 2013. Last year, Wozniak caught nine passes for 94 yards, while Arneson hauled in four receptions for 19 yards with two scores. As can be expected with a run-heavy team such as Wisconsin, the tight ends are actively involved in multiple facets of the offense.
No Badger offensive breakdown is complete with its typically beefy offensive line with an average weight of over 320 pounds and no starter standing shorter than 6-foot-5. Left-to-right the Wisconsin line includes sophomore Tyler Marz and senior Ryan Groy, followed by junior Dallas Lewallen at center and senior Zac Matthias and junior Rob Havenstein.
Groy ranks third on the team with 22 career starts entering Saturday's contest, while Havenstein has started 17 career contests. Marz, Lewallen and Matthias are in their first seasons as full-time starters.
In addition to the astronomic rushing totals over the season's first two games, Wisconsin's line has allowed only one sack thus far in 2013.
Offense in a Nutshell
Few programs on a national scale have produced the individual and collective team talent in the run game as Wisconsin in recent years. Much like ASU's familiar foe in Oregon, Wisconsin's tactics seem to be generally unchanged from head coach to head coach, as Barry Alvarez, Brett Bielema and the early stages of Gary Anderson's tenure feature a lethal ground attack.
That said, the Badgers are far from being one dimensional to the tune of the service academies, as Stave has highly legitimate targets in Abbrederis and Pedersen. It's no secret that ASU's main objective on defense will be to limit the Badgers on the ground. It's equally well known how the Sun Devils struggled in that particular area in 2012, so Saturday provides a massive test to determine the effectiveness of the coaches' offseason focus on tightening the run defense.
If ASU can mitigate the playmaking abilities of Wisconsin's backs and work its way around the massive Badger line, Stave can be baited into bad decisions—especially if frequently under duress from Sun Devil pursuit.
Anderson's arrival meant a switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defensive front, and certainly there are no major complaints quite yet as Wisconsin has shut out each of its first two opponents with only 325 combined total yards of offense allowed by UMass and Tennessee Tech.
Nine players have been defensive starters in both games so far this year, with some mixing and matching occurring at first-team linebacker.
The Badger defensive line consists of a trio of seniors, Pat Muldoon and Ethan Hemer at the ends and Beau Allen at nose guard. The reserve linemen also bring substantial experience to the lineup as senior Tyler Dippel and junior Konrad Zagzebski back up at ends with junior Warren Herring is listed behind Allen at nose guard.
Hemer enters his third year as a starter for the Badgers, starting 34 of 41 career games played with 79 total tackles to his credit, while Allen has appeared in 41 career games, was a full-time starter last season and has tallied 74 career tackles. Muldoon has been a part-time starter through three years with eight starts among 36 career games played with 36 total tackles and eight TFLs.
Wisconsin's group of linebackers is lead by All-America candidate and back-to-back First-Team All-Big Ten member Chris Borland, a Brandon Magee type of player in terms of leadership and energy. Entering 2013, Borland has appeared in 41 career games with 34 starts and has totaled 308 tackles, 41.5 TFLs, 13.0 sacks, 16 pass deflections, 13 forced fumbles, six fumble recoveries and three interceptions. One of the absolute best linebackers ASU will face all season, Borland is one of the nation's premier players at his position and handles one of Wisconsin's two inside linebacker spots.
The starter beside Borland is uncertain for Saturday, as Derek Landisch, a week one starter, missed last week's game with an ankle injury that might continue to sideline him. Senior Conor O'Neill started last week and might retain the position, while the Badgers staff might also experiment with other options as well. A three-time All-Academic Big Ten selection, O'Neill has been a stable reserve his first three seasons with 50 tackles in 40 games entering 2013.
At outside linebacker, seniors Brendan Kelly and Ethan Armstrong have each earned starts in the first two games. Armstrong might move inside to replace Landisch Saturday, if so, sophomore Joe Schobert may get the start outside.
Armstrong was one of Wisconsin's top defenders in 2012 as a starter in all 14 games, totaling 93 tackles with five pass deflections. In all, the fifth-year senior has started 16 of 39 total games played with 133 total career tackles.
Kelly, a sixth-year senior, moved from defensive end to outside linebacker during the coaching change. After spending his first few seasons as a sparsely used reserve, Kelly started 14 games over the 2011 and '12 seasons with a total of 63 tackles, 11 TFLs and eight sacks those two years.
Though he saw action as a true freshman in 2012, Schobert was lightly used and Saturday would be his first career collegiate start if he happens to run with the first-string defense.
The secondary is regarded as the most significant concern on the defense—and one of the largest concerns of the team thus far—with senior SS Dezmen Southward as the only member of the group with notably meaningful experience prior to 2013.
An Honorable Mention All-Big Ten member in 2012, Southward totaled 69 tackles with five pass deflections last year while starting all 14 games for the conference champions. Southward entered 2013 with 40 career games played with 16 starts. To date in 2013, Southward has totaled five tackles and a fumble recovery.
Junior Peniel Jean and freshman Sojourn Shelton are listed as the first-team cornerbacks, with sophomore T.J. Reynard and freshman Jakarrie Washington as the backups. With the exception of Jean, all three cornerbacks listed in Wisconsin's two-deep were members of the 2013 signing class (Reynard played a year at the JUCO level), giving the position as a whole greatly limited game experience.
A two-time academic all-conference member, Jean has seen limited action his first two seasons with the Badgers but quickly became the team's most veteran player at the position. Washington was rated the No. 56 cornerback prospect in the 2013 class, while Shelton was listed as the No. 82 cornerback recruit last year.
Sophomore Michael Caputo joins Southward as the starting safeties, with a pair of freshmen, Nate Hammon and Leo Musso, behind them. Caputo saw limited action on the field in 2012 as a redshirt freshman, while Hammon and Musso spent last year sitting out as redshirts.
Darius Hillary is listed as the team's top nickel back and is tied with Caputo for the team lead in tackles among defensive backs with six so far this year. Hillary saw game action as a reserve redshirt freshman in 2012.
Defense in a Nutshell
In the front seven, Wisconsin's defense is highly experienced and with the senior leadership of Borland and numerous classmates, the Badgers have the preparation and acumen to make a tremendous impact.
One area of concern thus far is the fact that Wisconsin has been unable to register a sack against two greatly inferior opponents, a trend that if continued against ASU spells a major advantage for the host Sun Devils.
In the secondary, however, with the exception of all-league candidate Southward, the Badgers have a host of newbies that a quarterback like Taylor Kelly, who can legitimately now be considered "seasoned", can and should exploit.
The Devils undoubtedly will look to be creative offensively and distribute the ball to numerous carriers and catchers. If the Sun Devil line can keep the Badger front at bay and give Kelly time to go through his progressions, ASU can gradually diversify its offensive attack and pose a major threat to the Badgers.
Special Teams Preview
Through the two-game cupcake pounding Wisconsin has enjoyed to start the year, placekicking has certainly been a rocky affair as the Badgers are collectively 1-of-3 between two kickers with the lone made attempt coming from only 21 yards.
Kyle French (1-for-2) and Jack Russel (0-for-1) have split duty and the picture as a whole remains fuzzy for what will be seen against ASU.
Drew Meyer, an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten member as a redshirt freshman in 2012, handles the punting duties for Wisconsin, and to date in 2013 he averages 43.5 yards on four punts with one downed inside the 20-yard line and two punts surpassing 50 yards.
Kenzel Doe has been featured as the Badgers' primary return specialist through two games, averaging 8.3 yards on six punt returns while averaging 23.5 yards on the only two kickoffs Wisconsin has allowed in 2013 through its two shutout wins.
Keys to a Sun Devil Victory
Slow Down the Ground Game – But With Some Caution
It can be said over and again but the point remains undeniable that the Sun Devils absolutely must, in some way, limit the Badger rushing attack.
White is one of the absolute best in the college game today, Gordon can take the ball the distance at any given opportunity and Clement has the making of the next All-America caliber running back for Wisconsin. For the Devils, it's a "Pick Your Poison" situation in the run game, so all eyes will be on how ASU can key in on limiting the Badgers on the ground.
However, the Devils have to be aware what is going on elsewhere among the Badger offense because if ASU too frequently loads the box to stop the Wisconsin run game, the likes of Abbrederis, Pedersen and company can easily make the home team pay in the play action pass game.
Potent Passing Attack
A commonly discussed area of potential concern for the Badgers is the team's inexperienced secondary, a unit Sun Devil QB Taylor Kelly and company can test in attempts to open up additional options for the ASU offense.
This objective begins up front, where the Sun Devils will need to hold the point of attack against Wisconsin's 3-4 defensive front, while the ASU running backs must keep the Badger defense honest. If these components can function together, Kelly can have options to target his talented backs, tight ends and receivers in the intermediate and deep passing game to challenge the green Wisconsin secondary.
Attack the Line
Wisconsin has the size; ASU has the speed…who wins?
The Sun Devils have no shortage of pass rush options, topped by the dynamic duo of Will Sutton and Carl Bradford. Will these players and their sidekicks be able to run circles around the big hog mollies from Madison or will ASU's athletic freaks be neutralized by the massive nature of the Badger blockers?
This collective competition will be one that will largely determine the game's outcome because if ASU is unable to enter the backfield—be it for sack opportunities on Stave or TFL chances on the running backs—the Devils will be hard pressed to gain major momentum Saturday.
"This one could go either way"
A common statement made this week in many preview articles, TV predictions, podcasts and all other prognostications.
Sure, trends are trends – ASU has excelled against Big Ten teams at home, and so on. But in that same right the trend of ASU's porous run defense from a year ago can't be discredited.
Wisconsin has competed with some outstanding teams—11 of the Badgers' 12 most recent losses, dating back to 2009, have been by seven points or fewer. The Badgers also have participated in numerous big game atmospheres as competitors in three straight Rose Bowls and frequent combatants against the likes of Ohio State, Nebraska and Penn State. Conversely, ASU has struggled mightily in recent years in tight contests as ASU is just 4-15 since the start of the 2008 season in games determined by seven points or less.
Sun Devil Stadium figures to be a rocking environment Saturday with yet another "Blackout" initiative. For the Devils to pick up an emotional win such as the initial "Blackout" in 2011 against Missouri, ASU will need to diligently focus on limiting Wisconsin's ground game, making Stave pay when he drops back to pass while offensively the Devils have to work to exploit an inexperienced Badger secondary while also remaining effective in the ground game.
Turnovers, penalties and special teams likely will play a major role Saturday as well, so true freshman kicker Zane Gonzalez can't be intimidated by the bright lights, blacked out stands and big bodies of the visiting Badgers. In the same right, Wisconsin's kickers will have to exhibit some progress from the first two weeks to avoid being a continued liability for the Badgers.
ASU may very well be the odds-on favorite in this contest, but defeating Wisconsin will be a sizeable challenge and a win Saturday likely can be considered the largest on a national scale for Todd Graham thus far at Arizona State. Conversely, a win on the road for a nearly-ranked team would figure to be perhaps the biggest to date in the young head coaching career of Gary Andersen.