A preseason favorite to compete for the conference crown, the Badgers haven't lived up to the hype to this point in the season, dropping games to Oregon State and Nebraska and narrowly defeating Northern Iowa, Utah State and UTEP.
Regardless of prior results, the Badgers figure to be a formidable opponent, led by one of the premier tailbacks in the nation in Montee Ball. The winners of 19 straight games in Camp Randall, Wisconsin looks to get back on the winning track.
How will the Badgers get back to their winning ways? To find out, Illni Playbook reached out to Wisconsin Badger Nation Publisher Benjamin Worgull to provide insight on this weekend's game.
After leading Nebraska by double digits early and eventually losing, where is this team's mindset? How does the team avoid a snowball effect or carryover of poor play?
WORGULL: The team's mindset after the game was understandably disappointed. More than a few players said that they let that game slip away, which is accurate considering Wisconsin led by 17 points in the first half and in the second half. After a nonconference season when Wisconsin hardly played well, the Badgers showed themselves in the first half that the team can play clean, consistent, aggressive football. Wisconsin's play in the first half was what a lot of players expected the team to play like throughout the season, and Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema admitted that his team is a few small corrections away from finding its groove.
Can Wisconsin recover and make a run at repeating as conference champs?
WORGULL: Without question. The big benefit of the new conference divisions is that an out-of-division loss isn't the end of the world. Furthermore, the Leaders Division has two teams ineligible for the conference championship game in Indianapolis, meaning the Badgers are competing with Illinois, Indiana and Purdue. Frankly, that's not the toughest of challenges.
Going back two years, Wisconsin lost its conference opener at Michigan State, 34-24, and won its final seven games to win a share of the conference title. So it has been done by the Badgers, and done under harder circumstances.
Obviously the firing of Mike Markuson brought attention to the offensive line -- how has the unit and offense responded since that firing? And on that point -- the Badgers have allowed over two sacks per game and Montee Ball is averaging less than four yards per carry -- how surprised are you that the offensive line hasn't played at the level we're accustomed to seeing from that group?
WORGULL: The group is getting better slowly, but there is still a lot of work to be done with this group. The jump in competition from Utah State and UTEP to Nebraska is a big leap, but Wisconsin was efficient in the first half with opening up running lanes. After the Cornhuskers made changes at halftime, the running lanes disappeared and so did Wisconsin's success running the football. The group's struggles have been surprising with the absolute failure of Markuson's SEC philosophies with UW's players, but Bart Miller (UW's interim offensive line coach) is close to getting this young group (one senior, two juniors, two sophomores) back to a cohesive unit.
What is the current status of the quarterback position?
WORGULL: Joel Stave will get his third straight start on Saturday over junior quarterback Danny O'Brien. Bielema has been a big fan of Stave's poise and maturity beyond his redshirt freshman season. More importantly, Stave hasn't turned the ball over. In the last games, Stave has thrown one interception with no fumbles. In the four games O'Brien has played, he has been responsible for one interception and three fumbles.
Jared Abbrederies had a great year last season, so he's not catching teams by surprise. How is Wisconsin getting him open and getting him the ball?
WORGULL: Wisconsin doesn't have a lot of good options and depth at the receivers position, so the Badgers' quarterbacks are always looking at the junior first. Abbrederis leads the conference with 99.8 receiving per game and is a true deep threat, averaging 20 yards per catch. Wisconsin isn't doing anything special in terms of picks or putting him in motion. Simply put, Abbrederis is so good and talented that he finds ways to give himself space on the field.
Illinois struggled with a Penn State defense that's frequently called a "physical group." Would this tag apply to Wisconsin and, if so, why?
WORGULL: In theory that is true, but we're still finding out the identity of this Wisconsin team. They started to show some of that swagger last week with holding down the Cornhuskers with an aggressive pass rush, solid run defense and good secondary play. This team is full of experienced players at all three positions, so it's a smart group that has played a lot of football games. I don't know if I would classify Wisconsin as physical or more physical than Penn State, but the Badgers are certainly a smart group.
Most people following the Big Ten know about linebacker Mike Taylor. He's good -- real good. Give us a few more names on that defense that you think could make a difference Saturday.
WORGULL: Chris Borland is a heck of a football player. He ranks seventh in the conference with 43 tackles and seventh in the league with an average of 8.6 stops per game. In one series against Nebraska, Borland hurdled a defender to make a tackle for loss and came from the middle of the field to the far sideline to register a tackle on the tailback for no gain. He's only 5-10, 5-11, but Borland plays with an aggressiveness and speed that makes him one of the top linebackers in the nation.
Clearly playing at home gives any team an advantage -- but why do you think Wisconsin has been so successful under coach Bielema at Camp Randall? A 42-3 overall record there, including winning the last 19 -- that's incredible.
WORGULL: Part of it is competition, as Wisconsin has yet to play a ranked nonconference opponent at home in Bielema's seven years. Wisconsin has also played only seven ranked conference teams during that time, which is where those three losses come from. The part of it is the winning culture that has been established dating back to Barry Alvarez. It's a special atmosphere at Wisconsin from the fans and students to the city itself. It's hard to explain but the Badgers go into every home game expecting they are going to win.
For those who haven't seen Wisconsin play, why do you think the offense struggled so much in the non-conference portion of the schedule? Was this team overrated or was something amiss?
WORGULL: A little of both. I mentioned the problems with the offensive line, which turns out to be a huge deal for when a running school like Wisconsin can't run the ball. That led to problems with the quarterback play and it snowballed. I don't think a lot of people recognized how much all the new personal was going to affect this team, as UW was breaking in a new quarterback, three new offensive linemen and new wide receivers with four new offensive coaches (including an offensive coordinator). While the defense has played well minus a breakdown here or there, the offense for Wisconsin is still looking to find its groove.
It's been mentioned that the Wisconsin defense is vulnerable to speed and players making plays in space -- how does the unit adjust to stop that?
WORGULL: It's football 101 for Wisconsin – be assignment sound, read your keys and make tackles. In every game this season, Wisconsin's defense has not followed one of those rules and it's cost them. Of the 12 touchdowns Wisconsin has given up this season, seven has resulted in scores of over 20 yards. On a bunch of those, Wisconsin could have made a tackle that would have prevented the six points. Spread offenses have hurt the Badgers in the past (Rose Bowl vs. Oregon, last week, etc.), but Wisconsin's own shortcomings are as much to blame.
Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has taken quite a few hits this season -- do you see the Wisconsin defensive front being able to get to Scheelhaase?
WORGULL: The defensive pressure has been there all season, but the sacks have been missing. Wisconsin's defensive line didn't get its first sack of the season until the third game. Lucky for them, the Badgers are expected to get back two experienced defensive ends for this week (senior Brendan Kelly has missed three games with a hamstring problem and junior Pat Muldoon has missed a pair with a broken hand), so that should help Wisconsin put more pressure on Scheelhaase.
Fill in the blank… Wisconsin wins the game if ______. Wisconsin loses the game if _____. And what's your prediction?
WORGULL: Wisconsin wins this game if they can put the Nebraska loss behind them and will lose if they don't. Simple as that. Wisconsin put a real emphasis on putting defeats, especially conference setbacks, behind them. In the last two seasons, Wisconsin is 12-1 after losing their opening road game. I think Wisconsin's running game – much maligned for much of the season because of performance – has a good day and the Badgers get their first conference win.