Know Your Foe: Wisconsin

We touched base with's Ben Worgull to get the scoop on the Wisconsin perspective heading into this weekend's matchup with Illinois.

Wisconsin travels to Illinois this weekend in the first-ever nighttime between the two schools. The Badgers have won each of the last three meetings with the Illini and seven of the last eight matchups dating back to 2003.

That's the past. For the present, we caught up with Benjamin Worgull of to prep for this weekend's game.

Let's get right to it, Ben. Were you surprised that Wisconsin held Northwestern to six points last week? What is the biggest reason the defense is now ranked No. 5 in the country (13.2 points per game)?

BW: "Coming into the game, which likely was Wisconsin's last game against a ranked opponent until the postseason, I thought the Badgers were either going to win in a shootout or win around the 38-28 margin. I am guessing most people were in the same boat as me in thinking that the Wildcats would be able to put up points against a Wisconsin defense that struggled against the spread offenses of Arizona State and Ohio State.

The Badgers completing overwhelmed a Northwestern team that obviously was emotionally drained after losing a heartbreaker at home to No.4 Ohio State the week before. The Wildcats were averaging 255.6 passing yards and 218.4 rushing yards a game, but the Badgers held them to 197 and 44 yards, respectively.

The quarterback running game was non-existent. Northwestern only had two explosive plays (over 20 yards) and held the Wildcats – a team completing 48.6 percent on third down – to 2 of 17. The Badgers also finally got after the passer, registering seven sacks by seven different players as Northwestern never got into an offensive sync."

Staying on that side of the ball, Illinois has shifted to a pass-happy attack this season. Wisconsin has had success against the pass (allowing 177.2 yards per game). Who wins the matchup between the Illini receiving targets and the secondary?

BW: "If you would have asked me this a week ago I would have said Illinois's passing offense. The Badgers secondary is the defense's Achilles heel with three new starters. In the two games UW had faced an above-average passing offense, the secondary gave up 352 passing yards at Arizona State and three first-half passing touchdowns at Ohio State. Not surprisingly, those were UW's two losses this season.

Wisconsin's secondary handled its business Saturday because the front seven – a group chalked full of seniors, upperclassmen and experienced starters – put an ornate amount of pressure on Northwestern's offense using a combination of different looks, pressures and blitzes. Against the spread offenses of Arizona State and Ohio State, UW registered only three sacks.

If this was 7-on-7, I'll give Illinois the edge, but the Badgers' front seven can swing the momentum in their favor if they unleash the same kind of pressure it did against the Wildcats."

This is more general, but how has Gary Andersen impacted or changed the program's culture? We can see the results, but is there a different feel to the way things are run since he took over?

BW: "After the initial shock of Bret Bielema bolting for SEC pastures wore off, people have realized that the hire of Andersen was the perfect fit for a program that seemed to be getting stagnate. Yes, Wisconsin won Big Ten championships and went to Rose Bowls for three straight years under the old staff, but last season tested a lot of people's patience for how poorly Wisconsin played throughout the majority of the year despite a lot of talent on the roster.

Change has been a good thing this season. Andersen is more personable and media friendly than the former head coach and has assembled a staff that appears to be superior in x's and o's in comparison. Most importantly, Andersen puts the attention on the players, instead of himself, and has been embraced by the players for his ability to motivate, console and handle adverse situations, which can't necessarily be said about the former head coach.

All those things have people excited about Wisconsin building something better in the future, especially with the players already committed to the program and the players the Badgers are still targeting."

What does it say about this Badgers team that it could bounce back from getting robbed at Arizona State and hurting themselves with mistakes against Ohio State? There's a certain mental toughness involved, it seems. Who are the emotional leaders or where does this trait come from?

BW: "That toughness comes from Andersen and the massive amount of seniors Wisconsin has on its roster. That was a tough postgame locker room in Tempe after the Badgers got jobbed by an inept Pac-12 officiating crew. While you could almost literally see steam coming out of Andersen's ears, he maintained composure, talked about what his team needed to do better and how they had to turn the quickly turn the page. He maintained that tune throughout the week when the ending of the game was the topic of a lot of discussion, and his players followed suit with a dominant performance over Purdue.

After seeing Ohio State capitalize on all of Wisconsin's mistakes and having a week to stew about it, senior linebacker Chris Borland gave a speech to the defense about going out and making a statement against Northwestern. The results obviously speak for themselves."

Most people assume Wisconsin's offense, year in and year out, will feature will a big OL and a hard-nosed running game. Is that the case this year? If applicable, what differs from that assumption?

BW: "The running game has been Wisconsin's bread and butter for the last two decades, and Andersen hasn't shied away from featuring it. Wisconsin had three tailbacks over 100 yards in each of the first two games and sophomore Melvin Gordon has rushed for at least 140 yards in five of six games this season and senior James White has been equally impressive in averaging 95.7 yards per game.

Wisconsin's offensive line might not have much talent as it has in years past, but this group is full of hard-working, versatile players who can play multiple positions. This group also has great chemistry despite being low on scholarship players. Offensive line coach T.J. Woods, who came from Utah State with Andersen, has brought an aggressive coaching style that fits the type of player UW has and the combination has yielded results."

Is inconsistent the right term to describe the passing game? Tell us the pros and cons of quarterback Joel Stave and what the Badgers have and have not done well through the air this season.

BW: "Stave has been an enigma for sure. He has five interceptions through six games but also threw for a career-high 295 yards against No.4 Ohio State on the road. His ability to complete passes to all three levels and move the offense won him the job out of fall camp, but Stave's biggest thing is consistency and trust. Too often Stave targets Abbrederis and has forced throws to him (you really can't blame him considering UW hasn't developed a consisted number two receiver in the last two years). That has resulted in interceptions, as well as staring down his receivers, misfiring on his throws or not hitting the wide open receivers to create a big gain.

Only a sophomore, Stave is still learning the nuisances of the position. He's shown he can go out and have an outstanding game, but he's also shown that he can struggle and make a good offense one dimensional."

Do you expect wideout Jared Abbrederis (suffered head injury against Northwestern) to play against Illinois? If not, who can fans expect to step up at wide receiver?

BW: "Andersen said on Monday that he is hopeful and feels good about Abbrederis being available for Saturday, but the team will know more in the next 48 hours. If Abbrederis doesn't go, Wisconsin will need to rely on Jordan Fredrick, Jeff Duckworth, Alex Erickson and others to try and pick up the slack. Neither of these three is good enough to be stand-alone receivers, so it will need to be a committee approach with the help of senior tight end Jacob Pedersen thrown in. The group has progressed over the last several weeks, but the group definitely needs Abbrederis to really open up the offense's passing game."

Looking ahead, it appears the tough portion of the schedule is behind the team. Do you see a 10-win season in the making or, in your opinion, are there potential pitfalls remaining?

BW: "There's no question that Wisconsin should be favored by at least a touchdown in every game for the rest of the season. It's just not that super challenging to be honest. It's always hard to win on the road, especially in the Big Ten, so the primetime game this weekend, the trophy game at Iowa and trophy game at Minnesota could potentially be tricky. Wisconsin will also have to face a high-powered running offense in BYU and the high-scoring Indiana offense, but they're both at home. Bottom line, all these teams have a weakness that plays into the Badgers' strengths and can easily exploit."

Fill in the blank: Wisconsin will beat Illinois if ________. Wisconsin will lose if __________.

BW: "Wisconsin will beat Illinois if it can run the ball effectively and win the turnover battle. Wisconsin will lose if the Badgers' front seven can't pressure Nathan Scheelhaase, giving him time in the pocket and the ability to attack UW's young secondary."

What's your prediction?

BW: "Wisconsin is favored by 10.5 for a reason. Across the board the Badgers are a better football team than Illinois. I like Wisconsin to run the ball effectively and efficiently with Gordon and White and the Badgers' front seven to carry over the momentum it created for itself last week. Wisconsin wins 38-17."

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