Recon: Wisconsin

Badger Nation Publisher Ben Worgull has the breakdown of the Badgers for Saturday's matchup in Madison.

1. Even in last week's loss, Melvin Gordon still put up a big day (230+ yards on the ground). Does he top that this week against a much softer run defense?

I certainly would say he’ll be in the ballpark if he stays healthy and the staff let him work deep into the second half. Gordon hasn’t come out and said it directly, but it’s obvious from the expression on his face the last couple weeks that he is getting frustrated by his offense’s performance. For example, Gordon ran for a career-high 259 on 27 carries – his third straight game of rushing for at least 180 yards – and the offense scored only 14 points in the six-point loss to Northwestern last weekend.

Gordon decided against the NFL following last season for a couple of reasons; mainly team success and show scouts his advanced skill set. He’s proven the latter with his ability to pass protect and catch some passes out of the backfield, showing he can be an every-down back. That unfortunately doesn’t mean much to him being a leader on a team that is 3-2 and on an offense that is sputtering.

2. Quarterback play at Wisconsin has been a mixed bag with Joel Stave and Tanner McEvoy both in and out of the starting QB position. There has been talk of a two-quarterback system for Wisconsin. Do you see that working out or do you think one will emerge over the other and the position will regain stability?

Although I am not a fan of it, a two-quarterback system can work between Stave and McEvoy if it is used correctly, meaning the Badgers don’t break up rhythm or momentum by inserting another quarterback into the offense. For example, Wisconsin tried the two quarterback system five years ago in a situation that was similar to this one. At the time in a home game against Iowa, pocket-passer Scott Tolzien led Wisconsin on a lengthy touchdown drive only to be replaced by dual-threat Curt Phillips on the next drive because that’s what the coaching staff had scripted. The offense stalled and UW never got its momentum back, eventually losing the game.

Although there are a lot of issues on the offense besides the quarterback (i.e. no dependable depth at receiver, inconsistent play on the offensive line), we’ve seen through five weeks that McEvoy is very limited with what he can do as a quarterback. Stave isn’t what Andersen and his staff ideally want under center because of his lack of mobility, but his arm strength and ability to execute down-field throws is superior to McEvoy. At this point, that’s should be more important to a UW coaching staff than a player’s ability to run a zone-read option.

3. How much of an impact, especially in the Big Ten, has the loss of a couple of the key defenders in the Badgers' defensive front had on the defense and who, if anyone, has stepped up to fill in the gaps?

Wisconsin had survived without senior nose tackle Warren Herring, who injured his knee at the end of the third quarter in the season opener. The impact of his loss could be immediately seen with LSU’s ability to run the ball efficiently and register the come-from-behind victory. UW altered its attack the next four weeks without Herring but really hit a snag last week when senior middle linebacker Marcus Trotter only played two series before leaving the game with a groin injury. Both players are not expected to play Saturday.Herring’s injury has caused UW to do a couple different things with its front. One is requiring backup nose tackle Arthur Goldberg to play a large number of reps and the other is flipping end Konrad Zagzebski to nose tackle and putting UW’s young freshman end tandem – Alec James and Chikwe Obasih – in the starting lineup.

Last week we saw UW use only two down linemen for portions of the game and move outside linebacker Vince Biegel up to the line of scrimmage. In the place of Trotter, UW went to his twin brother Michael Trotter. Michael is a converted safety but has played linebacker in his football career. He’s a smart player who knows the defense, but isn’t as strong against the run compared to Marcus.

4. Everyone knows about Melvin Gordon, but what sort of day do you expect Wisconsin's other running backs to have against the Illinois defense?

Wisconsin is essentially working with two healthy tailbacks this season after injuries to a pair of true freshmen forced them to redshirt. That has made the workload of sophomore Corey Clement all that more important. Clement has been a nice addition to Gordon with his ability to carry the football effectively and be a weapon out of the backfield in the passing game. Clement entered Big Ten play averaging 72.5 yards per game, but was held to only 22 yards on six carries against Northwestern. I would Clement to get double-digit carries and have a good chance to be productive.

5. If there's one position group for Wisconsin that has really struggled this season (aside from the quarterbacks), which group is that and why?

There are a couple positions I could put here, but the play of the wide receivers has really limited the offense. Wisconsin has struggled for years recruiting talented wide receivers to Madison, maybe in part because they are so well known as a running school. UW’s best receivers in the last handful of years were Nick Toon (who grew up outside Madison and his father played for the Badgers) and Jared Abbrederis (a former quarterback walk-on).

Right now, UW’s best wide receiver is junior Alex Erickson, a former walk-on quarterback, who has caught 25 passes. The next closest receiver is senior Kenzel Doe with five catches, four of which came last week. The group is plagued with inconsistencies and a lack of natural talent. UW is trying to address the lack of depth in recruiting, but that takes time and none of the three true freshmen receivers UW brought in last recruiting cycle have shown they are ready to consistently contribute.

6. Do you feel like Wisconsin is playing tight as a result the effects of the early season loss against LSU given that they had a solid lead in the fourth quarter?

I don’t think Wisconsin is playing tight as much as they aren’t playing consistent. This is a young team in a lot of areas. The Badgers had to retool their entire front seven, lost their best deep-play threat in Abbrederis, lost three tight ends and a lot of other pieces off last year’s 9-4 team. Also UW is still transitioning into a new scheme on defense and tinkering with the attack on offense. Those things take a little bit of time, which isn’t usually a luxury with a lot of fan bases in major college football.

7. How much did last week's loss to Northwestern sting and how do you think the team will respond against Illinois?

It wasn’t as brutal as Illinois losing at home to Purdue, but it still stung on a lot of levels. Regardless of its record, Northwestern is a good team but a team nonetheless Wisconsin should beat. Those thoughts started to go out the window when the offense couldn’t move the ball consistently and stop from turning it over four times and the defense gave up huge chunks of yards and missed nearly 20 tackles. Wisconsin won’t beat many teams by doing that.

However, a lot of the upperclassmen who spoke tried to put it into perspective. It was the Badgers’ first conference loss and they have seven more Big Ten games to correct their problems and accomplish their goal of a division championship. Wisconsin hasn’t played well in the first quarter its last four games, so the first 15 minutes Saturday will indicate to me how this team is going to respond following the Northwestern disappointment.

8. Is the vibe around Gary Anderson remaining positive, even with some of the struggles the team is having this season?

There is a vocal portion of the fan base that continue to call for Andersen to be fired along with offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, apparently not pleased with how Wisconsin’s offense is starting to stray away from its power running attack. What those people fail to comprehend is that Andersen has only had one full recruiting cycle to fix the depth problems that plagued UW at a number of positions. It’s still early in his tenure, so I think judgment has to be reserved for at least one more season. I have no problem with Andersen overall, recognizing that this is somewhat of a rebuilding year for a program that lost a lot of seniors off last year’s team and has an obvious lack of depth/talent at other positions that wasn’t addressed by the former coaching staff.

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