1. Wisconsin has surprisingly experienced a lot of coaching turnover the last three years. Paul Chryst took over this year but was a long-time UW assistant, and he kept Dave Aranda on as his defensive coordinator. How has the program and team changed, if at all, under Chryst?
Benjamin Worgull: Three head coaches in three calendar years was a shock to the system for Wisconsin, especially considering the Badgers had only two coaches for 23 years. The big change from Bret Bielema to Gary Andersen was more spread concepts on offense and a switch from the 4-3 to the 3-4 on defense. The defense was a success and the offense really wasn’t, although Melvin Gordon repeatedly saved the show.
From Andersen to Chryst, Wisconsin is returning to a more balanced approach between a power running game and a play-action throwing game. Unfortunately for Chryst, the cupboard is quite bare at a lot of positions (not entirely the fault of Andersen). The progress has been slow offensively but the idea is there.
Aranda was the only coach retained by Chryst and was a move highly praised. Aranda is a wizard defensively and has transformed Wisconsin into one of the best defensive units in the country during his short tenure. What’s even more impressive is he did it the last two years, and 2013 especially, with a number of players playing out of position. Now that Wisconsin has had time to recruit players to the 3-4 scheme, the future is very bright on defense.
2. Aranda's defense has been dominant so far this season. What makes this defense so good, and who are the top playmakers?
Worgull: One can’t under estimate how important the experience in the secondary this season has been for Wisconsin. The Badgers have three three-year starters, including both cornerbacks, and three seniors on the four-man unit. Safety Michael Caputo is a team captain whose biggest strength is his versatility, being able to drop back in pass coverage or move up to the line of scrimmage and stuff the run.
In my opinion, Wisconsin has the best one-two punch at outside linebacker in the country in Joe Schobert and Vince Biegel. Schobert is putting together an All-American season with his knack for disrupting offenses and registering tackles for loss. In UW’s win against Purdue on Saturday, Boilermakers coach Darrell Hazell opening admitted that the Boilermakers developed a game plan to try and neutralize the outside backers. That’s the ultimate sign of respect.
Unfortunately for Purdue, UW’s inside linebackers are pretty impressive, too, especially considering they are a pair of freshman. T.J. Edwards – a redshirt – had a career-high 16 tackles against Purdue and has grown by leaps and bounds since the start of the season. Chris Orr – a true freshman – played his first significant reps in week three and hasn’t turned back, earning the starting spot with his ability to always hunt down the football.
UW’s defensive line isn’t flashy or having any household names on it, but the group does its job week in and week out, which is gobbling up double teams and creating lanes for UW’s linebackers.
3. Wisconsin's run game, which currently ranks 12th in the Big Ten, has really struggled so far this season. What are the reasons and how much of an impact will RB Corey Clement make if he returns to play against Illinois?
Worgull: The running game has been very un-Wisconsin-like through the first half of the season for multiple reasons. For starters, the offensive line has been an extreme work in progress. UW has used five different offensive line combinations in seven games, including a different one in each of the last four weeks. Throw in the fact that different linemen have been injured since the spring camp, the group has had very little time to build chemistry with one another except on the fly.
The other part of the problem is the injury to Clement, who hasn’t played since the opener and even then wasn’t at 100 percent. Taking Clement out of the picture, UW has relied on Dare Ogunbowale (a converted defensive back) and Taiwan Deal (a redshirt freshman) to carry the load. Ogunbowale is more of a slasher while Deal is more a power back but both have significant limitations. Throw in the fact Deal has been injured the last two weeks, UW has turned to true freshman Alec Ingold, who was a redshirting inside linebacker a month ago, to eat up some reps to spell Ogunbowale.
Clement is going to travel with the team Friday and go through pre-game warmups to test himself. He’s a little more than two weeks removed from sports hernia surgery and says his biggest issue now is accelerating to full speed and being 100 percent confident mentally. He was close to playing last weekend, so my guess is that he’ll give it a shot, which could be a huge boost to UW’s anemic rushing attack.
4. Joel Stave had a famous case of the yips last season, but the Badgers are really leaning on him this season due to the run struggles. How has Stave handled the load in leading the offense?
Worgull: He’s thrown 89 times in the last two weeks, including a whopping 50 times against Nebraska, very un-Wisconsin-like. Stave doesn’t get a lot of love from a portion of the fan base, which is a shame because he’s been a big reason the Badgers’ record is what it is. Stave was likely the biggest benefactor in Chryst and the pro-style offense coming to Wisconsin. It fits him and his style of play perfectly, as nobody will mistake Stave for being nimble footed.
Named the starter prior to spring practices, Stave’s confidence has been his biggest asset. He’s been able to build a good chemistry with a number of targets outside senior Alex Erickson, which has made the Badgers more potent through the air.
5. What are Wisconsin's advantages against Illinois and where does Illinois have an advantage?
Worgull: I think both teams can say their advantage over the other is their passing game and their weaknesses is running the football. Chryst is a big fan of Wes Lunt and even gave him a solid look back when he was an offensive coordinator with Wisconsin. The Badgers’ secondary – as mentioned above – is a veteran group but I don’t think they have been tested to the degree that they will this weekend. To give credit where credit is due, UW has held Iowa, Nebraska and Purdue to 77, 129 and 136 passing yards, respectively.
UW has a lot of options in the passing game that give even good defenses a lot of trouble. I fully expect Wisconsin to try and do most of its damage through the air, which will be interesting considering Illinois ranks 16th in the country in pass efficiency defense.
6. Who is the Wisconsin X-factor for the game?
Worgull: Even with Purdue scheming to take him out of the game, Schobert found ways of getting into the backfield with one tackle for loss, 0.5 sack and one quarterback hurry. Illinois has only given up eight sacks this year and will be paying attention to Schobert, so the senior will have to try to break that to apply some pressure to Lunt. If Wisconsin’s defense can find a way to wear down Illinois offensive line, it could provide the opportunity that Schobert needs to get after Lunt and be able to take him down in the backfield.
7. What is your score prediction for the game and why?
Worgull: The oddsmakers have said Wisconsin is a 6.5-point favorite entering this weekend, generous considering Illinois is at home coming off a bye and Wisconsin hasn’t proven much offensively. This is a pivotal game for two teams that have already lost to Iowa, meaning the loser is likely eliminated from the Big Ten West race.
With two teams that are similar offensively with their strengths and weaknesses, I usually look at which team has the better defense. To me, that’s Wisconsin. I see this game being played in the 20s with UW pulling out a 24-20 win.