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Know Your Enemy: Wisconsin

Badger Nation publisher Benjamin Worgull answers five questions about No. 7 Wisconsin prior to Saturday's game against Illinois in Madison

1. Paul Chryst was brought in to continue Wisconsin's great run of success in the Big Ten. Why has it worked so well to this point and what stamp has he put on the program?

Benjamin Worgull: Despite major depth issues along the offensive line and tailback a season ago, Wisconsin road its defense to a 10-win season, a Holiday Bowl win and were two late flubs removed from going undefeated in Big Ten play. However people questioned how good the Badgers were because UW missed the top teams in the East Division.

This season fans thought the Badgers would be a long shot to make a bowl game based on what they saw last year and the fact that UW would have at least four top-10 teams on the schedule (it ended up being five). Needless to say, the position the Badgers are in – and Chryst being 17-5 in his two seasons – has been a huge surprise.

Wisconsin’s success has not been rooted in what made the Badgers’ successful under Barry Alvarez and Bret Bielema (control the clock with a power running game behind a big offensive line) but by the Badgers’ suffocating defense. Doing it without the elite level recruits, Wisconsin’s finished No.1 in the nation in scoring defense a year ago and, going against a lot stronger schedule with potent offenses, are No.3 this year at 13.8 points.

Now the Badgers are starting to resurrect their run game over the last four weeks, and that someday will again – we think – what Wisconsin is known for, but Chryst’s Wisconsin teams are doing it with defense.

2. Dave Aranda, one of the country's best defensive coordinators and possibly a hot head coaching candidate, left Wisconsin. But the Badgers defense hasn't missed a beat. What's that a credit to and what makes them so good?

BW: Chryst replaced Aranda with an experienced defensive coordinator in Justin Wilcox who had melded his wealth of knowledge with the things that were already put in place by Aranda over his three-year tenure. Wisconsin returned virtually all of its key players in the front seven (and had more than adequate replacements for the few that left) but the depth the Badgers have is what makes them stand out. Both inside linebackers who started the season are gone because of injuries, but Wisconsin keeps ticking right along thanks to reserves Ryan Connelly and Leon Jacobs pairing with T.J. Edwards to bottle things up in the middle.

The play of the secondary has also been tremendous. Chryst hired former UW defensive back Jim Leonhard right out of the N.F.L. for his first coaching job and the young players have bonded to his words and his teachings. Despite three new starters in the secondary, Wisconsin has allowed only five touchdowns through the air and recorded nine of the team’s 10 interceptions.

Combine that with a defense that is giving up only 101.2 rushing yards per game, Wisconsin has been a solid group.

3. Bart Houston tore up Illinois last season. But he has lost playing time to, though still plays in a rotation with, freshman Alex Hornibrook. What do you make of Wisconsin's quarterback situation?

BW: In a word: messy. Even after Chryst benched Houston Sept. 27, he maintained that the team would need the fifth-year senior to have a big part on the team. After not seeing him for three games, we thought that was lip service. That’s changed over the last four games. Hornibrook is still the starter, but Houston has been a getting anywhere between two-and-five series a game and has made the most of it. Houston has the stronger arm and is more mobile than Hornibrook, bringing a zone-read element to UW’s attack. Hornibrook threw for 197 yards in the first game of the two QB system but has been held under 100 yards in each of the last two games and certainly hasn’t looked comfortable.

Ideally Wisconsin would want to have one guy and stuck with him, but frankly neither of them are consistent or reliable enough to have that responsibility.

4. Corey Clement is one of the Big Ten's best running backs. But that offensive line was an issue last year due to so many young players. How has that Badgers offensive line progressed?

BW: Slowly but surely. Chryst inherited a mess at offensive line last season that was caused by a combination of graduation and injuries forcing players to retire. That was the theme again with senior Dan Voltz retiring because of chronic injuries, taking away another key component to the group. 

Wisconsin offensive coordinator/line coach Joe Rudolph has openly rotated lineups. Against Iowa three weeks ago the Badgers had eight different linemen play and four different combinations. Last week’s 21-7 win at Northwestern appeared to be a step in the right direction with Rudolph playing the same five linemen the entire game. 

While the Badgers are still working through some inexperience at left guard, right guard and right tackle, junior left tackle Ryan Ramczyk looks like a first round N.F.L. draft pick and center Michael Deiter is one of the best at his position. The group certainly hasn’t arrived, but they have played much better over the last four weeks and it’s showed in the rushing numbers (214 vs. Ohio State, 256 vs. Iowa, 114 vs. Nebraska, 143 vs. Northwestern).

5. What stands in the way of Wisconsin and a B1G West title? And if the Badgers win out -- which would include a Big Ten title victory over Michigan or Ohio State -- should they make the College Football Playoff?

BW: The main area of concern right now for Wisconsin are the inconsistency in the red zone. Scoring points on 75.8 percent of its trips (25 of 33), Wisconsin ranks 114th in the country in that category. Of those 25 scores, only 18 have resulted in touchdowns. In conference play, Wisconsin has scored 10 red-zone touchdowns, tied for the No.7 mark in the league.

If Wisconsin wants to make the College Football Playoff, the Badgers need to win their final three games of the regular season and win the Big Ten championship game over a top-10 ranked team like Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State. If UW can do that, and that’s a big if with how well the Buckeyes and Wolverines have looked recently, I think it would be hard for the committee to leave out the Big Ten champion when its only two losses were to two highly-regarded teams by the committee in one possession games – one on the road and one in overtime.

Oh, and what's your score prediction for Saturday's game against Illinois?

BW: Wisconsin’s defense has held every opponent but one under 17 points this season. They are a suffocating group and have stymied a lot of really good offenses. I think they’ll be able to do that against an Illinois offense that has really struggled through the air and whose strength of running the football plays right into UW’s hands. Throw in the fact that Wisconsin’s running game has started to really take off, I think the Badgers will have be able to move to 8-2 comfortably on Saturday.

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