To get us up to speed on this week's opponent, we solicited the help of an expert on the subject. Here to answer HI's question in Badger Nation Beat Write Ben Worgull:
Q: Will the Badgers use two quarterbacks and if so, how will they use them?
Ben Worgull: Unless Wisconsin offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig suddenly decides to stray from the game plan, Wisconsin junior quarterback Tanner McEvoy and Joel Stave will split time for the sixth straight game, a process that continues to be fine-tuned and improved every single week.
The Badgers wanted to use a two quarterback system from the start, but Stave experienced some confidence issues, causing him to have trouble effectively throwing the football, after McEvoy was named the starter out of fall camp. It was the wrong choice as it turned out, as McEvoy was ineffective as a throwing quarterback and the passing game was on pace for historic lows. McEvoy was finally pulled in the conference-opening loss at Northwestern and the new system was put in place.
Stave should start and is the much more consistent thrower. He has shown over the course of his career (18-6 record as a starter) that he can be an effective passer to all three levels of the defense and can distribute the catches, things that open up opportunities for UW in the running and passing game.
While McEvoy isn’t much of a threat throwing the football, he’s been solid running the zone-read option. Already setting a school record for rushing yards in a season by a quarterback, McEvoy’s 6-6 frame makes him a tough to bring down and his deceptive speed has fooled more than a few defenders.
Q: Wisconsin has been effective at rushing the passer with 32 sacks. How do they do it with a three-man front and where does the pressure come from?
BW: The pressure has come from the linebackers, specifically outside linebackers Vince Biegel (6.5 sacks) and Joe Schobert (6.0). Both of them are having tremendous years and have been named the conference’s defensive player of the week in consecutive weeks.
Wisconsin had 25 sacks in 13 games last year, which tied for 64th nationally. That number didn’t sit well with defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, whose 3-4 defense is predicated on bringing pressures and disguising coverages. Although UW had to replace its entire front seven, Aranda’s system has been embraced by a group of players who have bought in to play true team defense.
None of that works, however, without yeoman efforts on the line. The return of Warren Herring in late October has been key for the Badgers, as the senior has been able to take up multiple blockers to open up running lanes. In the games without Herring, the Badgers gave up a ton of rushing yards and didn’t generate as much pressure. He’s been big during UW’s championship push.
Q: He hear a lot about the Badgers running game. How big is the threat to throw the ball and who are the key weapons in the air attack?
BW: When you have a tailback run for 408 yards and a team run for 581 against a team that was top 20 in rush defense, passing the ball becomes an afterthought. Wisconsin’s running game is obviously achieving at record-breaking levels, but the passing game isn’t totally inept, popping up every once in a while to make a big completion or to throw for a handful of yards.
Wisconsin’s depth at wide receiver is dangerous thin with few proven playmakers. Junior Alex Erickson leads the team with 37 catches – 17 more than any other player – and is UW’s next Jared Abbrederis, a former in-state walk-on quarterback who has successfully made the switch to receiver. He’s not a burner by any means, but a good possession receiver who runs good routes and catches contested passes.
Sam Arneson is one of the best unheard of tight ends in the country with what he’s been able to do in the pass and run blocking game that he’ll likely get drafted in the spring. Arneson has 20 catches on the year for a team-best four touchdowns. Also remember the name Troy Fumagalli, a redshirt freshman tight end who is playing tremendous and will likely be the Badgers’ top tight end after this season going forward.
Q: How do you stop/slow down Melvin Gordon? What do you not do against him if you're drawing up a defense?
BW: Hope his alarm doesn’t go off and he misses the bus to Iowa City? Many teams have tried different defenses and schemes and Gordon has run right through or leaped over them on the way to the end zone. He’s a special team, who is 200 yards away from Ron Dayne’s single season school rushing record and has a good chance to break Barry Sanders’ single season record.
Defenders need to have perfect technique to stop him, as he has enough upper body power to break tackles, enough balance to shake off attempts at his legs and enough vision to hurdle defenders who dive at him.
Gordon has rushed for over 100 yards against every FBS team on UW’s schedule. Ironically the only team to stop Gordon was FCS foe Western Illinois in week two. The Leathernecks stopped Gordon by putting eight, nine and even 10 guys in the box. The problem with doing that was it left them susceptible to the pass, and UW hurt them by throwing for a season high in passing yards.
Q: Outside of pressuring the quarterback, what has made this Badger defense so effective and has the performance been a surprise?
BW: As I briefly mentioned early, this team plays solid team defense. There really is no star on this team. Every player has some a key understanding of their role and responsibility that they can execute it at a high level while trusting on the players next to them to do the same.
Biegel’s and Schobert’s performance has been a slight surprise, only because they are playing at such a high level defensively. Both saw time last season in certain packages and showed flashes that they could be solid outside linebackers in Aranda’s system.
If I had to pick one player it would be junior cornerback Darius Hillary. Overshadowed last season by true freshman Sojourn Shelton, Hillary has been a tremendous cornerback for Wisconsin and has helped shut down Maryland’s Stefon Diggs, Rutgers’ Levonte Carroo and Nebraska’s Jordan Westerkamp.
Q: I sense that the Iowa fans and players view the Badgers as fierce rivals despite their absence from the schedule in recent stretches. How do the Wisconsin fans and players see Iowa with not many big games coming against the Hawkeyes the last several years?
BW: In his first experience with this series, Gary Andersen said last year’s Wisconsin-Iowa game the most physical game on the schedule for the Badgers. The players recognize that, too, that there series with the Hawkeyes is always a physical game with a bunch of big tough guys lining up against one another. Is it the biggest rival on UW’s schedule from the player perspective? Hard to say, because Minnesota week always stirs a lot of passion in the UW locker room.
From a fan perspective, I think the Iowa game is the most important one because it has been so competitive over the years. Wisconsin has pasted Minnesota for a decade while the game with Iowa has been back and forth with the teams splitting the last eight meetings. When the Iowa-Wisconsin game went off the schedule for two years, there was a tremendous amount of disappointment, so having UW in the same division as Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska excites the UW fan.
7. Does anyone in Madison miss Bret Bielema?
Short answer: Who?
Long answer: Ha, oh Bret. I am sure there is portion of the fan base that has been critical of Andersen and how he has started to introduce the spread-option quarterback into UW’s offense and sacrificed some size on defense. Those fans came out of the woodwork after losses to LSU and Northwestern. Those fans have been quiet this week.
In my opinion, the program had plateaued under Bielema, who had a gaudy conference record but couldn’t win the games that mattered the most. Bielema went 39-19 in Big Ten play, but against Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, Ohio State and Penn State during his tenure, he went 11-15. More often than not, Bielema was long on bravado and short on execution.
Andersen has related better to the players, is low on ego and has a system that could help Wisconsin take that next step as a program. He’s also recruiting at a higher level than Bielema. For the majority of the fan base, they would make the same trade any day.