Know Your Foe: Wisconsin

LSU begins year 10 under Les Miles taking on Wisconsin Saturday in Houston. Prior to the top-15 matchup, TSD gets the inside scoop on Gary Andersen's troops from Badger Nation Publisher Benjamin Worgull.

1. With Tanner McEvoy named the starting quarterback, what does that mean for the direction and approach of this Wisconsin offense?

Worgull: It means the day of the Wisconsin quarterback being a simple game manager is coming to an end. Other than the year Russell Wilson wowed fans with his multidimensional abilities, Badgers quarterbacks typically handed the ball off to a big running back and mostly completely low-risk passes, as they could be labeled game manager instead of game changers. While a portion of those things remain true, the supposed tabbing of McEvoy means that Wisconsin wants a quarterback who can make big plays with his arm and his legs.

This is was a sign of things to come based on how Wisconsin has recruited in the Class of 2013, ’14 and ’15, solely targeting dual-threat quarterbacks. In the portion of practices that were open to the media the past three weeks, junior Joel Stave was the better passer and appeared to have a better command of the offense, but is far less mobile than McEvoy, who rushed for 414 yards and six touchdowns in his lone season as the starter at Arizona Western two years ago.

Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen has made it clear he covets a quarterback who can make plays in a variety of ways. Before coming to Wisconsin, Andersen relied heavily on Chuckie Keeton, who started 28 games overall, passed for 5,961 yards, with 56 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, and rushed for 1,153 yards, 4.6 yards per carry and 14 touchdowns.

Both McEvoy and Stave are expected to play in certain games this year, so it’ll be interesting to see how they both will be utilized and how Wisconsin wants to attack defenses.

2. How much do the Badgers spell Melvin Gordon at running back and which platoon players are the Tigers likely to see in that role?

Worgull: Andersen said that giving Gordon over 30 carries would be a mistake, so depth in the backfield is critical for Wisconsin. Sophomore Corey Clement is Wisconsin’s No.2 back and has the potential to be just as talented as Gordon. Clement gained 547 yards on only 67 carries as a true freshman, an average of 8.2 yards per carry, and should average double-digit carries this season. The duo could be one of best tandems in the country after rushing for more than 2,100 yards and 19 touchdowns last season.

The third tailback is less certain. True freshman Taiwan Deal held the position throughout camp based on default, but certainly didn’t secure the position as he struggled to adjust to the college game in some areas. In big games last season, Wisconsin relied solely on its experienced backs – which were Gordon and then-senior James White – and kept Clement on the bench. It’ll be interesting to see if UW does the same thing this season.

3. Biggest receiving threat between the 20s? Biggest receiving threat in the red zone? And why in each case?

Worgull: Answering the second part first, senior tight end Sam Arneson is the Badgers’ best red-zone weapon on the roster. Despite having only 10 career catches, mostly due to playing behind a multitude of seniors, Arneson has four touchdowns and shows a good confidence in the blocking game to open up alleys for the tailbacks. His main focus this season is developing his all-around game, and he showed that in camp with his ability to catch passes on a variety of intermediate passing routes.

The first part of the question is the big mystery with this team, which lost a premier wide receiver in Jared Abbrederis last season and has not had a quality number two target in the previous two seasons. A number of young players flashed during camp, but consistency is the big problem right now with the Badgers.

On the first depth chart, Wisconsin’s three starting wide receivers are senior Kenzel Doe (no career receiving touchdowns), redshirt freshman Reggie Love (one career catch that came two years ago) and sophomore Alex Erickson (whose 127 receiving yards is the highest total among the returning receivers). Needless to say, there are a lot of unproven players in this group.

4. Who is the leader of the Wisconsin offensive line and just how much experience are the Badgers returning up front?

Worgull: Despite the lack of experience at the receiver position, Wisconsin’s offensive line has the potential to be the best unit in the conference and one of the top units in the county. The Badgers return five players with starting experience from last season, including two tackles who started every game. In theory, that should allow McEvoy sometime in the pocket and the receivers a chance to get open.

Senior right tackle Rob Havenstein is the clear leader of the group as he is about to begin his third season as a starter. It has been a long road since Havenstein came to Madison, losing almost 70 pounds off his former frame, staying lean to be explosive enough to take on quicker defensive ends and adding muscle to become more conditioned. With LSU possessing some talented ends, it will be a good matchup to watch.

5. Defensively a lot has been made about a retooled front seven from a season ago. Where have the Badgers shored things up the most from spring until now? And where are there still the most questions/concerns?

Worgull: Graduation hit this roster hard in a lot of areas but the front seven took the brunt of the blow, as the Badgers lost their top five defensive linemen and their top three linebackers. The silver lining was a lot of those players were built for the 4-3 defense of past years and not the 3-4 defense Wisconsin is trying to implement.

While the front seven is young, there are a handful of players who played meaningful reps last season. The group has also become well versed with the nuances of the defense, the scheme and are versatile, allowing the Badgers to do some different alignments and packages in the defense. The Badgers have also recruited the state of Florida heavily to add more speed to the unit, and a couple of those players will likely play in the opener.

6. Who are the game-breakers in the return game and how would you grade the kicking/punting specialists?

Worgull: Although Doe hasn’t caught a touchdown pass, he has delivered in the return game in spot opportunities, including a 91-yard kickoff return against South Carolina in last year’s Capital One Bowl. The Badgers will have junior Drew Meyer handle the punting duties for a third straight season, but Wisconsin will break in a new field goal kicker in true freshman Rafael Gaglianone. Showing impressive leg strength and consistency during camp, it will be interesting to see how the confident young man handles the big environment. If I had to grade the specialists right now, I’d say a solid B would suffice.

7. What are 2-3 things that have to happen for Wisconsin to win the game Saturday?

Worgull: 1) Eliminate turnovers and capitalize on turnovers. The one theme in Wisconsin’s four losses last season was turnovers, whether it be poor throws from the quarterback or dropped passes in the secondary. UW had a chance to win every game last season, but lost to four above-average teams because of that fact. LSU is one of the better teams UW has faced in recent years and giving the Tigers extra possessions is not a recipe for success.

2) Run the ball efficiently. Wisconsin’s bread and butter is running the football. When an opponent takes that away, the Badgers traditionally struggle offensively.

3) Hit a home run. Wisconsin missed too many big play opportunities last season in the passing game. If McEvoy can hit all the layups and hit a big play, the Badgers could flip momentum.

8. Just for grins: Is Badger Nation happy this series is being staged in Houston and Green Bay, or would everyone up there have been more content to see a true home-and-home?

Worgull: Akron, Massachusetts, Northern Illinois, Northern Iowa, UCF and Washington State, and Bowling Green and UNLV twice each. That’s the list of opponents Wisconsin has opened up against the last 10 years, so I think Badgers fans are excited to finally get a season-opening opponent to get excited about. There are some fans that wish Wisconsin would have played this series in a true home-and-home format, but I believe those disappointment will dissipate when the two teams square off in Wisconsin’s sports cathedral in two years.

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