Opponent Preview: Wisconsin

Maryland’s (5-2) next foe, Wisconsin, is sitting at 4-2 and coming off a bye week. The Badgers will host Maryland for an Oct. 25 noon bout at Camp Randall Stadium.

Maryland’s (5-2) next foe, Wisconsin, is sitting at 4-2 and coming off a bye week. The Badgers lost a tough opening-week game at LSU, 28-24, and also lost at Northwestern Oct. 4, 20-14, but they’re 4-0 at home. Wisconsin knocked off Western Illinois, Bowling Green, South Florida and, most recently, Illinois -- all by double-digit margins. Now the Badgers will host Maryland for an Oct. 25 noon bout at Camp Randall Stadium.

Offense

Much like Iowa, Wisconsin is a strict pro-style team with a quarterback under center and a fullback and running back to the left and right of him. That’s been the Badgers’ M.O. for years, and second-year head coach Gary Andersen hasn’t done much to change that identity.

Now, Wisconsin has attempted to modernize its attack by recruiting a couple dual-threat quarterbacks who can move the pocket or make plays with their feet, but they’re still keeping with the true sense of Wisconsin football. That is, a big, powerful team with burly offensive linemen and a few rugged running backs who methodically wear defenses down.

The Badgers do use two tight-end formations, and once in awhile will go with three receivers, but for the most part they’re a traditional pro-style. They like to establish the run, and then use the play-action pass when defenders bite in. You’ll also see them run end-arounds and receiver screens in order to un-clog the box and spread defenses out.

For the season, Wisconsin ranks 23rd in the FBS at 484 yards per game and 34th at 34.7 points per outing. Behind dynamite running back Melvin Gordon, they’re averaging an eye-popping 343 rushing yards per game, which more than compensates for their 141 passing yards per. It follows that Wisconsin has a distinct time-of-possession advantage at 33:48 compared to 26:12 for its opponents.

The Badgers are only converting 37 percent of their third downs, which has been an issue, but they’re 21-of-27 inside the redzone, scoring touchdowns on 67-percent (18-of-27) of their attempts. Wisconsin is also 5-of-6 on fourth down and averages less than five penalties per game as well.

Quarterbacks

For the second week in a row, the Terps are facing a team that’s having quarterback issues. Much like Iowa, the Badgers have contemplated using a two-quarterback system, with pocket passer Joel Stave (Jr., 6-5, 230) rotating in with a spread-option, dual-threat guy in Tanner McEvoy (Jr., 6-6, 222).

The results, quite simply, have not been particularly pretty. McEvoy won the starting job out of camp thanks to his big-play ability and because he added another element to the offense, but there’s a problem: McEvoy, for all his speed and open-field running prowess, doesn’t throw well. His arm strength is lacking, he struggles with his mid-range and downfield accuracy, and he doesn’t have great field awareness.

In fact, McEvoy was pulled during the first half of the Northwestern game, and now the staff is considering shifting him to wide receiver. (The Badgers lack playmakers at receiver and could use McEvoy’s athleticism at the position). McEvoy was OK against the likes of Western Illinois and Bowling Green, but he did not fare well against LSU, USF and Northwestern.

For the season, McEvoy has completed 58 of 100 passes for 653 yards and five touchdowns against five interceptions. His rushing totals are much more impressive: 34 attempts for 296 yards (8.7 yards per carry) and two scores, with a long of 62 yards.

With McEvoy in the doghouse, Joel Stave has re-assumed the No. 1 role. Stave has actually started 20 games during his career and is 14-6, but this year he’s been shaky. Some have speculated his ego and confidence took a shot when McEvoy claimed the lead gig, and Stave’s still working to regain his form midway though his junior year.

When Stave is right, he’s considered a steady pocket passer who has good and bad days. He has a strong arm and can hit the deep ball, and he’s performed admirably in some of Wisconsin’s bigger games, but he needs to develop consistency. Stave can be frustrating for Badgers fans, because he’ll thread the needle and complete the deep post, but miss the mark completely on short screens and slants. In many ways, he’s like a baseball pitcher who can nail the corners with his curve, but can’t flip the ball to first base on an easy grounder.

For the season he has completed 15 of 33 passes for a touchdown and three interceptions. He is supposed to start against Maryland, but it’s always possible the Badgers’ staff could revert to McEvoy if they’ve lost confidence in Stave.

Running Backs

Wisconsin’s running game has been the offense’s saving grace, the bulwark that’s allowed the Badgers to control the clock. For the season Wisconsin’s backs are averaging 7.4 yards per carry (first in the FBS) and have produced 2,138 yards and 20 touchdowns in six games.

Normally Wisconsin will rotate through three running backs, but this year the Badgers are using just two. No. 3 back Taiwan Deal (DeMatha/Hyattsville, Md.) injured his hand during the preseason and is taking a redshirt year, leaving Wisconsin on thin ice as far as depth goes.

But so far the Badgers haven’t needed a third runner as both Melvin Gordon (Jr., 6-1, 213) and Corey Clement (So., 5-11, 217) are getting the job done, to say the least. They are Wisconsin’s two main playmakers, and in order to maximize their potential, the Badgers will feature them both at the same time. Sometimes they’ll send the speedy Clement in motion to confuse the defense, a tactic that’s worked on more than one occasion this season.

Gordon, though, is the clear No. 1 and a potential Heisman candidate. He’s produced at least 175 rushing yards in each of the last four games and has 1,046 yards (7.9 yards per carry) and 13 touchdowns through six games. His rushing total is ranked second in the FBS, while his yards per carry sits at fourth.

Wisconsin originally wanted to limit Gordon’s carries so he wouldn’t wear down, but right now the staff can’t afford to take him out. Gordon is running like a man on a mission, a power-speed combination who grinds defenses down between the tackles and then bursts out the back end. He has the power to push the pile and the speed to hit the edge and hit the home run.

Clement, meanwhile, is a shifty, speed type-of-back who does his best work in the open field. Sometimes he’ll try to do too much with his limited attempts, but when he’s disciplined and plays within himself he’s really effective. Clement ran for a career-high 160 yards against Illinois, and for the season he’s had 75 touches for 476 yards (6.3 yards per carry) and four touchdowns.

At fullback, the Badgers actually have a first-year player leading the way through the holes in Austin Ramesh (Fr., 6-1, 247). The original starter, Derek Watt, had to have foot surgery during camp and is out until November, so Ramesh was forced into the No. 1 role. The freshman got off to a rocky start, but each week he’s improved his technique and field awareness (blitz pickup, etc.).

Backup Derek Straus (Jr., 6-0, 230), meanwhile, is coming off a collarbone injury and is just working back into the flow.

Receivers

Wisconsin needs its backs to shoulder the load, because there aren’t many dynamic, downfield receiver threats. In fairness, the Badgers do have a couple younger wideouts with big-play potential, but they’ve lacked consistency with their hands and route running, and are still learning the position’s finer points.

Far and away, the No. 1 target is Alex Erickson (Jr., 6-0, 196), a former high school quarterback who walked on at Wisconsin and moved to receiver. He leads the team with 27 receptions for 319 yards and a touchdown.

Erickson isn’t a burner, and he won’t take the top off the defense, but he has reliable hands and runs crisp routes. Erickson has some open-field shake to him, but he’s not going to win a track meet or go all Percy Harvin in space either.

The No. 2 wideout only has six catches for 59 yards so far. Kenzel Doe (Sr., 5-8, 176) has played a ton of games, but he hasn’t produced much in the reception category, and just caught first career touchdown two weeks ago. A smallish speedster who can split the seam, he’s come on lately with all six of his catches in the last three games, but he has not been featured much.

The only other receiver of note is Jordan Frederick (Jr., 6-4, 214), who is a converted linebacker. Frederick only has three receptions all year, but he’s a potent downfield blocker, especially on wide receiver screens. Many of Gordon’s and Clement’s downfield runs have resulted from Frederick’s blocking prowess out on the edge.

Tight Ends

While the receivers have left something to be desired, Wisconsin’s tight ends have performed well this year. Sam Arneson (Sr., 6-4, 244) had only 10 career catches before this fall, but four of those receptions went for touchdowns. This season he’s being featured more in the passing game, and is second on the squad with 14 catches for 228 yards (a team-high 16.3 yards per reception) and two scores. He is a big redzone target who does his best work inside opponents’ 20-yard lines. On top of that, Arneson is a solid blocker who does well chipping at the line and picking off linebackers in space.

The second tight end, Austin Taylor (Jr., 6-3, 248), is steadily improving, but the jury is out on him as both a receiver and blocker. He has just one catch for nine yards, and really hasn’t done much to warrant attention.

Wisconsin’s third tight end, Troy Fumagalli (Fr., 6-5, 246), could be a force in time. He usually makes one big catch a game, and has converted a couple key third downs to bail the offense out. Fumagalli, who has the speed to get down the seam and the hands to pull down passes in traffic, has five catches for 69 yards this year.

Offensive Line

Wisconsin is known for its bullish offensive linemen, but this year the front five hasn’t performed quite as admirably compared to past seasons, despite the team’s gaudy rushing totals. For the most part, the Badgers’ front five has been up-and-down, especially in pass protection, where the unit is still trying to get in synch.

Moreover, the O-line doesn’t have as much depth this year, although it’s still more than many FBS squads. Wisconsin typically likes to have 16 scholarship linemen on its roster. This season the Badgers are down to nine, meaning a key injury could really test them against deep, potent Big Ten teams. They have a couple solid backups at guard, but the tackle position in particular lacks bodies beyond the starters.

Now, you have to take the above relatively speaking. Even with their issues, Wisconsin’s five main trenchmen are all returning starters, and all are blue-collar, tough run blockers who pack a mean punch. This is still a group that can break an opponent’s will and overpower them at the point of attack.

At left tackle, Tyler Marz (Jr., 6-5, 321) is Wisconsin’s most effective all-around blocker. In pass pro he hasn’t given up a sack all year, and has surrendered very few pressures as well. His forte, of course, is run blocking, where he’s adept at pushing defenders off the ball and finishing plays at the second level.

Next to Marz is left guard Dallas Lewallen (Sr., 6-6, 321), who is a versatile interior lineman that can play center, right guard or left guard. He’s been average this year, however, having a couple standout performances mixed in with some duds. He is considered a more formidable run blocker than a pass blocker.

Lewallen has been starting most games, but his inconsistent play has led the staff to rotate in Trent Denlinger (So., 6-6, 308) and Ray Ball (Jr., 6-7, 324). The sophomore guard Denlinger has held his own, for the most part, but hasn’t done enough to supplant Lewallen yet. The same goes for Ball, who is probably the team’s most competent interior backup. Ball can play guard, center or tackle, which makes him valuable, but he hasn’t excelled enough to start at any of the three spots.

The center Dan Voltz (So., 6-3, 311) has battled consistency issues as well. He’s had some snapping troubles this year, which could become a problem moving forward.

At right guard, Kyle Costigan (Sr., 6-5, 319) is considered the “wildcard” up front. He’s battled a ton of injury issues throughout his career, and the coaches have tried to limit his reps. And while Costigan is healthy for now, he has had trouble in pass protection. In fact, Denlinger has rotated in for him on passing downs. It’s clear Costigan does his best work when Wisconsin’s playing power football.

It’s the same tune for right tackle Rob Havenstein (Sr., 6-8, 333), a former standout at Linganore High School (Frederick, Md.). Havenstein has been a stalwart run blocker the last several years, but his footwork and hand placement have been off in pass protection. He is one mean, gritty tackle, however, and when Wisconsin’s run game gets going he can clear out bus-sized holes.

Defense

Defense has been Wisconsin’s calling card this year as the Badgers are ranked among the top 20 units nationally in most major statistical categories. They moved to a 3-4 scheme for the first time last season, and so far the Badgers have really taken to it, despite having several new faces in the front seven. Wisconsin graduated its entire linemen and linebacker cores after 2013, leading many to believe the Badgers would suffer a significant performance drop-off.

And while there have been some technical issues to iron out, the new guys are playing at a high level, all things considered. (It should be noted that Wisconsin hasn’t exactly taken on an offensive juggernaut yet). The Badgers will disguise coverages to help certain defenders out -- actively moving into nickel and dime looks -- and they’ll blitz their linebackers to take pressure off the secondary as well.

Whatever they’re doing defensively, it’s worked so far. For the season, Wisconsin is holding teams to 17.7 points per game (10th in the FBS), 4.8 yards per play and just 286 yards per game (seventh in the FBS). Teams have only managed 3.3 yards per carry (No. 22 in the FBS) against them and 169.2 passing yards per game (No. 8 in the FBS). On top of that, the Badgers’ defense has allowed foes to convert just 29 percent of their third downs and only 38 percent (5-of-13) of their redzone opportunities into touchdowns.

Defensive Line

The Badgers’ defensive front has been stout so far, even without their best nose guard, Warren Herring (Sr., 6-4, 294), who hasn’t played a down yet after undergoing preseason surgery. The backfield busting, block-defeating Herring, though, could potentially be cleared to play against Maryland. If so, it will only make the front three that much more effective.

This is a group that’s helped hold opponents to 117 rushing yards per game (3.3 yards per carry). They haven’t been quite as effective rushing the passer with Herring out, but this group does pressure the pocket.

At one defensive end spot, Chikwe Obasih (Fr., 6-2, 268) has developed into a solid player in just his second year on campus. He’s become the front three’s most potent pass rusher, but he’s also done well setting the edge, batting down passes and just being an all-around disruptive force. Obasih’s technically sound, athletic and agile, making plays in the backfield and down the line. For the season he has 15 tackles, two tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, two quarterback hits and two knockdowns.

For now, the Badgers start another freshman at the second end spot in Alec James (Fr., 6-3, 259). James began his career as an outside linebacker, but has since moved down to end in the 3-4 scheme. Thus far, he’s really taken to it, showing solid athleticism and some pop up front (though not as much as Obasih). James only has six tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss, but he’s batted down two passes and recovered a fumble.

The new starting nose tackle is Konrad Zagzebski (Sr., 6-3, 277), who will shift to defensive end in place of James when Herring returns. Zagzebski hadn’t played a lick of nose before this fall, but so far so good. Not only has he held up well in run defense (12 tackles, two tackles for loss), but he’s had a sack, two bat-downs and numerous pressures this year.

The backup nose guard, Arthur Goldberg (So., 6-3, 290), has held up well when rotating in. He has 13 tackles and a quarterback hit this year, as he’s seem ample action subbing for Zagzebski.

Linebackers

The linebackers are probably Wisconsin’s most dependable defensive unit, and features the best pass rushers as well. The majority of the Badgers’ 19 sacks (18th in the FBS) have come from the backers, who are used in a variety of blitz packages (Wisconsin will send guys through the A and B gaps, as well as around the outside).

The two outside linebackers, Joe Schobert (Jr., 6-2, 240) and Vince Biegel (So ., 6-4, 244), can both get to the quarterback, as well as stuff the run. Biegel is the better of the two rushers, however, and has a knack for collapsing the pocket. He has a fast first step, active hands and good burst, allowing him to blow by tackles on the outside. Biegel’s also an instinctual defender, who reads well and makes good open-field tackles. He has 25 stops, 5.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a recovery so far in 2014.

Schobert, meanwhile, is a former walk-on who has developed into a stalwart backer. He’s not quite as potent of an edge rusher as Biegel, but he’s athletic and quick in space. Schobert’s agile enough to drop back in coverage, and has the power and speed needed to defeat blocks too. He has 30 stops, five tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, six combined breakups/pass defenses, four quarterback hits and a forced fumble this year.

At inside linebacker, Marcus Trotter (Sr. 6-0, 226) is known for his tackling and run defense. He missed 1.5 games with an injury, but he’s fully healthy and playing at a high level. In fact, when he’s not in the game it’s noticeable, because that’s when opposing running games have had the most success. Trotter isn’t great in coverage, but Wisconsin doesn’t ask him to drop back that often. As a true downhill thumper, he’s recorded 28 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, a half sack and two quarterback hits in five games.

Next to Trotter is Derek Landisch (Sr., 6-0, 231), a heady defender who pays attention to detail. Landisch is disciplined and a good form tackler, as well as a leader of sorts. Along with Trotter, he’s the heartbeat of Wisconsin’s defense because of the stability and consistency he brings. He’s not a bad athlete, either. Landisch is loose enough to drop back, powerful enough to take on blocks, and quick enough to shoot the gap and take down the quarterback. For the season Landisch has 33 tackles, eight tackles for loss, four sacks, an interception, five pass defenses and two quarterback hits.

Two backups to note are Leon Jacobs (So., 6-2, 230) and Michael Trotter (Sr., 6-0, 220), Marcus’ twin brother. Jacobs played in place of Trotter against Illinois and had a career high in tackles. He can play both inside and outside backer, and has an extremely high ceiling given his athleticism and raw ability. A fast, agile specimen, Jacobs has only been playing organized football for three years and is just now coming into his own.

Michael Trotter is a converted defensive back who moved to inside linebacker this year. He’s not especially rangy or athletic, but he does see time rotating in.

Defensive Backs

Although Wisconsin’s pass defense is only surrendering 169.2 yards per game, it is giving up 13.7 yards per reception, and, quite frankly, the unit has been beaten a few times this year. Moreover, the secondary only has three total interceptions (of Wisconsin’s four), so they haven’t been particularly opportunistic thus far.

Of the two starting corners, Darius Hillary (Jr., 5-11, 188) has been the better of the pair. He did have three pass interference penalties called on him against Illinois, but other than that hiccup, he’s been solid. A converted receiver, Hillary has developed into a cerebral, aware corner who typically keeps the play in front of him. He lacks elite speed, but his footwork, hips and agility make up for it against quicker wideouts. Hillary also possesses good ball skills and can be physical in the air. He has 12 tackles, six breakups and two quarterback hits this year.

Sojourn Shelton (So., 5-9, 178), the second corner, hasn’t lived up to his potential yet. This is a Florida native who has wheels and that Sunshine State swagger, so much was expected of him. But this season opposing quarterbacks have picked on Shelton, while several receivers have taken him deep when he plays press. Shelton’s bitten on a couple double moves as well, and it’s cost him on the back end. In zone he’s done OK, but he has to work on shadowing wideouts throughout their routes. Shelton has 15 tackles and six breakups in 2014.

Devin Gaulden (Jr., 5-10, 187), meanwhile, plays quite a bit in nickel. He suffered through a ton of injuries, but he’s healthy this year and has done well defending the slot.

And freshman Derrick Tindal (Fr., 5-11, 174) has good potential, showing out at times in the team’s nickel and dime packages. Tindal hasn’t really been tested yet, but he has made several plays, recording nine tackles and a sack.

At strong safety, Michael Caputo (Jr., 6-1, 212) is a potential first team All-Big Ten player. He has the size to play outside linebacker, the speed to line up at free safety and the power-speed combination to man the strong spot. A well-rounded, do-it-all type, his forte is playing near the line and taking down backs/receivers who hit the second level.

Caputo’s a true thumper who often drives his man backwards. At the same time, he does well dropping back and playing the deep ball too. If you had to grade him out, Caputo’s an A-minus run defender and a B-minus pass defender -- or above-average in both areas. He has a team-high 45 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, an interception, five breakups and a fumble recover this fall.

Lubern Figaro (Fr., 6-0, 179) mans the free safety spot as a true freshman. And while he’s made some first-year mistakes (mainly mental errors), he’s more than made up for it with his talent. Figaro missed the Northwestern game with a back injury, and he struggled in the opener against LSU, but besides those two blips he’s stepped up. The primetime rookie has great range, and the wheels to cover deep. He has good hands, instincts and in-air skills, actively challenging receivers for jump balls. For the season he has a dozen tackles, a pick, a knockdown and a forced fumble.

The main backup is Peniel Jean (Sr., 5-11, 194), a converted corner who has found a natural home at safety. He subs in quite a bit, and has produced when given the opportunity. Jean actually has more tackles than Figaro (14), and has recorded an interception this year too.

Special Teams

The Terps have faced several teams with rookie kickers this year, and Wisconsin is yet another. Rafael Gaglianone (Fr., 5-11, 231), a soccer-style kicker from Brazil, has a powerful leg and can convert from 55-60 yards out. But his accuracy hasn’t come along yet, as he’s just 6-of-9 on his field goal attempts. He has a long of 51 yards, and has missed from 47, 50 and 33.

The Badgers do not let Gaglianone handle kickoffs, however. That task goes to Andrew Endicott (So., 5-9, 175), who has improved considerably from last year, already equaling his total touchbacks from 2013 (10). Opposing returners rarely have a chance to bring the ball out since Endicott now sends most of his boots deep into the end zone.

While Endicott is coming along, punter Drew Meyer (Jr. 6-3, 187) isn’t performing at a high level right now. It seems whenever he punts it deep, he doesn’t get enough hangtime, and whenever he sends it high, the boot doesn’t travel very far. The Badgers have had three touchdowns scored on them thanks to poor punts resulting in favorable field position for their foes. Meyer is averaging just 39 yards per boot; he’s sent four punts 50 yards and placed six inside the 20-yard line.

As far as the return game goes, Wisconsin only uses one returner: Kenzel Doe, who is a much better special teamer than receiver. Doe has above-average open-field vision, can make you miss in space, and has the speed to shoot through an alley. He’s no Devin Hester, but Doe has the capability, with a seam and blockers, to go the distance. Doe returned a kickoff for a touchdown in Capital One Bowl last year, and this season he’s averaging 21.4 yards per kick bringback (with a long of 38) and 11.4 yards per punt return (with a long of 40).

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