Team Preview: Wisconsin Badgers

An in-depth breakdown of Maryland's next opponent, Wisconsin.

Following a 31-15 loss at Iowa, Maryland (2-6) will attempt to right the ship during a 3:30 p.m. home bout against Wisconsin (7-2). The winners of four in a row, the Badgers and their fans have seemingly come around to first-year head coach Paul Chryst, who matriculated back to Madison, Wis., after three years at Pittsburgh.

While the Badgers have had some struggles offensively, namely in the trenches, Wisconsin’s defense has more than held its own this season. The Badgers’ 3-4 scheme has limited foes to just 11 points and 267 yards per game, averages that rank first and third in the FBS, respectively. Other than a season-opening loss to Alabama, no opponent has scored more than 21 points against Wisconsin, while the Badgers have held teams to 10 points or less on six occasions.

Last year, Wisconsin, which is coming off a 48-10 home win against Rutgers, routed Maryland in Madison, 35-7, behind three touchdowns courtesy of All-American running back Melvin Gordon. This season’s game figures to be closer since it’s in College Park, Md., although Wisconsin has fared fairly well on the road, going 2-1 with a lone neutral-site loss against Bama.

Offense

It’s been an up-and-down season for Wisconsin’s offense thus far, but that probably has more to do with personnel that anything Chryst, who calls the plays, has done. Sure, there’s always an adjustment period when learning a new playbook, but Chryst, along with first-year offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph, have actually injected some life into the Badgers’ attack. However, the inconsistencies up front, coupled with the loss of a couple key playmakers (graduation and injuries), have precluded Wisconsin from reaching its potential.

Not that the numbers are lacking, by any means. Through nine games, the Badgers are still putting up 28.44 points (70th in the FBS) and 409.3 yards per game (62nd in the FBS). They’re averaging 159 rushing yards per (83rd in the FBS), 250.56 passing yards per (46th in the FBS) and have produced 31 total touchdowns.

Moreover, Wisconsin is controlling the clock to the tune of 33:26 (sixth in the FBS), has converted 44 percent of third downs (30th in the FBS) and has turned the ball over a respectable eight times. And although the line’s let up numerous pressures, they’ve only surrendered 14 sacks (39th in the FBS).

Two areas of concern: Penalties (57.22 yards per game) and converting inside the redzone (touchdowns on 26 of 40 attempts, ranking 81st in the FBS). Per team media, Wisconsin has been able to move the ball at times, but too many drives have stalled inside opposing 20s or been short-circuited due to penalties.

In terms of scheme, Wisconsin has rid itself of former coach Gary Andersen’s spread in favor of Chryst’s pro-style. The Badgers have taken to the old school “31” and “32” sets, complete with multiple tight ends and fullbacks. In fact, Wisconsin has been known to use two tight ends and two fullbacks, along with a running back, on any given play. Some of that, though, is dictated by personnel, as the Badgers’ line needs all the extra blocking help it can get.

Don’t mistake Wisconsin for a pure-power squad, however. The Badgers will put the ball in the air about half the time, even if they don’t necessarily attack deep all that often. They’ll send tight ends down the seam, hit receivers on crossing patterns and find backs flaring into the flats, allowing them to create yards after the catch.

The only real “gimmick” in Wisconsin’s playbook is the jet sweep, a Chryst favorite he ran often enough at Pitt. Chryst loves sending receivers in motion to keep defenses guessing, either through play-action; fake sweeps; or true end-arounds.

Quarterbacks

A question mark coming into the season and the subject of preseason national stories in regards to his “mental state,” fifth-year senior Joel Stave (Sr., 6-5, 219) has responded with a fine 2015. Save for one poor outing against Iowa, Stave’s performed admirably under Chryst, who originally recruited him to Madison.

The return to a pro-style has helped Stave tremendously, as the quarterback never quite took to Andersen’s spread system. So far, Stave’s been accurate, displayed above-average arm strength and been a sound game manager. He’ll make one or two poor decisions each game, but compared to past years Stave’s been altogether steady -- at times carrying the offense. Moreover, Stave’s become the consummate leader, owning the huddle and earning his teammates’ trust with his confidence.

For the season, Stave’s completed 163-of-268 passes for 1,974 yards and nine touchdowns against seven interceptions. He’s coming off an 13-for-25, 217-yard, one-touchdown, two-interception outing against Rutgers.

The backup, Bart Houston (Jr., 6-4, 224), has seen time in four games this year, mainly in garbage duty. That said, he did play extensively against Illinois when Stave was banged up, the No. 2 responding with a 22-for-33, 232-yard, two-touchdown, two-interception performance.

Houston, who is more athletic than the statue-esque Stave, developed considerably as a passer during the offseason. He’s not particularly proficient throwing theball, but he can roll out and make plays on the run.

If Stave is injured (he did hit his head at Illinois, leading some to believe he suffered a concussion), Houston isn’t a bad second option.

Running Backs

The Badgers' bellcow, Corey Clements (Jr., 5-11, 220), returned last week against Rutgers. A potential breakout player entering 2015, Melvin Gordon’s former backup tweaked his groin in Week 1 and was supposed to miss only two weeks. Turns out that groin tweak was actually two hernias, forcing Clements to head overseas to see a specialist. 

Since the operation, Clements has steadily improved, to the point where he received 11 carries in the RU bout, his first game back. So, if he continues to progress health-wise, it will give the Badgers a dynamic backfield weapon capable of ripping off long runs and grinding out yards inside. There was concern how the injury would affect his cutting, burst and dexterity, but Clements looked just fine againt Rutgers, rolling up 115 yards and scoring three touchdowns.

If Chryst wants to limit Clements' carries, Dare Ogunbowale (Jr. 5-11, 200) will stay in the “feature” role, which he assumed for seven games. Ogunbowale’s known as a speed back, who excels in the open field with a combination of wheels and make-you-miss moves. He does his best work flaring out, catching passes on the run before turning upfield (see: 27 receptions for 249 yards). Ogunbowale also has 565 rush yards on 125 attempts (4.5 yards per carry) and five scores.

But Ogunbowale’s not exactly the toughest between-the-tackles runner, struggling to pick up yards behind Wisconsin’s shaky line. Thus, he often exits on short-yardage situations, ceding time to quarterback-turned-linebacker-turned-tailback Alec Ingold (Fr., 6-2, 205).

A former walk-on signal caller, Ingold has readily adapted to his new role, which he transitioned to a little more than a month ago. He’s not going to rip off long runs or wow you with his speed, but Ingold’s a rugged runner who can push the pile. He can pick up a yard or two on third-and-short, and convert when Wisconsin ventures deep into enemy territory. Indeed, three of Ingold’s four touchdowns have come on goal-to-go situations.

Through nine games, Ingold has 43 carries for 128 yards and five scores.

The former No. 2 runner, Taiwan Deal (Fr., 6-1, 220), was having a solid season prior to rolling his ankle in Week 6. But the former DeMatha (Hyattsville, Md.) star hasn’t seen the field since. When healthy, though, Deal may be Wisconsin’s most complete back. A grinder with speed, he runs hard downhill, showing the ability to break tackles; run over defenders; and burst into the secondary. Problem is, he’s gone down with significant injuries each of the last two seasons.

In six games, Deal has 81 carries for 357 yards and four scores.

In addition to the running backs, Wisconsin typically uses at least one fullback. And for the last four years, Derek Watt (Sr., 6-2, 236) has been that guy, a potent lead blocker who is arguably one of the most formidable fullbacks in the country. Although he’s athletic enough to play H-back or flare into the flat, Watt rarely touches the ball. His calling card is standing up linebackers in pass pro and opening holes in the running game, two tasks he performs equally well. He’s one of the main reasons Wisconsin is averaging 4.2 yards per rush this year.

When the Badgers employ two fullbacks in tight sets (mainly on goal-line or short-yardage situations), Austin Ramesch (So., 6-1, 252) rotates through. Watt’s successor certainly looks the part, but hasn’t done much to distinguish himself as of yet.

Receivers

The Badgers’ receiving core took a serious hit when No. 2 wideout Robert Wheelwright (Jr., 6-3, 202) suffered a significant leg injury during the Week 8 Illinois’ bout. Although not the most consistent performer given his penchant for disappearing for long stretches, Wheelwright presented a matchup problem against smaller defensive backs. A possession receiver with sure hands, he was second on the squad with 28 catches and a team-high four touchdowns heading into RU.

Without Wheelwright, the Badgers figure to lean on No. 1 Alex Erickson (Sr., 6-0, 197) even more. He was already the team’s most reliable, dynamic receiver, hauling in 58 passes for 748 yards and three scores. An excellent athlete who can get the job done down the field, in-between zones and even as a ball-carrier on jet sweeps, Erickson’s a pure playmaker. He has first-rate speed, quickness and agility, allowing him to routinely take the top off the secondary or make defenders whiff in the open.

Erickson, who lines up both outside and in the slot, is coming off a six-catch, 105-yard, touchdown outing against Rutgers.

With Wheelwright sidelined, Jazz Peavy (So., 6-0, 186) should see more targets moving forward, although he’s still progressing. Peavy’s had a couple big catches this year, flashing potential as a downfield threat, but needs to become more consistent all around (route running, receiving, etc.). 

Peavy has 12 receptions for 39 yards through nine games.

Another wideout who has been asked to step up is Reggie Love (Jr., 6-3, 216), who has yet to establish himself during his fourth year in Madison. Love’s been rather erratic with his fundamentals and hands, and, as a result, hasn’t garnered much playing time. Love is a sizable target and can get down the field, however, so it’s conceivable he could work his way into the rotation.

Love has four catches for 55 yards this year.

Tight Ends

Yet another injury-depleted unit, Wisconsin saw its top tight end suffer a broken arm a couple weeks back, knocking him out for upwards of a month. Prior to the injury, Austin Traylor (Sr., 6-4, 245) had been coming into his own during his senior season, racking up 10 receptions for 156 yards and three touchdowns in five games. He will likely be out another week or two, meaning he won’t suit up against Maryland.

Fortunately for the Badgers, backup Troy Fumagalli (So., 6-6, 247) has performed admirably in Traylor’s absence. Mainly a blocker during his first couple years, Fumagalli has expanded his arsenal, developing into a dependable receiver too. While not a go-to target per se, Fumagalli’s pulled down a few drive-extending passes this year. He’s not an exceptional athlete, but he’s a larger tight end who can make plays down the middle. Furthermore, Fumagalli’s done his part run and pass blocking.

He has 22 catches for 235 yards and a touchdown in 2015. Fumagalli had three receptions for 55 yards against Rutgers.

The former No. 3, Eric Steffes (Jr., 6-5, 255), typically sees a series or two each game in two tight-end sets. He may get one target if left uncovered, but is not a serious threat in the passing attack.

Offensive Line

The Badgers’ offensive line was already a concern heading into 2015 what with three starters graduating, but since Week 1 their front five has suffered a rash of injuries. Thus, they’ve been forced to rotate through six different line combinations, including starting four redshirt freshmen during the course of the year.

And before taking on Rutgers last week, Wisconsin suffered one of its most significant setbacks yet, losing starting center Dan Voltz (Jr., 6-3, 301) to a season-ending knee injury. One of the group’s more reliable trenchmen, Voltz’ absence has forced yet another reshuffling.

The lack of cohesiveness, combined with the line’s relative inexperience, has resulted in a makeshift unit that needs all the extra help it can get.

The left tackle, Tyler Marz (Sr., 6-7, 325), was supposed to be an All-Big Ten selection this year. The senior had been a stalwart in Madison, but through nine weeks he’s been inconsistent. Some believe he’s trying to do too much, compromising his own game to aid his younger teammates. Either way, Marz has been hit or miss, surrendering more pressures than normal and failing to generate a potent push up front.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s left guard spot has been a revolving door with bodies shifting in and out to compensate for injuries. It’s unclear exactly who Chryst will trot out against Maryland, but it figures to be Micah Kapoi (Fr., 6-3, 330), who had been starting at right guard.

Kapoi could eventually develop into a steady interior force, but right now he’s a second-year player adapting to Big Ten ball. He hasn’t always picked up blitzers or opened up holes in the run game.

With Voltz out at center, former left guard Michael Deiter (Fr., 6-6, 316) should shift over a spot. Dieter, like Kapoi, has upside potential given his size and athleticism, but probably isn’t ready to assume full-time starting-gig responsibilities.

Normally a backup, Walker Williams (Jr., 6-7, 321) is Wisconsin’s jack-of-all trades, rotating through on the line’s interior and edges. Now, he’ll be starting next to Dieter at right guard, where he’s been OK but isn’t going to push defenders back or execute a key block out in space/at the second level.

Yet another freshman handles Wisconsin’s right-tackle duties. The touted Beau Benzshawel (Fr., 6-6, 308) should be an All-Big Ten lineman in time, but he missed all of camp with injuries and has been playing catch-up ever since. He’s suffered his share of mental and physical mishaps early on, although he has steadily improved as the season’s moved along. Benzshawel’s future is bright, and he could be someone the Badgers run behind more often in the weeks ahead.

Two more acclaimed youngsters, Jacob Maxwell (Fr., 6-6, 309) and Hayden Biegel (So., 6-7, 299), provide depth. Each will see increased snaps now that the line’s further depleted, but the jury’s out on how they’ll respond.

Defense

Wisconsin’s steady defense is perhaps the main reason the Badgers are sitting at 7-2 so far this season. Led by third-year holdover defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, Wisconsin is surrendering 11 points per game (first in the FBS) and 267 yards per game (third in the FBS), including 95.7 rushing yards per (seventh in the FBS) and 171.4 passing yards per (12th in the FBS). Opponents have picked up just 42 total first downs all year, and have scored 11 touchdowns. Foes have held the ball for 26:34 minutes a night, are converting 30.71 percent of third downs (14th in the FBS) and have scored only five touchdowns on 15 redzone attempts (fourth in the FBS).

Wisconsin doesn’t force an abundance of turnovers (seven interceptions, six fumble recoveries), nor do the Badgers rank among the leaders in sacks (21 total; 57th in the FBS), but it’s a group that simply does not yield yards.

While Aranda mostly relies on a gap-control 3-4, he does like to disguise coverages and send extra pressure off the edge. The outside linebackers are known for their stunts, while the safeties will fire forward through the gaps from time to time.

Then, on third down, Aranda likes to use his “Peso Package” to create even more havoc. Basically, the Badgers sub out a defensive lineman and defensive back and send in two extra linebackers, usually Alec James (So., 6-3, 260) and Zander Neuville (Fr., 6-5, 255). Their job, for all intents and purposes, is to rush the quarterback and force an ill-advised throw. The idea is to have as many potential blitzers as possible, making it difficult for gunslingers to identify who’s bee-lining in and who’s dropping back. The result? Most of Wisconsin’s sacks and interceptions have come courtesy of the Peso pressure.

In more conventional third-down-and-long situations, the Badgers send out their nickel back. They rarely use dime backs or drop any more than five secondary players into coverage, however.

Defensive Line

One of the more underrated Wisconsin units, the Badgers’ D-line hasn’t filled up the stat sheet but has more than held their own. Opponents are only averaging 3.2 yards per carry and 95.7 yards per pass against the Badgers, and much of that stems from the defensive line plugging gaps and penetrating.

Of the starting trio, defensive end Chikwe Obasih (So., 6-3, 268) is considered the most athletic of the bunch. He’s quick off the ball, can beat offensive line to the outside or inside, and has a variety of rush moves. Obasih also holds up well at the point of attack, actively scrapes off blocks and can catch backs on the edge.

He has 25 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and a sack this year. Obasih recorded two stops last week.

The defensive tackle, Arthur Goldberg (Jr., 6-3, 296), actively eats up double teams and clears lanes for the linebackers. For his size, Goldberg’s a plus athlete, showing a propensity to make plays up and down the line. He’s not one to bust up backfields, but Goldberg’s a stout run defender who’s difficult to move off the ball.

For the season, he has 15 tackles.

Lining up next to Goldberg at nose, Conor Sheehy (So., 6-4, 272) has become a chaos creator, someone who excels in run defense and sometimes disrupts passing lanes too.  Sheehy can take on multiple blocks, allowing the linebackers to shoot the gaps, or he can win one-on-one battles and corral backs inside. He’s also nimble enough to get down the line, sealing off runners and forcing them to change direction. Elite offensive tackles can stalemate Sheehy from time to time, but he’s mostly performed well this year.

Sheehy’s racked up 22 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. He had two stops against Rutgers.

Besides the No. 1s, Wisconsin rotates through a couple backups, including Jake Keefer (Sr., 6-3, 273) and Olive Sagapolu (Fr., 6-2, 332). Both are considered solid depth guys who can ably spell the starters for a series or two.

Linebackers

With the defensive line doing its part up front, the Badgers’ linebackers have been free to fill gaps; run sideline to sideline; set the edge; and knife into the backfield. Overall, this has been Wisconsin’s most impressive defensive unit, loaded with athletes; pass rushers; cover guys; and pure nose-for-the-ball football players.

The two outside backers, Vince Biegel (Jr., 6-4, 246) and Joe Schobert (Sr., 6-2, 236), form one of the most effective one-two punches in the country. Despite playing on opposite sides of the field, the veteran stalwarts feed off each other, the two upping the ante each time they sack the quarterback or record a tackle for loss.

Virtual clones on the field (if not physically), the pair can penetrate; break down in space; and funnel runners inside. Biegel and Schobert do their best work rushing off the edge, using their initial quicks; acceleration; and savvy to get to the signal caller. Granted, neither are considered standout cover backers, but they’re hardly liabilities either.

Schobert has 56 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and four forced fumbles this season. He had three stops last week. Biegel, meanwhile, has recorded 41 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, a fumble recovery and five quarterback takedowns. He’s coming off a five-tackle, two-tackle-for-loss, two-sack effort.

While Wisconsin features vets on the outside, the inside backers are both relative novices. But T.J. Edwards (Fr., 6-1, 238) and Chris Orr (Fr., 6-0, 228) have exceeded expectations thus far, showing incredible athleticism, versatility and maturity.

Edwards has proven to be a heady, unshakeable defender, who wraps well inside and can pick up tight ends/receivers in space too. He’s loose, quick and powerful at the point of attack. Edwards has been lauded for his ability to read and react, which is why he’s seemingly always around the ball.

He’s tallied 61 stops, 4.5 tackles for loss, a forced fumble and four breakups through nine games. Edwards had three tackles last week.

As for Orr, he’s been equally as proficient as Edwards -- if not in the stat category then certainly on film. The freshman can play inside and outside, flying up to stuff holes or moving laterally to clean up in space. Orr has standout agility, which, coupled with his instincts, allow him to range all over the field. He will suffer mental lapses and overpursue from time to time, but for the most part Orr’s been on-point.

For the season, Orr has 44 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, half a sack, a fumble recovery and two breakups. 

The Badgers will rotate through three other backers, who typically see a few series each game. Jesse Hayes (Sr., 6-3, 233), Ryan Connelly (Fr., 6-3, 233) and Jack Cichy (So., 6-2, 233) all have contributed a handful of tackles each this year.

Of course, watch out for Peso Package specialists Alec James and Zander Neuville. These two have just one sack between them, but their ability to fill passing lanes on third down has only added to the defense’s prowess.

Defensive Backs

The Badgers’ defensive backfield may not contain surefire NFL draft picks, but it’s a dependable group that won’t be taken to task. Wisconsin is allowing only 171 passing yards per game and 5.7 yards per pass, and while the secondary owes a tip-of-the-cap to the front seven, the back line deserves credit as well.

Granted, no Badgers’ cornerback has recorded an interception since November 2013, an almost unbelievable stretch for even the lowest-rated FBS secondary. But that doesn’t necessarily mean Darius Hillary (Sr., 5-11, 187) or Sojourn Shelton (Jr., 5-9, 176) are lacking. Quite the contrary. Both have mostly locked down in coverage, surrendering few game-changing plays and keeping receivers in front of them.

The senior Hillary is more of a press corner, playing up on wideouts and challenging them at the line. Hillary can mirror routes, stick to receivers’ hips and track downfield. He flips easily, does a good job transitioning and mostly maintains inside position. Hillary’s not the most active in the air, nor will he fire up to undercut routes, but he usually owns his side of the field.

For the season, Hillary has 31 tackles, three tackles for loss and eight breakups. He had four stops and a breakup against RU.

As for Sojourn, he’s an off-cover corner who prefers to sit in a zone. Sojourn isn’t as aggressive, physical or athletic as Hillary, but the coaches know how to use him, putting him in a position to succeed. A smart, aware player, Sojourn excels at keeping receivers from getting behind him. He shows the ability to turn and run; track deep; and transition. He’ll give up his share of short to intermediate throws, but the Badgers are OK with the short stuff so long as Sojourn doesn’t surrender the deep ball.

So far Sojourn has 25 tackles, four breakups and a forced fumble. 

Wisconsin’s strong safety, Michael Caputo (Sr., 6-1, 206), is probably the secondary’s best overall player. A versatile, active defender, Caputo can come up to play the run or drop into deep coverage. He can shoot through on blitzes, offer over-the-top-help and range sideline-to-sideline.

In 2015, Caputo has 44 tackles, a half-sack, two interceptions, a fumble recovery and a forced fumble. He racked up eight stops against Rutgers.

The free safety, Tanner McEvoy (Sr., 6-6, 231), was originally a corner and receiver, but has since moved to safety (he does still play some offense, as he did against Rutgers, scoring a touchdown in the process). Although he’s almost too tall for a defensive back, McEvoy moves well and has decent wheels. He’s not the athlete Caputo is, nor is he as potent of a tackler, but McEvoy’s been adequate. He reads well and is typically around the ball too. Like the corner Sojourn, he’s not a game-changer, but McEvoy won’t be beaten up top very often either.

For the season, McEvoy has 30 tackles, a sack, two interceptions and a fumble recovery. He had four tackles, a sack and a pick last week.

When the Badgers go with their nickel package, the third corner, Derrick Tindal (So., 5-11, 176), enters the game. Tindal had some issues on and off the field last season, but has rebounded nicely in 2015. He’s considered a reliable slot-corner who can shadow speedy receivers and make open-field tackles.

Tindal has 29 stops, a tackle for loss and four breakups this year. He had three tackles in the RU bout.

Special Teams

Wisconsin’s special teams haven’t been especially special through nine games.

Kicker Rafael Gaglianone (So., 5-11, 240) can send the ball 50-plus yards and has nailed clutch kicks during his short career, but he’s had accuracy issues this year.  The linebacker-lookalike hasn’t wavered in his confidence, according to team media, but the numbers speak for themselves. Gaglianone has converted only 13-of-20 attempts, with a long of 49 yards. He’s had one kick blocked as well.

Gaglianone does not handle kickoffs, however. That responsibility lies with Andrew Endicott (Jr., 5-9, 172), who has only sent nine of his 32 attempts into the endzone for touchbacks.

Meanwhile, the punter, Drew Meyer (Sr., 6-3, 189), has been consistent all season. The Big Ten’s special teams player of the week in Week 8, Meyer has a strong leg and can pin opponents deep. On top of that, Meyer’s a veteran who isn’t going to shank a kick or fumble a snap.

For the season, he’s averaging 39.3 yards per punt, sending seven 50-plus yards and placing 19 inside the 20-yard line.

With the Badgers’ return units, Wisconsin hasn’t found a standout punt or kick returner. Alex Erickson, who brings back punts, is averaging 9.63 yards per return, with a long of 35 yards. He has sure hands and won’t muff the ball, but he lacks pop and probably isn’t a home-run threat.

Kick returner Natrell Jamerson hasn’t wowed, either. Although he possesses decent speed, Jamerson hasn’t shown he can burst through small creases and accelerate downfield. He’s averaging about 18.4 yards per bringback, with a long of just 33 yards.

Wisconsin’s coverage units, though, have mostly held up, limiting game-changing returns.

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