Over the next couple of weeks, GopherDigest will take an early look at the Minnesota Gophers football team’s opponents throughout the 2016 regular season. Today, we preview the Wisconsin Badgers.
Minnesota Golden Gophers vs. Wisconsin Badgers
Camp Randall Stadium, Minneapolis, Minn.
November 26, 2016, TBA kickoff
Wisconsin head coach: Paul Chryst (2nd season)
Coordinators: Joe Rudolph (Offensive coordinator; 2nd season) and Justin Wilcox (defensive coordinator; 1st season)
Wisconsin 2015 record – 10-3 (6-2 B1G): The 2015 season was about what you'd expect from the Badgers. They won the games they were supposed to, and lost the ones they saw tougher match-ups. It'll be interesting to see how much the Badgers lose on defense with the departure of Dave Aranda to LSU.
2015 offensive stats: 79th nationally in total offense (378.6 YPG), 81st in scoring offense (26.8 PPG), 59th in passing offense (228.3 YPG), 94th in rushing offense (150.3 YPG)
2015 defensive stats: 2nd nationally in total defense (268.5 YPG), 1st in scoring defense (13.7 PPG), 7th in passing defense (173.2 YPG), 4th in rushing defense (95.4 YPG)
Returning leading passer – QB Bart Houston (281 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT on 27-of-47 passing): The Badgers lose Joel Stave to the Minnesota Vikings, and looks like senior Bart Houston is going to have a lot of competition to take over the starting role for Wisconsin.
Returning leading rusher – RB Dare Ogunbowale (819 yards, 7 TD on 194 carries): With Corey Clement injured for a majority of the year in 2015, Ogunbowale carried the load in his absence. Look for Clement to regain his starting sport this fall.
Returning leading receiver – WR Robert Wheelwright (416 yards, 4 TD on 32 catches): The Badgers lose their leading receiver from last season as Alex Erickson graduated, so Wheelwright among the other Wisconsin receivers will have to make up for his absence.
Returning leading tackler – LB T.J. Edwards (84 tackles): As a freshman last season, Edwards lead a stellar Badger defense in tackles, and he looks to be primed for a bigger sophomore campaign.
Returning leader in interceptions – DB Leo Musso (Two picks): With both Tanner McEvoy and Michael Caputo graduating, Musso and Shelton will need to take a step forward this fall.
FIVE QUESTIONS ANSWERED BY BENJAMIN WORGULL OF THE BADGER NATION
What was the biggest thing about this Wisconsin team that you drew from watching spring practices and its spring game?
BW: The word that comes to mind is potential. Wisconsin's front seven - despite the loss of Big Ten linebacker of the year Joe Schobert - could be better than it was a year ago, as the Badgers linebackers are incredibly talented. UW's offense should be better, as last year's incredibly young offensive line is a year older, tailback Corey Clement should be healthy for his senior year and there are some decent options at receiver and tight end. It was hard to draw much from the quarterback race as head coach Paul Chryst gave both redshirt senior Bart Houston and redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook a long leash to make mistakes, learn from them and improve. The most important thing to come out of spring was nobody was seriously injured.
What are the three biggest story lines to follow this season?
BW: Who will step into the shoes of Joel Stave? Stave wasn't beloved by the entire fan base but the former walk-on won a school-record 31 games for the program and delivered some big performances the last two years. Whoever starts will be a first-time starter, so how that quarterback reacts to what's going to be an extremely challenging schedule (vs. LSU in Green Bay, at Michigan, at Michigan State, Ohio State, at Northwestern) will be critical. Another question is how will Clement respond after his hugely disappointing 2015. He finally was given the opportunity to be the lead back at UW and he was hampered all season by sports hernia injuries, not to mention a suspension that prevented him from traveling to Minneapolis. He appears refocused, healthy and ready to prove himself.
What are Wisconsin's greatest strengths for the 2016 season?
BW: Front seven looks very strong for two reasons. The first is that the defensive line had a deep, young rotation a season ago and lost only one role player off that rotation. Junior Chikwe Obasih is poised for a breakout season at the end position, and UW has some flexibility with different packages and rotations with the amount of options the group has. The second is the linebacker role, which could be one of the strongest in the country. UW was fortunate to get Vince Biegel back for his senior year, as he will be the team's emotional leader and an instinctive player who had 14 TFLs last season. T.J Edwards led the team with 84 tackles at inside linebacker as a redshirt freshman, Jack Cichy recorded three sacks on three straight plays and was MVP of the Holiday Bowl and Chris Orr flashed as a true freshman. The group is talented as they are deep.
What are the Badgers’ greatest weaknesses?
BW: While a lot of attention will be on who will take snaps on center, I believe the bigger concern right now for Wisconsin is who the two starting safeties will be. The Badgers had two anchors at the position last season in Michael Caputo and Tanner McEvoy. They were two players who hardly left the field, meaning not a lot of players saw reps behind them. UW had trouble building consistently in the spring with some minor injuries and class conflicts. The Badgers and new secondary coach Jim Leonhard will enter fall camp with close to a clean slate, so much so that the staff might give some incoming freshmen a decent look.
What is your outlook for the 2016 season for Wisconsin and what's your way too early prediction for their game against the Gophers?
BW: Wisconsin might be a better team in 2016 but the record might not show it. After all, the Big Ten schedule makers have been kind to the Badgers, keeping Michigan State and Ohio State off the schedule the last two years and Michigan off the schedule since 2010. Instead of facing those teams the Badgers wiped Rutgers and Maryland in back-to-back years by a combined score of 168-41. If UW wins at least eight games, I'd view that as a successful season. And let's face it, until Minnesota can beat Wisconsin, there's no way I'm picking against the Badgers, especially at Camp Randall.
You can follow Benjamin Worgull on Twitter @TheBadgerNation.
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COMPLETED EARLY OPPONENT PREVIEWS: