Before each Minnesota football game, GopherIllustrated will ask five questions of an opposing beat writer. This week, we spoke with Wisconsin publisher Benjamin Worgull of the BadgerNation.com (Madison, Wisconsin) to preview the Gophers' Week 13 away game against the Wisconsin Badgers.
1) Wisconsin's had a fantastic season in 2016 overcoming injuries and a tough schedule to now be sitting in position to potentially be in the College Football Playoff with a win this weekend. What's been a couple of keys for this Badgers squad in being able to overcome a lot of obstacles this season?
BW: The key has been Wisconsin building upon the groundwork laid by former defensive coordinator Dave Aranda in his three years in Madison before leaving for greener pastures in Baton Rouge.
Head coach Paul Chryst replaced Aranda – who was the mastermind behind UW’s switch from a 4-3 base to a 3-4 base - with an experienced defensive coordinator in Justin Wilcox who had melded his wealth of knowledge with the things that were already put in place by Aranda over his three-year tenure. Wisconsin returned virtually all of its key players in the front seven (and had more than adequate replacements for the few that left) but the depth the Badgers have is what makes them stand out. Both inside linebackers who started the season are gone because of injuries, but Wisconsin keeps ticking right along thanks to reserves Ryan Connelly and Leon Jacobs pairing with T.J. Edwards to bottle things up in the middle.
The play of the secondary has also been tremendous. Chryst hired former UW defensive back Jim Leonhard right out of the N.F.L. for his first coaching job and the young players have bonded to his words and his teachings. Despite three new starters in the secondary, Wisconsin has allowed only five touchdowns through the air and recorded nine of the team’s 10 interceptions.
Combine that with a defense that is giving up only 98.3 rushing yards per game, and has allowed more than 17 points only twice this year, the defense has been the backbone of the team and a reason they sit where they do.
2) Wisconsin's been rotating quarterbacks since the Iowa game, with both Alex Hornibrook and Bart Houston getting snaps, what's the rationale behind the move, and how would you assess the play of both quarterbacks in recent weeks?
BW: We never got a clear reasoning for the move but it’s evident that it’s here to stay for the remainder of the season.
Even after Chryst benched Houston Sept.27, he maintained that the team would need the fifth-year senior to have a big part on the team. After not seeing him for three games, we thought that was lip service. That’s changed over the last five games. Hornibrook is still the starter, but Houston has been a getting a handful of series and has made the most of it. Houston has the stronger arm and is more mobile than Hornibrook, bringing a zone-read element to UW’s attack. Hornibrook threw for 197 yards in the first game of the two QB system but has been held under 100 yards in each of the last four games and certainly hasn’t looked completely comfortable.
Ideally Wisconsin would want to have one guy and stuck with him, but the Badgers are making it work with five straight wins. At some point, however, Wisconsin will need to throw the ball to win. Question is can they do it and who will do it?
3) When you think of Wisconsin Football, you think of an offense that's going to want to run the ball down your throat. The Badgers are averaging almost 200 yards and two rushing touchdowns a game during Big Ten play. How has the offensive line been this season, and what about Corey Clement?
BW: Offensively Wisconsin has figured out its offensive line play. Last year the program suffered a lot of growing pains because injuries and graduation wiped out the depth (those might remember UW started four redshirt freshman in this game a year ago). Injuries were still present early on but the Badgers started to really get into a rhythm in mid-October with their pass protection and saw their running game find their footing. UW ran for 236 yards against stingy Ohio State, which was the shot of confidence this group needed. Over the last six games, UW has run for at least 150 yards each time, including over 220 yards four times.
Watch out for junior left tackle Ryan Ramczyk, who looks like a first round N.F.L. draft pick, and center Michael Deiter, one of the best at his position.
Clement’s return has been huge for Wisconsin, who were a mess last year without him healthy. He’s run for 100 yards in five of the last six games and has carried the burden (27.2 carries over the past six weeks). UW is also getting spot duty help from senior Dare Ogunbowale (a weapon on draws and screens) and redshirt freshman Bradrick Shaw, who appears to be the next big thing in UW’s backfield.
4) On defense, Wisconsin defenders T.J. Watt and T.J. Edwards are having pretty good seasons, how would you asses their play, and who are some other names to lookout for on defense?
BW: Both have been critical because of the injuries I outlined above. UW came into this season with tremendous depth at inside linebacker (three players with starting experience a year ago) and are now down to Edwards. He typically doesn’t wow people will big tackle numbers but he quarterbacks the defense, has good instincts and can make the big play when he picks his spot to attack. It’s a reason why he leads the team with 64 tackles in only 10 games played
Watt help hold the unit together when senior OLB Vince Biegel missed two games following foot surgery. Watt and Biegel play tremendously well off each other, as teams that have chosen to double team and avoid Biegel run into Watt. Watt is having an All-Big Ten year with 49 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, eight sacks, nine quarterback hurries and his tremendously athletic interception last week that he returned for a 17-yard touchdown against Purdue.
The two T.J.s are the focal point, but inside linebacker Ryan Connelly (41 tackles in 11 games) and outside linebacker Garret Dooley (37 tackles, six TFLs) rotate in and are just as effective
5) What are the keys for Wisconsin if they're going to beat Minnesota at home this weekend, and what's your score prediction for the Gophers vs. Badgers game, and why?
BW: Wisconsin typically doesn’t beat themselves (3.3 penalties per game) but the Badgers had shown earlier in the year the penchant for turnovers (10 interceptions, five fumbles loss). UW has played cleaned the last two games and have controlled the clock for over 38 minutes in each game as a byproduct of that. Entering Saturday, Wisconsin leads the nation in time of possession, at an average of 35:24 per game. Part of that comes from re-establishing the running game, but the other comes from the Badgers’ defense, as 53.3 percent of possessions held by UW’s opponents this season have lasted two minutes or less. Teams simply can’t drive the ball consistently against UW.
I’ve foolishly picked Minnesota to win twice since I started covering the Badgers in 2006, both times in Minneapolis. Until I see it happen, I can’t pick it to happen, especially this year. UW’s defense has frustrated some of the best running and passing teams in the conference.
Prediction: I’ll go with UW 28-10.