Wisconsin is one of nine schools to have started at least three different quarterbacks this season; hardly the plan coming into the season but a reality due to spotty play and injuries. Knowing that fact, Wisconsin should consider it a blessing to be 7-5, as the other schools have a combined record of 30-65.
Fifth-year senior Curt Phillips will be the man under center Saturday, making his fourth career start after his previous three seasons had been derailed with three ACL reconstructions. The Wisconsin coaches haven't let Phillips throw a lot of down-field passes through his three starts (he only threw seven times at Indiana), but the senior has led to Wisconsin to back-to-back fourth-quarter comebacks against the two best teams in UW's division.
Against Penn State, Phillips threw for career-high 191 yards and two touchdowns, also a career high. While he might not have as good of arm of Joel Stave, who was UW's starting quarterback against Nebraska, Phillips can extend plays with his legs and is more mobile, which could be an advantage to UW's offense.
Ball has scored seven touchdowns in two games against Nebraska and is the only player in the nation to eclipse 1,500 rushing yards each of the past two seasons. Outsides have said Ball has had a down year, but rushing for 1,528 yards and being named a Doak Walker finalist is nothing to complain about.
He also finally has the pressure of setting the NCAA career touchdown record off his shoulders, which he did on a 17-yard run against Penn State, so Ball's only focus is on getting back to Pasadena. It is impressive, however, that 41 of Ball's 79 touchdowns have come after contact, a credit to how physical of a runner he is.
James White and Melvin Gordon have been used sparingly. White typically comes in when Wisconsin runs the ‘barge' formation; a lineup that includes upwards of seven offensive linemen, two tight ends and a wide out. UW displayed this formation during the Minnesota victory, and it was deemed ‘barge' because it was ‘a big mass moving forward.' Unfortunately for Wisconsin, the mass has been parked in dry dock for the past month, as the play has yielded little success since.
Gordon had a 57-yard touchdown run off a screen pass against Penn State, but didn't touch the ball again until the final drive of the game. Gordon is lightning quick when he gets the ball, but hasn't gotten a lot of carries with a Heisman finalist in front of him.
Derek Watt was moved to fullback for the first time since week two of fall camp, and he has adapted to the position very well. He hardly carries the ball, but he's a solid, tough blocker and a good option in the passing game coming out of the backfield.
Talking about the good first, the Badgers have a real weapon in Jared Abbrederis, who ranks second in the Big Ten in receivers at 69.5 yards per game. Abbrederis also ranks sixth among active FBS players with an average of 16.7 yards per catch and leads the team in catches, yards and touchdowns by a wide margin despite missing 1.5 games. Abbrederis is probable to play this weekend after leaving Saturday loss late in the fourth quarter with a head injury.
Jacob Pedersen is fresh off being named the conference's tight end of the year and his four TDs are second-most by a TE this season. Pedersen has struggled at points adjusting to being the team's number one tight end and the blocking assignments that come with it, but he's still a talented catcher.
Beyond those two, UW's receivers are a pass-dropping, inexperienced mess. It's like a carousel of inconsistency, as the Badgers had, unofficially, six drops at Penn State Saturday and all seem to come at critical times. Redshirt freshman Jordan Fredrick, who was recruited as a linebacker, has shown flashes and probably is the team's No.2 receiver. Sophomore Kenzel Doe doubles as a returner, but he has had issues, as well.
Without question, Wisconsin's weakest position on the either side of the field is the pass catchers.
For the most part, Wisconsin's offensive line is a much better product than what Cornhuskers fans remember in late September. At that time, the Badgers were entering their third game since firing offensive line coach Mike Markuson, whose SEC-style teachings were not meshing with the Midwestern brand at Wisconsin.
It's impressive that with all the transition and being severely limited the last two weeks, Wisconsin's offense ranks fifth in scoring during conference play, averaging 30.5 points per game. Since the Nebraska game, Wisconsin is averaging 274.9 rushing yards per game and the school's 29 rushing touchdowns ranks second in the conference.
It's a line that is still pretty young with only one senior (left tackle Ricky Wagner) and two juniors (left guard Ryan Groy and center Travis Frederick), but it's a group that does work hard as has found again that aggressive style preached to them by former offensive line coach Bob Bostad coming from the mouth of new offensive line coach Bart Miller.
"I made a change on (a) Sunday, and in practice (two days later) I knew it," said Bielema. "I heard a defensive lineman make a comment in practice when they were going good-good, just a different approach to coming off the football and just the physicality aspect we preach here on a daily basis. I would say the real impact in a game -- I could see it coming. There's a lot of times I see things during the course of the week where I'm very excited, but you maybe don't see it come out until an exact time.
"I'm not even quite sure the Nebraska game was the one, but I would say early in Big Ten play I knew we'd made the right decision, or I'd made the right decision."
This offense put up 390 total yards against Ohio State, 645 yards against Purdue (second most in school history) and a school-record 564 rushing yards against Indiana. The group also paved the way for Ball to rush for 190 yards against the Buckeyes, the most yards the O$U gave up to an opposing running back since at least 2002.