”The answer to this question is twofold for me and comes from both sides of the football. I’ll address the offense below, but the big change defensively was the Badgers getting back to full strength. Against Northwestern, Wisconsin was already without senior nose tackle Warren Herring, a very talented run stuffer who was UW’s most experienced player on the line, but losing senior inside linebacker Marcus Trotter, arguably the Badgers’ best linebacker against the run, two series into the game was devastating. Without those two in the lineup, Wisconsin struggled tackling and getting off the field in key situations
“Both Herring and Trotter returned against Maryland, the beginning of the Badgers’ dominant run. Against the Terrapins, Rutgers and Purdue, Wisconsin gave up a total of 23 points, 544 total yards (181.3) and 148 rushing yards.
“Having Herring back in the lineup opens up alleys for the linebackers to make plays. Trotter is a solid tackler who doesn’t have a lot of speed, but is a solid football player who makes plays. A lot of the turnaround comes from the schedule, but one can’t underscore what getting those two players back has meant for the defense as a whole.”
2.) It almost feels like the offense has changed from the beginning of the season to now? Is that true and if so, has it been more affective?
”Quite simply Wisconsin stopped pretending to be somebody they weren’t by utilizing the personnel on the roster that best fit a productive offense. Head coach Gary Andersen desperately wants a dual-threat quarterback who can be effective throwing and running the football. As Nebraska fans have seen the last few years, a quarterback who can do that really opens up the offense and spreads out the defense, creating more opportunities for big plays.
“Wisconsin didn’t have that player when Andersen came two years ago, so he recruited Tanner McEvoy out of Arizona Western Junior College. McEvoy is a tremendous athlete (the main reason why UW put him at safety last season when he lost the starting QB job and was one of UW’s best safeties), but his ability to throw the football consistently and complete passes to all three levels of the defense isn’t there. Despite those faults, Wisconsin went with him for the first five games of the year and paid for it with two losses. To be blunt, McEvoy hasn’t proven to be a good throwing quarterback in any situation.
“Stave’s return to the lineup has allowed the Badgers to present a bigger threat throwing the football. Stave doesn’t have the speed or the running ability that McEvoy does, but has started over 20 games at Wisconsin and can make UW’s average group of receivers look better than they are. Over the last handful of games, Wisconsin has taken more shots down the field, got the ball in the hands of more wide receiver and showed more balance than it ever did with McEvoy under center.
3.) Joel Stave has been up and down this season, when he has struggled, what is the case of it?
“Stave had a solid fall camp, but wasn’t named the starter for some curious reason. That decision caused Stave to lose confidence in his ability to throw the football and created a mental block (the yips basically), causing him to be shut down for a month as he sought outside help to get his mojo back. After Andersen and the staff finally pulled the plug on the McEvoy experiment and inserted Stave in the first half of the Northwestern game, the junior’s rustiness showed in a three interception performance.
“He’s been fairly solid since, throwing 71 straight passes before throwing an interception last week against Purdue. He still frustrates fans with his inability to connect on easy throws and force passes that led to turnovers, but he’s the Badgers’ best option under center by far.”
4.) The Wisconsin defense seems like it's missing the star power. What makes the unit function so well?,/p>
“Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda has done a tremendous job with a defense that returned only three starters (two cornerbacks and a safety) from a year ago. You’re right, there is no big name on this unit, but the group has had success by buying into the “team defense” concept, flying to the ball, mixing and disguising pressures and making solid, fundamental plays.
“The defensive line doesn’t fill up the state sheet but clears alleys for the linebackers, who have been tremendous as of late. Sophomore outside linebacker Vince Biegel could be a first-team All-Big Ten selection, as he earned the conference’s defensive player of the week last week after seven tackles, four tackles for loss and three sacks against the Boilers.
“Junior Michael Caputo is listed as a safety but Aranda moves him around to all different parts of the field and makes him a vital part of run and pass defense. Darius Hillary is a solid under-the-radar cornerback who is playing at a high level and the group has blended in some young freshmen (defensive end Chikwe Obasih and safety Lubern Figaro) who have been key pieces.
“The 3-4 defense is designed to be more forgiving than the 4-3 and allow a little bit more freedom to make plays and to generate pressure on the quarterbacks. In essence, it was perfect scheme for a young group of players, and Aranda is one of the bright young minds in the game that his schemes are so well conceived that UW’s players always seem prepared for anything that comes their way.”
5.) The general feeling among Nebraska fans is this game will likely be their rivalry going forward. How do Badger fans view this game?
“Right now I think Nebraska takes a back seat to Iowa in terms of the rivalry. There is more of a history there with the Hawkeyes. Wisconsin and Iowa have played each other 87 times and the all-time series is 43-42-2 Wisconsin. Wisconsin and Minnesota own the rights to the longest rivalry in Division I college football, but it’s not much of a rivalry when you win 10 straight and 17 out of 19.
“Looking at the Big Ten West Division, however, I get the feeling that this annual game will now always be played with a lot at stake. These two programs mirror each other in a lot of ways and have tremendous tradition. Much like it was for a long time in the Big Ten that you had to go through Ohio State to win a conference time, I get the sense that Wisconsin fans feel you have to beat Nebraska to win the Big Ten West Division. Over time, that has a chance to make this UW’s best rivalry.”
6.) Your biggest keys to a Wisconsin victory and prediction?
“There’s a lot of things I could put here as big keys to victory (pressuring Tommy Armstrong, winning the turnover battle, etc.), but Wisconsin needs solid quarterback play to win this game. Badgers fans have seen some good things over the last three weeks with Stave and McEvoy alternating series and last week intermingling in drives, but those kind of performances came against bad defenses. Nebraska is a good defensive unit on paper and some of the things Wisconsin got away with in the past three weeks won’t fly here.
“That’s part of the reason why I am leaning toward Nebraska, despite the Cornhuskers paltry record on the road against ranked teams (one could argue that UW isn’t worthy of being ranked). This is a huge litmus test for both teams who are good, but not great and certainly not proven. I think these two teams are evenly matched and this game is a coin flip, but the concerns I have with UW’s quarterbacks leads me to give a slight nod to the Cornhuskers.”