BW: Without question they have been up and down, as the Badgers' best winning streak has been three games and came against three teams who at the time hadn't won a conference game. The inconsistencies have all came from the offensive side of the ball. Wisconsin has used three starting quarterbacks this season (usually not a recipe for success), has gone through a lot of turnover on its offensive line, doesn't have the one-two punch at receiver and tight end this year, and a new offensive coordinator.
We all knew Wisconsin wasn't going to continue averaging 40 points per game like it did the last two seasons, but this season has been full of struggles against good competition.
2. From a distance, we heard a lot about the changes to the Wisconsin staff. What exactly was going on there and how much of an impact -- positively or negatively -- has that had on this team?
BW: It's had a huge impact on Wisconsin, especially early in the season. It's hard enough to go through two or three coaching changes, but Wisconsin has six new assistant coaches this season, including four on offense and a new offensive coordinator. Wisconsin's bread and butter is its offensive line, and UW coach Bret Bielema made a bad hire when he brought in longtime Houston Nutt assistant Mike Markuson. Markuson has a wealth of knowledge and is a good coach, but he tried to infuse a spread-offense style on to an offensive line that loves pounding the football. The linemen hated it, the production suffered and Markuson was fired after week three.
Things have started to settle back in at the offensive line position, but the issues really hindered what offensive coordinator Matt Canada was trying to install and the Badgers have struggled against good defenses to execute a solid game plan.
3. Montee Ball is having another strong season, but not quite up to par with what he did last year. What is the difference?
BW: A little bit of an unfair question considering Ball's junior season was phenomenal. A Heisman finalist, Ball had 2,227 all-purpose yards, led the nation with over 1,900 rushing yards and tied the NCAA single-season record with 39 touchdowns. This season Ball is at 1,417 yards and 17 touchdowns and is a Doak Walker finalist for a second straight season, hardly anything to shake your head at.
Like many others in the offense, Ball was the victim of inconsistent offensive line play. He also had to leave one game with a concussion when UW was going against a porous rush defense. Ball is heating up at the right time, though, rushing for 389 yards in the last two games and putting up 191 against Ohio State (the most the Buckeyes have allowed to an opposing back since at least 2002).
BW: O'Brien completed over 80 percent of his passes in the opener, so we know he's a good quarterback, but simply fell into a perfect storm over the next two weeks of the season. Not only was he not getting good blocking from his offensive line, he was without his top target -- Jared Abbrederis -- for a game and a half due to a concussion. To be fair, O'Brien did turn the ball over three times in those two games (not including a cross-the-body interception that was waved off against Utah State) and has struggled in the two situations he was put in after that (fourth quarter at Nebraska, second half vs. Michigan State), but he still is a capable QB that Bielema appears to have in the doghouse for some reason.
5. The Badgers have had a strong defense overall and have been especially dominant against the run. What are the keys there?
BW: Like Penn State, Wisconsin has had good linebacker play the last several years and the depth at that position has been its strength. Even with middle linebacker Chris Borland questionable for this weekend's game (I would be surprised if he played), UW has options with senior Mike Taylor (back-to-back 100 tackle seasons) and a number of other capable players.
The strength of Wisconsin this season has been the secondary, which has three seniors and is playing like a solid, cohesive unit. Against Ohio State, Shelton Johnson played one of his best games with a team-high 11 tackles (seven solo) and a pass breakup, Devin Smith had six solo tackles, one sack and a pass breakup, and Marcus Cromartie shut down his side of the field.
To hold Ohio State to only 97 passing yards and zero touchdowns is a huge accomplishment for a group that is playing their best football at the end of their careers.
6. Wisconsin has had success recruiting in the East. How do you think the addition of Rutgers and Maryland to the Big Ten will impact that?
BW: The Badgers have dabbled in Minnesota, Iowa, Michigan and in the South, but the main focus of Wisconsin's recruiting is in-state, Illinois and Ohio. Over the last few years, Wisconsin has made more trips to the East Coast, primarily New Jersey, and secured some high rated prospects. This cycle, Wisconsin grabbed four-star tailback Corey Clement from Glassboro, N.J., who is the all-time leading rusher in South Jersey. Wisconsin has also been recruiting players in Philadelphia and the D.C. area, meaning it has been going against Rutgers quite a bit on the recruiting trail.
If the reports are true that Maryland and Rutgers would join Indiana, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue and Wisconsin in the Leaders Division while Illinois would move to the Legends Division, that will be a huge selling point to East Coast recruits, giving them at least six games close to home over a four-year career.
7. What are Badger fans saying about the Eastern expansion of the conference?
BW: They understand that this is a money move for the conference, but the level of excitement over these two schools coming didn't come close to the excitement of adding Nebraska a couple years ago. After all, Maryland is known more as a basketball school and Rutgers had never won the Big East title. Knowing that, it's hard to get excited about those two schools and their football program at this point.
8. For the time being, Penn State and Wisconsin are paired as an annual end-of-the-Big-Ten-season matchup. Will folks out there care if that changes due to the expansion?
BW: I don't think they would care as much as Bielema would, as he's been trying to develop a trophy game with the Nittany Lions for the better part of the year. Ohio State has become the villain over the last several years and so has Michigan State -- despite the different divisions -- with the instant classics the two schools have had recently. It's no disrespect to Penn State, but the Badgers have been ticked off more by other schools compared to Penn State.
9. As you size up this game, what do you see as the keys?
BW: Ball vs. Penn State's front seven. Ball was the big bruiser in last year's game in Madison with his four touchdowns scored and Penn State may/may not be hurting without Michael Mauti at linebacker. To me, that is the matchup to watch, and whoever wins that matchup gives its team a huge edge in winning this football game.
10. Prediction time. Who is going to win this weekend and why?
BW: Wisconsin is 2-4 in games decided by seven points or less this season. This game is on the road in a venue Wisconsin hasn't won at in nearly 10 years. With much of the focus for Wisconsin being on next week's conference championship game, I wouldn't be surprised if UW doesn't perform well in this game. I give the Badgers a chance in this game with Ball's running success in the month of November and the strong play of UW's defense, but it's hard to pick Wisconsin to win a big game against a good opponent when they haven't done it all season.