1. It seems like Wisconsin's running game is purring along smoothly, even without Montee Ball and with a new coaching staff in charge. Has anything changed schematically in the attack, and which players -- backs or linemen -- are standing out at the moment?
Gary Andersen had a big list of problems he needed to address in the months leading up to the season, and it's safe to say that tailback was the least of his concerns. It's not often a team could lose a Doak Walker Award winner (not to mention his 73 career rushing touchdowns) and actually be better at the position, but that's the case with Wisconsin with Melvin Gordon and James White.
Gordon got hot at the end of last year and it culminated with his breakout performance against Nebraska in the Big Ten championship game. While Gordon's best play is the jet sweep around the tackles, the sophomore said he learned from Ball and White the importance of practicing hard and being detailed. That's led him to be a quicker back with lower pad level not afraid to go between the tackles.
Gordon has rushed for over 140 yards in all four games, is averaging 9.9 yards per carry for his career and leads the nation in rushing despite averaging just 13.3 carries per game, the fewest attempts of any player averaging at least 100 rushing yards this season.
Just like he has been throughout the previous two seasons, White has been overshadowed by a talented back but has been exceedingly productive. He's rushed for over 100 yards in three of the four games and really been the workhorse. The two are the best one-two tandem in the country.
Nothing has really changed schematically with the group, but I will say the offensive line is in a much better spot than they were a year ago despite having less talent. Offensive line coach T.J. Woods has implemented a style much similar to what Wisconsin ran prior to 2012, and it's been embraced by the players after last year's disaster with the hiring and firing of Mike Markuson earlier in the season, which threw off the line's chemistry throughout the year.
2. What makes Jared Abbrederis so good? And is anyone stepping up as a potential pass catcher worth watching to complement him? Lastly, real quick, can this team chuck it if it needs to come back late, a la 2011 in Ohio Stadium? (OK, so that's three questions, but they're all related)
It's not so much what makes Abbrederis good as much as what makes everyone else so mediocre. Abbrederis has to be good for Wisconsin because, frankly, he's the Badgers only reliable pass catching option. It's one of the reasons why sophomore quarterback Joel Stave has targeted him at least 10 times in each of the last three games. Abbrederis is a veteran who has been through a lot of tough games for Wisconsin, which is why his 23 catches are 10 more than the rest of the receiving corps combined.
In order to try to take pressure off him in the passing game, Wisconsin has utilized White on screens and quick passes to the flat and senior tight end Jacob Pedersen, who was the conference's tight end of the year last year and is second on the team in catches. However, Pedersen is fighting a left knee injury suffered early in last week's game and his status is up in the air. If he can't play, Wisconsin loses its only other reliable weapon.
The 2011 team was special because of two guys: Russell Wilson and Nick Toon. We obviously know what Wilson is doing now in the pros, but the Badgers were dynamic on offense that year because Toon was a top-level receiver who demanded attention from defensive backs, thus taking pressure and coverage off of Abbrederis. Stave has connected on the deep ball off play-action plays this season, but the passing game through four games has been inconsistent at best.
3. The Badgers have very good pass efficiency numbers at the moment despite a largely rebuilt secondary. How much of that can be pinned on the opponents and how much of it is Wisconsin playing well? And who has stepped up there?
Two of Wisconsin's opponents (Purdue and Massachusetts) rank No. 112 and No. 113, respectively, in team passing efficiency in Division I. When the Badgers finally faced a decent passing attack, Arizona State threw for over 300 yards against them. I'd say it's mostly the opponents.
This will be a tough test for Wisconsin's secondary, which has two young cornerbacks going through their first career starts. Against Arizona State, Darius Hillary and Sojourn Shelton were flagged for a combined five penalties (four pass interference and one holding). With the speed of Ohio State, it'll be interesting to see how they handle it, although Shelton does lead the team with two interceptions, impressive for a true freshman.
The safety play has been better than expected since there was some depth questions at the beginning of the year. Sophomore Michael Caputo (who picked UW over Ohio State and Penn State way back when) has been playing fantastic and head coach Gary Andersen hinted he could even be used as an outside linebacker in some formations. Senior Dezmen Southward has been playing good, but has plenty of room to step up his game.
4. How has the team rebounded from the Arizona State debacle? Did the team learn anything about Andersen the way he led his team through the whole thing?
Debacle is putting it nicely. I think the majority of college football fans were disappointed how that game ended (maybe because of the pure disdain people have for Todd Graham), but Andersen came out earning a lot of respect for how he handled the situation. There's no question he was beyond frustrated when he addressed us minutes after it happened, but he never lost his composure or raised his voice when talking about how he got no explanation from the officials, how his team executed what he wanted, etc. That would have been much different if the former head coach was still around.
Andersen is a player's coach, no question, and he knows what buttons to press with his team. He said throughout the week and reiterated following Saturday's win that he didn't want Arizona State to beat them twice, but he doesn't want his players to completely forget what happened either. He wants them to play angry, play with a chip on their shoulder and to take it out on every opponent the rest of year.
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, and that's exactly how he's handling the mess.
5. I'll steal a couple of your questions. Where do you think Wisconsin can have an advantage over Ohio State in this one, and what do the Badgers have to do to win this game?
I think these teams are pretty even in a number of areas. I think both teams have a really solid running game that can inflict damage on opponents in the wrong spots. Wisconsin's front seven just might have a slight edge over Ohio State because of all the seniors, talent and experience on that line. Chris Borland playing in this game this year is a huge edge, as the Badgers held the Buckeyes to only 236 yards of offense without him last season. Borland is one of the best linebackers in the country, if not the best, and he's the pulse of UW's defense.
If the Badgers want any chance to win this game, they need to continue to find success in the running game (Gordon was held to negative-1 yard on one carry in last year's game), hope Stave can open up the passing game and see if the secondary can play above their age. It's a tall, tall task, but the Badgers have arguably played the Buckeyes tougher than any other Big Ten opponent over the last decade.