What to make of the Badgers? Well I would say this Wisconsin team is no fluke. Gary Andersen's squad has rounded into form as the season had gone on. They are a hard-nosed, tough bunch with plenty of talent on both sides of the ball.
Ohio State has seen Melvin Gordon and a lot of members of this offensive line before, but both are better than they were last September. The line moves well and mashes people, and they communicate well on combo blocks and can get to the second level. Some Wisconsin lines have been a bit stiff in pass protection over the years, but that is not the case with this group. They are very solid in that department whether you're using the eye test or Football Outsiders advanced numbers. In the latter, UW ranks among the best in the country in standard down sack rate and average in passing down sack rate.
Gordon was very good last year, but I viewed him as kind of a mistake hitter. He could exploit a crease with the best of them because of his speed and relative power, but he wasn't necessarily one to make something out of nothing. This year he looks more powerful and elusive without giving up any speed or agility. Even when he takes a hit, he keeps his feet moving and can bounce off hits and get right back to top speed very quickly. I thought Montee Ball was by far the most talented and complete back Wisconsin had had since Barry Alvarez hit town, but Gordon is better overall. He is relentless. Corey Clement is also a very talented backup who could start for many teams.
Derek Watt is a standout at fullback, and Sam Arneson brings some star power to the tight end position. There is certainly no Jared Abbrederis in the receiving corps, but Alex Erickson is a solid threat if unaccounted for. They don't have anyone who is going to take the top off the defense, but they can create big plays with play action.
Ohio State should be able to match up out there and devote extra people to the run if it so chooses. Joel Stave made them pay for doing that last year, but that performance was not representative of the rest of his career. He is a big, strong guy but has some accuracy issues. Lately he has been very efficient, but his pass attempts have also been pretty limited. If Ohio State can force him to win the game for the Badgers, the Buckeyes should be in good shape, but that is a big "if".
Tanner McEvoy is a legitimate running threat but lost the starting job do to passing inconsistencies. They might have forced him in before he was ready because of a desire to have the zone read be a big part of the offense, but Stave was also having some issues early in the year.
Defensively, there are a few guys to keep an eye on. The first is safety Michael Caputo, who has a habit of jumping off the screen when you watch the Badgers. He was robbed in the All-Big Ten choices. He leads the team in tackles with 93. He's very aggressive and will attack the running game or screens on the outside. He's pretty much another linebacker out there.
Inside linebackers Marcus Trotter and Derek Landisch are also impressive. They have combined for 145 tackles, including 24.5 for loss and 11.5 sacks. They both have good instincts and can really run through gaps when they find the ball. Outside linebackers Joe Schobert and Vince Biegel can both set the edge and make plays in the backfield as well. Biegel has 15.5 tackles for loss, including 7.5 sacks.
The front seven can morph into a couple of different fronts, but the big thing is they all play downhill and all run pretty well. As a team, the Badgers tackle really well, too.
They will play man to man and press, but this might be more a way to turn loose the rest of the defense than it is a belief in the ability of those guys on the outside. I think they are vulnerable, but they haven't been tested much in the past two years. There should be plays available down the field, but then it becomes a matter of execution, and they have a very good pass rush that benefits from both the quality of the players and the unpredictability of where the pressure is coming from.
According to Football Outsiders, they have been great on passing downs but closer to average on standard downs defensively. This is almost completely attributable to the front seven and Caputo.
The offensive advanced numbers reveal a unit that lives on big plays in the running game but hasn't been great at putting together methodical drives (though they've been better than Ohio State in the latter).The defense is sixth or better nationally in all categories that measure quality by drive, but the Badgers' strength of schedule is only 78th.
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