Big Ten Game Preview: Wisconsin

Ohio State will return home for its first October home game facing one of the league's enigmas in Wisconsin. The Badgers have disappointed in the eyes of many during the past two seasons but still made bowl appearances. Will Wisconsin have enough to challenge for a league title or give OSU a run for its money in Columbus?

Wisconsin Oct. 10, Ohio Stadium
Head coach Bret Bielema
2008 record: 7-6, 3-5 Big Ten (T-6)

The Badgers think they've underachieved for two straight seasons, and 2009 might be a put up or shut up campaign for Bret Bielema's charges. Wisconsin's offense should look quite familiar to most longtime Big Ten observers, but will the Badgers have enough firepower on either side of the ball to be a contender?

What We Know: John Clay is very good at running the football, and Wisconsin has some good options at wide receiver.

Major Questions: Just about everything else. Can a defense that gave up too many points last year improve despite losing five starters from the front seven? Is Dustin Sherer, who took over as the starting quarterback midway through the season, more Jim Sorgi or Allan Evridge? Will a young offensive line be able to blow open the holes the Badger running game is used to?

Offensive Overview: Wisconsin's passing offense simply wasn't good enough in 2008 to allow the usual UW running game to take over. Overall, Wisconsin placed fifth in the league in scoring (27.5 points) and third in yardage (399.2), but some woeful passing stats submarined the squad at certain parts of the season.

The Badger quarterbacks really struggled in the team's six losses, combining for a 50.3 percent completion percentage (88 for 175) with just four touchdowns and eight interceptions. In wins, UW's quarterbacks completed 58.2 percent of passes (92 of 158) for seven scores and just three picks.

The quarterbacking was particularly bad during a four-game losing streak to start Big Ten play against Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Iowa in which the team completed just 50.0 percent of passes for just two scores and eight picks. Not coincidentally, starter Evridge was given the hook for Sherer after the Penn State game, and the junior ended up posting a 4-2 record down the stretch.

It wasn't always pretty, though. Sherer's passing efficiency of 120.67 was barely better than Evridge's number of 119.1, and his completion percentage (54.5 to 53.8) and TD-to-INT ratio (6-5 compared to 5-5) were only slightly better.

No matter, though, as the wins and losses turned around as Wisconsin averaged 35.4 points per game during the final five regular-season contests. In those games, the Badgers took care of their opportunities, scoring on 22 of 23 (95.7 percent) of red-zone chances, earning touchdowns on 17 tries (73.9 percent).

Sherer will want to keep that type of efficiency going, and he'll have some solid options in the passing game. Wisconsin seemingly always has a good tight end, and huge target Garrett Graham returns after leading the team with 37 catches and five touchdowns despite missing two games in 2008.

Fellow second-team All-Big Ten choice David Gilreath also showed signs of becoming a breakout star. Just 5-11, 162 pounds, Gilreath used his speed to finish the year with 30 catches, a team-best 515 yards, three touchdowns and 290 rushing yards. There are also some targets that UW thinks have potential in the developing Nick Toon (the son of Al) and Isaac Anderson, who combined for 26 catches for 383 yards during the final five games. Anderson also earned praise for his blocking.

There's also speedy Kyle Jefferson, a Cleveland Glenville product with potential who has suffered injuries from brutal hits each of his first two seasons. In 2008, he had 14 grabs for 189 yards. Kraig Appleton, a four-star recruit and Scout's No. 19 WR in the country, adds size at 6-4.

The usual Wisconsin running game had some fits and starts but by and large was successful, leading the Big Ten yet again in rushing with 211.2 yards per game. That total was helped by 404 yards against Akron and 466 against Indiana.

P.J. Hill bid UW adieu for the pro ranks, but Wisconsin might have a better back taking over in John Clay. A one-time four-star prospect, Clay is a big back (6-2, 247) with a full arsenal of tools in the shed. As a freshman last year, Clay finished sixth in the Big Ten in rushing in conference games, compiling 845 yards overall on 144 carries (a 5.9-yard average) to go with nine touchdowns. He passed 80 yards rushing in five of the last six regular-season games.

A different type of back at 5-11, 208 pounds, Zach Brown provides experience as a reserve. He averaged 5.7 yards per carry last season.

The team's top two fullbacks in Chris Pressley and Bill Rentmeester have graduated, leaving a hole in that position.

The running game will have to operate behind a retooled offensive line that lost three starters. Just center John Moffitt and three-year left tackle Gabe Carimi come back, but three longtime stalwarts must be replaced.

One-time five-star tackle Josh Oglesby, who got the chance to make three starts last season with Carimi out, should be in line for a starting role, but he seemed to struggle at times last season. Experienced Jake Bscherer, who redshirted last season after playing in '06 and '07, has moved to guard to start opposite Bill Nagy, while UW likes youngsters like Jake Current, Peter Konz and Kevin Zeitler.

The pass-blocking will have to improve immensely; the Badgers' 29 sacks allowed were one away from last place in the conference. So will turnovers; UW's 30 on the season tied for the worst in the Big Ten.

Key To The Season (Off): Sherer's development. The running game should largely be fine considering the talents of Clay and Brown, but Wisconsin will have an offense people fear only if Sherer can at least be as efficient as last season. Any improvement will make the Badgers that much more dangerous.

Defensive Overview: Wisconsin's resurgence from the mid-1990s under Barry Alvarez into the early 2000s was built most seasons on a strong running game and solid defense. The year 2008, then, was disappointing for the Badgers.

The UW stop troops placed eighth in the Big Ten allowing 26.5 points per game despite placing fourth in total defense at 329.1 yards per game. Turnovers and return scores didn't help; in its six losses, Wisconsin gave up an average of 12.5 points per game on either return touchdowns or on drives that started with the opposing offense in Badger territory.

The Badgers were consistent from a yardage allowed standpoint. Teams rarely sprinted up and down the field on UW; only Florida State topped 400 yards of offense. But on the other hand, teams were able to get yards; just Akron, Michigan and Indiana were held below 300 yards, and all topped 260.

In other words, UW didn't have a shutdown unit but rarely was run off the field – even the 48 points scored by Penn State were aided largely by short fields provided in some way by the Badgers' poor offense, which was at its nadir.

Just two starters from the front seven return. Those two are good players, though, in end O'Brien Schofield and linebacker Jaevery McFadden.

McFadden forced his way into the startling lineup a year ago and ended up leading the team with 84 stops, though he had just 2.5 tackles for loss and no sacks. McFadden, who played with a broken hand for most of last season, will return to the outside after starting in the middle a campaign ago.

Wisconsin has preferred athletic linebackers over maulers over the past few seasons, and new middle man Culmer St. Jean and outside linebacker Blake Sorensen continue that tradition.

Schofield, a converted linebacker, was a first-year starter a campaign ago but tied for the team lead with five tackles while totaling 40 tackles and 8.5 TFL. The end boasts excellent athleticism in his 6-3, 242-pound frame.

The rest of the line must be rebuilt. Jeff Stehle, Dan Moore and Patrick Butrym will get the first chances in the middle, while J.J. Watt was the scout team defensive player of the year last season after transferring from Central Michigan. At the end spot opposite Schofield, Brendan Kelly, Louis Nzegwu and Anthony Mains all have gotten bigger during the offseason.

Of the players in the paragraph above, only Moore (19 tackles) and Stehle (12) got to double digits in tackles last season.

The secondary, however, returns six players with at least two career starts. First-team All-Big Ten corner Allen Langford has left, but Niles Brinkley could step into his stead. The converted wideout made four interceptions last year as teams stayed away from his opposite number, and that was even after taking over at the halfway point thanks to injury. Anthony Fenelus also has experience at corner.

Jay Valai, Aubrey Pleasant, Chris Maragos and Shane Carter all have played a ton at safety. Valai, who is the team's second-best returning tackler with 56 stops last year, developed a reputation as one of the Big Ten's top hitters last season, but he'll have to avoid a charge from Pleasant, who battled injuries last season.

Carter was a Big Ten honorable mention performer in 2007, but inconsistencies in tackling caught up with him to the point that Maragos took over as the starter midway through last season.

Key To The Season (Def): How well a totally rebuilt front seven comes together. Some of the changes could be addition by subtraction, but lots of experience and talent went out the door with graduation. Things could be worse this season if the new additions don't step up.

Special Teams: The Badgers had the worst kickoff return unit in the conference, which surely didn't help an offense that needed it at times. In his third year as a starter, Gilreath is slated to return kicks and punts, but he'll need help to be a success.

Both Wisconsin kickers were freshmen a year ago, and both did well. Kicker Philip Welch slid right into the placekicking spot, making 20 of 24 field goals with a long of 52 yards. He made 9 of 11 from 40 yards or longer. Punter Brad Nortman impressed during camp with his booming kicks, and he's back after averaging 41.8 yards per try with just five touchbacks in 66 punts.

New Name To Know: DT Jordan Kohout, 6-4, 265, Waupun, Wis. – Kohout will need to add size from his recruiting weight to be a player for UW, but he's a four-star prospect according to Scout and he'll be playing a position of need. He also arrived in time for spring ball, so he should be well on his way to both getting bigger and learning the UW defense.

Best Case Scenario: Wisconsin wins games in classic UW style, punishing teams both on offense and defense with physical play while earning nine or 10 wins. The fantastically talented Clay turns into a star on the national stage and leads the Badger renaissance.

Worst Case Scenario: Everything that has been shaky over the past two seasons stays that way, making the Badgers claw and fight for another bowl appearance.

OSU Game: The teams played a classic a season ago. Ohio State's offense was bottled up for the middle two quarters by a hard-hitting Wisconsin defense, but the Buckeyes made enough big plays on both sides of the ball to come away with a victory.

The Badgers aren't one of the worst teams in the Big Ten, but one has to question exactly how good they will be in 2009. The famed UW running game should be fine, but Sherer still has some questions to answer, and lots of parts were lost from a defense that was good but hardly overpowering.

The Badgers stayed in the game with Ohio State last year at night in Madison, but a few things have turned against Bucky in this comparison. First, the game moves to Ohio Stadium and home-field advantage switches to the Buckeyes. Secondly, OSU's defensive line should be better in 2009, perhaps mitigating the Badgers' advantage with the power running game.

Wisconsin always plays the Buckeyes well, but if OSU avoids crucial mistakes, they should the favorites to earn a close win in the Horseshoe.

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