Benjamin Worgull: There are no complaints after only one game, especially since O'Brien was 19-for-23 passing with 219 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. O'Brien is a very smart player, willing to take what's open to him within the scheme of the offense rather than forcing a home-run pass down field. Against Northern Iowa, O'Brien only has six completions over 10 yards, and most of those were catch-and-run receptions. Offensive coordinator Matt Canada admitted after the game that the coaches were keeping things somewhat simple in the first game and that the offense will establish a vertical passing game down the road.
O'Brien and Wilson are very different. OSU fans will remember how Wilson was a dual-threat quarterback. O'Brien is more of a true pocket passer who will run on occasion. The transition from him coming from Maryland in late spring has been as smooth as it could possibly be, and he won the job outright in camp because of his ability to take care of the football, be consistent in the passing game and show a variety of skills that come with two years of starting experience.
BF.C: What's the feeling on the close win over Northern Iowa -- Is Northern Iowa
(No. 10 in FCS poll) just that good, or, Wisconsin just didn't play like
they were capable of in Week 1, or, a little of both, or something else
Worgull: In seven years under Bret Bielema, Wisconsin has traditionally come out slow and somewhat sluggish in the opener. Except for last season's blowout over UNLV, the Badgers never covered the Las Vegas point spread in an opener. Furthermore, recent history shows that Northern Iowa is a tough opponent to prepare for in an opener, as their coaching staff has been complimented by many coaches for putting together thorough game plans with plenty of time. In 2009, Northern Iowa had two field goals blocks in the final seven seconds to lose by one to an Iowa team that went on to win the Orange Bowl and be ranked as high as fourth in the country. Last season, Northern Iowa gave up a touchdown in the final 40 seconds to lose by one to an Iowa State team that beat No.2 Oklahoma State later in the season.
With that being said, the Badgers struggled to run the ball against Northern Iowa's front seven, as the Panthers plugged the middle and shut down the outside to try and contain Wisconsin's running game. As a result, senior Montee Ball had four runs for negative yardage and 10 carries that resulted in 2 yards or less on the day, although one was his 62nd career TD. Wisconsin also had two drives stall inside the 25, resulting in field goals, and had single-man breakdowns that led to three touchdowns for UNI in the second half. It was a little sloppy, but Wisconsin survived with plenty of good teaching points to boot.
BF.C: What are the Wisconsin strengths and weaknesses on offense and defense?
Worgull: Without question the strength of this team is Montee (Mon-Tay) Ball, who rushed for 1,923 yards and tied an NCAA single-season record with 39 touchdowns last year. He ran for 118 yards and two scored against the Beavers' last year, which was one of his lowest outputs of the season. That alone shows how good of a season he had. The passing game should be a strength with O'Brien utilizing junior receiver Jared Abbrederis (two touchdown catches in the opener) and junior tight end Jacob Pedersen (Mackey Award finalist). There's a lot of unproven depth after both Abbrederis and Pedersen, however, and the offensive line is still building chemistry with three new starters.
Wisconsin should be sound across the board defensively with upperclassmen starting throughout the defensive line, two All-Americans at linebacker in senior Mike Taylor and junior Chris Borland and three senior defensive backs. Getting senior Devin Smith to return after breaking his foot against Oregon State last year was a huge plus, as he's Wisconsin's number one cornerback. The weakness of this group, again, is eliminating the big play. The Badgers got killed in their three losses last year because of mental breakdowns and seeing those same issues pop up in the opener has a lot of people nervous for games down the road.
BF.C: Who are 3 (or more) Wisconsin players that Beaver fans should watch for come
Saturday and why?
Worgull: I've already mentioned Ball and O'Brien, who are the two biggest weapons on offense. I think Chris Borland is one of the finest linebackers I have ever seen play. He's not the tallest drink of water, but he plays smart, aggressive and has a controlled chaos about him. The Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2009 as an outside linebacker, Borland was moved inside to the mike linebacker position and had 143 tackles last season (second on the team to Mike Taylor's 150 tackles). Borland will line up in the middle or be moved to the outside on third down when the Badgers go into their 3-3-5 defense as a rush defensive end. In three years, Borland has already forced 11 fumbles, besting the school record of seven. He really is a talented player.
BF.C: For someone unfamiliar with the Badgers, how would you characterize the
Worgull: Experienced, but still needing to improve. The Badgers return six starters in the group but two others have started games and the other three have had a lot of reps. Wisconsin ranked 15th in the country in total defense last year (316.4 yards per game) with virtually the same group, but were vulnerable against good passing attacks, as Michigan State and Oregon really beat them up in three games last season. The defensive line is good, but the group hasn't put a lot of pressure on the quarterback the last two seasons. That was a huge emphasis in the offseason to regain that same kind of tenacity the group had when O'Brien Schofield (Arizona Cardinals) and J.J. Watt (Houston Texans) were in uniform. The group is building toward that, but it's not there yet.
BF.C: Same question on offense.
Worgull: The offense is young with only two senior starters (Ball and left tackle Ricky Wagner), so there is a lot of room for the group to grow. They are a traditional offense with two wide receivers, one or two tight ends, a fullback and a tailback, which has almost become a foreign offense in the Big Ten with the amount of teams having gone to the spread over the last handful of years. It makes Wisconsin a unique group to prepare for.
The Badgers have a new offensive coordinator in Matt Canada, who takes over an offense that averaged 44.1 points per game last year under now Pittsburgh head coach Paul Chryst. The offensive philosophy isn't going to change under Canada, but there have been some new wrinkles such as five receiver sets, having Ball and junior tailback James White (a real speedster in space) lined up as a receiver and even some three tight end sets. Canada is doing that to a) get his best playmakers on the field and b) makeup for the lack of experienced depth at wide receiver.
BF.C: Who is a player whom, while he might not get as much of the limelight as some
of the other Badgers, is that glue-type of guy -- the kind of player that
without him, Wisconsin's prospects just wouldn't be as good as they are in
Worgull: On offense I would have to say either O'Brien or junior center Travis Frederick. Wisconsin went out and pursued O'Brien because of the amount of injuries it had suffered at the position over the last year (Wisconsin has had two scholarship quarterbacks miss at least two years because of injury). What O'Brien brought to the table is just what Wisconsin needs to contend for a third straight conference title.
Frederick becomes just the third junior to be elected captain in Bret Bielema's seven-year tenure and the Wisconsin native deserves a lot of credit for helping this line congeal. He's a double major in computer engineering and computer science, can squat over 700 pounds and one of the stronger personalities on the team in terms of leadership. If Wisconsin did not have him in the middle of its line, the unit would probably be a mess.
Defensively, the one-two punch of Borland and Taylor at linebacker is where the heart and soul of UW's defense lies. Both were picked as captains for a reason, and both are solid when it comes to making plays in the middle of the field.
BF.C: What's the one thing Wisconsin must do in order to win against Oregon State? Do you have a prediction?
Worgull: Bret Bielema often says that good teams make a significant jump from week one to week two of the season. He's also said, along with his players, that the team did not have a good week of preparation for its opener, surprising considering how experience this team seems to be. The key for Wisconsin is to make that jump across the board in terms of their execution, their preparation and their fundamentals, because an effort like fans saw last week probably won't cut it on the road against a BCS team.
I do think, however, that Wisconsin does have an edge because if played last week, got some rust off and was able to develop that game chemistry that teams can't get by going through camp. I think Oregon State will certainly bring the energy in the first half, but I think Wisconsin, behind its running game, should pull away in the second half. My fearless prediction would be 31-17.