USCFootball.com: The Wisconsin offensive line appeared to have taken a step back this season, what has been the issue with the big guys up front?
I could write a book on the subject to be honest, as it has not been a banner year for Wisconsin’s offensive line, traditionally the strength of the program. UW was already in for a transition this season after losing three seniors off last year’s 11-win team, but it didn’t help when injuries mounted throughout spring practices and fall camp. I believe UW had eight different offensive linemen out with injuries during the fall.
Missing all that practice time and not being able to build chemistry with one another has caused for some ugly performances and very few standouts. Worse yet, UW’s two experience linemen did not have great seasons – senior left tackle Tyler Marz has been inconsistent and junior center Dan Voltz suffered a season-ending injury Oct.24. UW had seven different offensive line combinations in 12 games and relied heavily on redshirt freshmen, going so far as to start four of them in the regular season finale against Minnesota.
Needless to say the performances have been uneven, rushing for over 150 yards in only two Big Ten games, between 100-149 three times and less than 100 three times, including an ugly minus-26 yard debacle in a home loss to Northwestern. Giving credit where credit is due, Wisconsin’s young corps of players ran for 257 yards against a depleted Gophers defensive front a week later.
USCFB: What impact has the offensive line issues impacted the Badgers running game?
It certainly shares a portion of the blame. A year ago UW had a veteran offensive line to open up and sustain big alleys for tailback Melvin Gordon – the Heisman runner-up – to sprint through. This year the alleys are narrower and are open shorter, which falls on the line, but UW’s lack of depth at tailback has been devastating to UW striving for balance.
Corey Clement was supposed to be the dominant force this season, but he’s been limited to three games because of two sports hernias and off-the-field issues. That’s forced the Badgers to rely on junior Dare Ogunbowale (a former walk-on cornerback who has only played the position for 15 months) and redshirt freshman Taiwan Deal, who in an ideal world needs another year to firmly grasp the playbook.
Ogunbowale has some skills but at times lacks patience, getting to the line of scrimmage and attacking before the play can develop. The majority of Deal’s plays are between the tackles. UW got into an even bigger pinch this season when Deal went down with an ankle injury and had to remove the redshirt from a true freshman linebacker named Alec Ingold.
Clement said he’s 85 percent and hopes to play Wednesday while Deal appears fully healed from the ankle injury suffered Oct.12. Regardless, UW will be the healthiest it’s been at running back all season.
USCFB: How important has forcing turnovers and taking care of the football been to Wisconsin this season?
Wisconsin’s defense never forces enough turnovers for defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s liking, but the Badgers have been better this season. UW has forced 20 turnovers to surpass last year’s total but half those numbers came in five-turnover performances against Miami (OH) and Minnesota.
Taking care of the football has been the downfall in Wisconsin’s two conference losses that kept them out of the Big Ten championship game. UW committed four turnovers in a 10-6 loss to Iowa, including one on the Hawkeyes’ 1-yard line late in the game that prevented UW from scoring the go-ahead touchdown, and five turnovers in a loss to Northwestern.
Quarterback Joel Stave has also thrown a pair of pick-six interceptions and made a number of mistakes – both his fault and the fault of poor offensive line protection – that resulted in short fields for the opponents. Of the 43 points UW allowed in its seven home games, 34 were a direct result of offensive turnovers.
USCFB: What has been the key to the stellar Badger run defense this season?
The easy answer would be Wisconsin’s linebacker quartet. Senior outside linebacker Joe Schobert and junior OLB Vince Biegel have been one of the best one-two punches at the position in the country. Schobert was named the conference’s linebacker of the year after finishing with 18.5 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks, 14 quarterback hurries and five forced fumbles, leading the team in all categories. Biegel was second in TFLs (14), sacks (eight) and QBHs (seven) and might be UW’s best pro prospect on defense.
UW’s inside linebacker have probably been the nicest surprise. The Badgers lost both ILBs last season and went into the spring with unknowns at the role. While T.J. Edwards – a first-team pick on Scout.com’s All-Freshman Team – led UW with 80 tackles, the combination of true freshman Chris Orr (45 tackles) and Jack Cichy (who started the year at OLB) have done some really nice things to help UW pile up the tackles.
The in-depth answer would be the play of Wisconsin’s defensive line – a no-name unit that doesn’t get any recognition but have become critical elements of the 3-4 defense. The trio are all full-time starters for the first time and don’t generate a lot of tackles (d-end Chikwe Obasih leads with 37) but are successful at swallowing up double teams to create alleys for the linebackers to make plays.
USCFB: How do you feel the entire Wisconsin defense stacks up against some of the athletes USC has on offense? Do you think there is a significant speed difference?
To me, the matchup between USC’s offense and Wisconsin’s defense is the one to watch and whichever side emerges victorious will give its team the winning edge. The Badgers have the No.1 scoring defense in the country but didn’t play four of the top six scoring offenses in the Big Ten (including the top two) and four of the top six total offenses in the Big Ten. How the Badgers will handle the speed and the versatility of USC’s offense is a mystery, as the Trojans prevent challenges that the Badgers haven’t seen since week one against Alabama.
USCFB: How motivated are the Badgers for this game, with a chance at a 10-win season on the line?
Wisconsin lost three straight Rose Bowls and a Capital One Bowl before breaking through against Auburn in the Outback Bowl last season. Players called it a huge win for the program to be able to end a long postseason bowl losing streak against a nationally-respected program. That’s practically the same instance here. Beating USC for the first time in school history would give the Badgers validation as a program and for their season, as none of UW’s nine wins came against a ranked team or one that finished with a winning record.
USCFB: USC is a team used to off the field distractions. How has this Wisconsin squad handled the surprise departure of Gary Andersen last year, the impressive bowl win for Barry Alvarez and the first season with Paul Chryst at the helm of the program?
To be honest, Wisconsin has become use to the distractions as well. In the last three years, Wisconsin has had three different head coaches (Bret Bielema left after the 2012 Big Ten championship game and Andersen left following the 2014 Big Ten title game), so the seniors in this program have gone through the emotional roller coaster of having a head coach up and leave without any warning.
And while the hiring of Andersen was somewhat outside the box, Paul Chryst brings a sense of familiarity to the older players in the program. Chryst is a former UW quarterback, assistant coach and offensive coordinator who likes to run power football on offense and utilize his tight ends. Had Andersen stayed at UW, the Badgers would have many more spread elements on offense that would appear to be a nightmare to try to mix and match with its current personnel.
The general consensus was Andersen is a really good person and a good coach but wasn’t the right fit for UW, making his sudden departure for Oregon State last December an acceptable loss. The hiring of Chryst has many people excited for where he can take the program once he restocks the cupboard on offense.
USCFB: Wisconsin's defensive coordinator Dave Aranda's name has come up in USC's search for a defensive coordinator. Have you heard anything about that and what are your thoughts on the job he has done for the Badgers?
Considering the Badgers don’t ink a lot of four-star talent (and no five-star talent) on a yearly basis and UW’s defense can still deliver the kind of numbers it has, Aranda’s name should come up on an annual basis. While UW’s defensive number speak for itself this season, the work Aranda did his first two seasons in Madison speak to his ability to get the most out of his players. Converting UW from a 4-3 to a 3-4 and having a number of low-star players recruited to the 4-3 play out of position in the 3-4, UW still finished seventh nationally in 2013 and fourth in 2014 in total defense.
Aranda has opportunity to leave after Andersen left but said repeatedly that his desire was to stay at Wisconsin. Not only does he feel comfortable in Madison, his family – which includes some young kids – have started to develop roots in the community. I’m not saying Aranda wouldn’t leave, but I believe it would have to take a real cushy offer to get him to listen.
Without Aranda, there’s no way Wisconsin achieves anywhere close to the level of success it has in the last two seasons.
USCFB: USC liked Kyle Penniston last year before he signed with the Badgers. How has he been so far?
Penniston was an early enrollee for Wisconsin this past season and used his redshirt season to build up his comfort level in the playbook, add strength in the weight room and recover from some injuries. With Chryst having a strong desire to have capable pass-catching tight ends in his system, Penniston should be a strong candidate for playing time early in his career after he caught 31 passes as a senior at Mater Dei High School.
USCFB: What is your game prediction?
I’ll be honest that I haven’t watch a ton of USC football this season, just like I’m sure Trojans fans haven’t woken up early to flip on the Badgers. Like I said previously, the key for Wisconsin being able to win this game is neutralize a fifth-year senior quarterback, a N.F.L. first-round quality receiver and multiple weapons at tailback. UW’s offense has a chance to get some key personnel back over the last month (receiver Rob Wheelwright, tight end Austin Traylor and, possibly, tailback Corey Clement) that could spread out USC’s defense and open up some opportunity for Wisconsin could take advantage. I’m also working on the assumption that USC is probably not as thrilled playing in the Holiday Bowl for the second straight season an hour from campus that the Badgers making their first postseason trip to San Diego.
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Ryan Abraham has been the publisher of USCFootball.com since 1996. You can follow him on Twitter at @InsideTroy or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.