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MADISON - I don't think any Wisconsin fan could have imagined that the Badgers would struggle as much as they have through their first four games, especially with UW typically coasting through the nonconference schedule with relative ease. Well that was not the case for the Badgers.
The offense has struggled to put up points, making it the defense's responsibility to keep the Badgers in the game. At the same time, the defense has shown it still had trouble preventing the big play.
Even though the Badgers struggled in the nonconference season, Wisconsin finished on a high note offensively, putting up 36 points and finding a balance within its offense. At the same time, there is still plenty to work on and things they need to figure out. With Big Ten play starting, the Badgers are going have to take the next step forward with the ultimate goal of returning to Indianapolis.
The rankings for the Front Seven are determined based on performance from last week, expectations this coming week, and need. It was not easy determining who would be important in helping the Badgers to a victory on Saturday, as the list ranges far beyond seven players.
Last Week's Rankings in Parentheses
1, Joel Stave, QB (1): Stave played well against the Miners minus the interception. When Stave looks at the film, he will see that he stared down his receiver the entire time, but it's a mistake that's correctable. Stave will obviously be seeing a more difficult defense this weekend in Lincoln. With it being Stave's first start, he looked very calm and poise, which was good to see, but it was in a place of comfort for Stave. The question is will he be able to show the same poise this Saturday in front of a raucous, hostile crowd. Stave will need help though from his teammates, mainly from his offensive lineman. If the line can do a good job of protecting him, he'll be able to give the Badgers a shot at winning the game. The Badgers didn't try and protect Stave with the play calling and they allowed him to throw the ball deep a couple of times in the game, resulting in his first career touchdown pass. Stave also showed he could feel the pass rush and is able to use his feet to get out of the pocket and pick up some yards or he was able to throw it away.
2, Jared Abbrederis, WR (NR): It's pretty clear that Abbrederis has been the Badgers' best offensive player so far through four games. In the three games Abbrederis played, he has hauled in 13 catches for 257 yards and three touchdowns. With Big Ten play starting, you know the Cornhuskers defense will pay attention to and try and take Abbrederis out of the game and make the other receivers beat them. So far no one has stepped up opposite of Abbrederis and someone is going to have to and fast. I expect Abbrederis to find a way to make an impact on the game.
3, Chris Borland, MLB (NR): Borland played like a mad man on Saturday, recording a team-high 12 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and a career-high two sacks. With that performance Borland was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week. That was easily Borland's best game of the season so far. Now Borland will have to translate what he did this past Saturday to the game against Nebraska. The Badgers' defense will need Borland to be able to stop the Huskers strong running game. Not only will Borland be critical in helping stop the run, but the Badgers might also ask him to line up at defensive end. Pat Muldoon and Brendan Kelly both missed the game due to injuries, David Gilbert was knocked out of the game and Tyler Dippel was injured late in the game. The good news is Kelly, Gilbert and Dippel are expected back. But if one gets reinjured or the Badgers are struggling to generate a pass rush, we might see Borland line up at defensive end.
4, Devin Smith, CB (NR): Smith played well against Utah State but struggled against UTEP, giving up the Miners first touchdown in one-on-one coverage, Smith made up for by returning the blocked extra point for a two-point conversion, but he has to be able to limit the big plays. I wouldn't be surprised if Taylor Martinez tries and go after Smith to see if he can exploit him. Smith and his secondary teammates are still looking for their first interception of the year. It may come Saturday, as Martinez threw three picks to Wisconsin in last year's blowout. If the Badgers or Smith can pick off one of his passes, that could create momentum for both parties.
5, Montee Ball, RB (3): Ball was removed from the game against the Miners after he suffered a head injury on his second-quarter touchdown run. Ball expects to play on Saturday, so it'll be interesting to see how much they give him the football or how they use him. Despite Ball's fumble on UW's opening drive, you could tell Ball was running with a purpose and it seemed like he was about to find a rhythm offensively. If Ball does play he will have to be able to run with the same kind of intensity and he can help make sure the offense doesn't become one-dimensional.
6, Michael Trotter, SS (NR): Trotter now has two starts under his belt and has been solid. His only glaring mistake was late in the game last week where he tried to go for a pass break up. He failed and the play resulted in a touchdown. Trotter will have to learn from this play and just to go with the safest option instead of trying to make a play. Trotter finished the game with six tackles and one pass break up, and seems comfortable and confident when he's out there, which will be very important on Saturday considering Martinez can extend the play with his feet. Trotter's communication with Dezmin Southward and the cornerbacks will have to be very clear so there's no confusion.
7, James White, RB (NR): The game against UTEP may have been the game White needed to get some of his confidence back. White finished the game with 15 carries for 65 yards and two touchdowns, all season highs. If Ball can't go, White will have to carry the load again; a task he would be more than happy to carry. If Ball does play, he may have a limited role, which would be good because Ball has plenty of touches through four games. White has shown he's a capable running back and he's a good option to relieve Ball.
Others to Note
RB Melvin Gordon: Gordon finally got his touches against UTEP and he made the most of them. You can tell that when he has the ball in his hands that he has the speed and elusiveness to make things happen for the offense. In the game, I only counted five times where Gordon lined up in the backfield. When he was on the field, the Wisconsin coaches lined him up in the slot and then motioned him. It'll be interesting to see how the Badgers use Gordon when he's lined up in that formation.
CB Darius Hillary: Hillary probably had his best game so far, finishing with eight tackles. He has shown so far this season that he's a solid tackler and that he's not a liability in coverage. It's easy to see why the coaching staff is high on the redshirt freshman. It will be fun to watch him develop over the rest of his career, but the level of competition will take a jump, so it'll be interesting to see how he responds.
RG Kyle Costigan: Redshirt junior Zac Matthias started the first three games of the season at right guard but Costigan made his first career start on Saturday and performed well. Bret Bielema didn't say why Costigan got the start over Matthias but one might assume the reason Matthias was pulled because of his false start penalties against Utah State. It's a little surprising that the Badgers are still unsettled with the starters on the offensive line but hopefully there won't be any more changes.
P Drew Meyer: Field position might become important if the Badgers offense is struggling to get into a rhythm. Meyer has been punting the football well so far this season and will have to continue into conference play. It will be important that Meyer gives the Badgers defense some help by putting the Cornhuskers offense into bad starting field position.