Ideally after four games you’d like to see Wisconsin start to play its best football. But while the defense ranks in the top 20 in most major categories, the offense continues to look for an identity and facing more adversity then they would like through four games. Wisconsin is going to have be ready entering Big Ten play after having an up and down non-conference season as they strive for consistency each game.
Although the Wildcats dropped their first two games to California and Northern Illinois, they picked up their second win in a row by handing Penn State its first loss of the year. With Northwestern gaining some momentum over the past two weeks, the Badgers will have to face a Wildcats team playing good football, as Wisconsin seeks its first win in Northwestern since 1999.
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 play an important role in helping the Badgers keep their momentum going as they prepare for Northwestern.
Last Week’s Rankings in Parentheses
1, Melvin Gordon RB (1): Gordon has been one of Wisconsin’s most consistent performers through four games, averaging 153 yards a contest. With the passing game still searching for consistency, Gordon should be expected to receive his share of carries against Northwestern, which has been good against the run this year (117.2 yards a game and only two rushing touchdowns). With that being said Gordon will have to take advantage of holes when he sees them because they won’t appear that often. Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig will have to be creative on how he uses Gordon as a weapon, getting him the football in space on end arounds or options. Against South Florida last week Ludwig had Gordon and Corey Clement lined up together in the backfield and put one in motion. I’m curious to see if Ludwig expands out of that formation this week where he can utilize Gordon’s speed to try and create mismatches.
2, Derek Landisch MLB (2): In the last two weeks Landisch has had three sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss, giving him a team-leading six tackles for loss on the year. Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian has thrown for over 200 yards in three games and has thrown for more then 250 yards twice this season but can be erratic having thrown four interceptions on the year. With Landisch being able to get after the quarterback over the last two weeks and having a hand in creating turnovers, Landisch could force Siemian into making a mistake and causing short possessions by Northwestern’s offense if he generates a consistent pass rush.
3, Alex Erickson WR (NR): With Northwestern being a strong team against the run and likely stacking the box, mimicking the other teams Wisconsin has faced, Erickson will be relied upon to make sure Wisconsin doesn’t become one-dimensional. With quarterback Tanner McEvoy still struggling to consistently hit the deep ball, Erickson will be most useful on any intermediate route. Since the Western Illinois game, Wisconsin hasn’t executed the wide receiver screen play that much to Erickson where Jordan Fredrick gets out in front to block. That could be a play called often against Northwestern to extend the defense. Northwestern held Penn State’s top receiver Geno Lewis to only 33 yards. If Erickson has the same fate like Lewis, the offense will need someone else to step up in the passing game.
4, Joe Schobert OLB (4): Schobert’s impact from the South Florida game may not show up on the stat sheet but he was a key part of the pass rush. With Landisch bringing pressure up the middle, Schobert was active on the outside with three quarterback hurries and two tackles. Even though Schobert wasn’t able to record a sack (1.5 sacks this year), Northwestern’s offensive line has seen Siemian get sacked nine times through four games. Schobert has been good against the pass this year and if he can help slow down the pass, it will force the Wildcats to try and beat Wisconsin with the run. The Wildcats are trying to get their ground game going (449 yards rushing) with true freshman running back Justin Jackson leading the team with 234 yards. If Wisconsin can take the pass away, it will be playing right into the hands of Wisconsin’s stellar run defense.
5, Tanner McEvoy QB (3): McEvoy needs to play a good first quarter and find a way to get the offense off to a good start. In the first quarter, McEvoy’s numbers are 8-for-21 for 76 yards. To his credit, the final three quarters have seen McEvoy go 43-for-65 (66 completion percentage) for 517 yards, but slow starts have left teams hang around. With Northwestern feeling good after its road win at Penn State, McEvoy can take some energy away from Northwestern and the home crowd with a solid start.
In addition, McEvoy can take a lot of pressure off of Gordon and the run game if he can complete some throws down field. McEvoy has only been sacked three times this year but the offensive line will be in for a test considering Northwestern sacked Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg four times. McEvoy’s dual-threat ability will be important, but the key will be him feeling the rush and knowing when to stay in the pocket and when to roll to the outside. If he leaves the pocket, McEvoy needs to make sure he gets his feet set so he can make an accurate throw. Northwestern and McEvoy are averaging an interception a game.
5, Corey Clement RB (NR): If the passing game struggles, Gordon will need Clement’s help in wearing the Wildcats defense down. Clement rushed for 77 yards against South Florida and has gained 290 yards so far through the season. Clement’s physicality can wear down the defense and he provides a reliable option in the passing game. With Ludwig possibly using the same formation with Gordon and Clement in the backfield, the sophomore can be counted on to carry the football or be a possible blocker for Gordon to try and spring him on the outside.
7, Sojourn Shelton (NR): With Northwestern having a little more success passing the football, Shelton should expect to see some passes thrown his way. Shelton had a strong freshman season but has struggled more than what some fans would have expected this year. Shelton at times has given up big plays in the passing game, and I would expect Siemian to test Shelton as well to try and pick up a big play. Siemian doesn’t consistently throw it deep considering he’s averaging 5.93 yards an attempt and has a season long of 54 yards, but Shelton needs to do a better job at the line of scrimmage being a physical presence to receivers.
Others to Note
Tight End Sam Arneson: Next to Erickson, Arneson is the main target of Wisconsin’s passing game and will likely play a bigger role in the passing game than he did against USF. If Arneson isn’t targeted in the passing game then he should be relied on in blocking for either Gordon or Clement.
Center Dan Voltz: For a second consecutive week there was an issue between Voltz and McEvoy on the quarterback-center exchange. It is starting to become alarming how often it is happening. UW has been fortunate to recover three of the four exchanges but may not always be as lucky.
Safety Michael Caputo: Caputo doesn’t have to do anything spectacular for the Badgers defense in order for them to be able to slow down Northwestern’s offense. As long as Caputo can play smart defense, which he has done all year, Caputo should turn in another solid performance.
Kicker Rafael Gaglianone: Since missing his only kick of the season in week two, Gaglianone has been reliable for Wisconsin, going 5-for-6 on the young season. If the offense struggles in the first quarter or the first half, Gaglianone could be relied on possibly to make an important field goal.