Many words could be used to describe Wisconsin’s performance against Northwestern but to use the word “struggle” to describe it would be putting it kindly. Looking poor from top to bottom, Wisconsin dropped its first Big Ten game of the year and fell out of the AP and Coaches Poll for the first time since 2012.
Northwestern showed Wisconsin that it has plenty to work to do going forward but as the Badgers prepare for Illinois (3-3, 0-2) this week, they can’t let the loss in Evanston be a hangover effect. Although it is hard to improve in a week, Wisconsin does have a chance to show that they made minor steps as a team during their week of preparation and practice.
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 to possibly win their first Big Ten game of the season.
Last Week’s Rankings in Parentheses
1, Melvin Gordon RB (1): Gordon was the only bright spot on an otherwise forgetful day for the offense, rushing for a career-high 259 yards. While the passing game has struggled this year, Gordon has been reliable and has put the offense on his back when needed, as he leads the country in rushing yards per game with 174.2. Regardless of who starts at quarterback for Wisconsin Gordon, like he has in the past, should see a fair amount of carries. Averaging 21 carries a game, Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said during his weekly press conference that he’s happy with the amount of work Gordon is currently receiving.
Gordon rushed for 142 yards on 17 carries and three touchdowns against Illinois last season, and that success should continue. The Illini has given up 250 yards a game on the ground and allowed Nebraska to rush for 458 yards on 70 carries. If Gordon has another successful day, the offense is going to have to generate more than two touchdowns, as Wisconsin is only converting 18-for-24 (75 percent) in the red zone this year. Depending on the down and distance, offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig may give the football to Gordon more on the goal line then he did against Northwestern to give his best offensive player a chance to put points up on the board.
2, Joe Schobert OLB (4): Schobert was second on the team in tackles against Northwestern with seven and with Illinois losing its starting quarterback, Wes Lunt, for 4-to-6 weeks, Reilly O’Toole will likely get the start. O’Toole has appeared in three games for Illinois but he has more interceptions (four) then touchdowns (one) this year. If Schobert can continue generating his pass rush, he could help force O’Toole into a mistake or two.
The one area where Schobert needs to improve is tackling, as he, and several others, missed critical tackles against Northwestern. For Schobert it simply could have been a bad game where he didn’t take proper angles but there’s a chance that with O’Toole getting the start that Illinois may run it more than they normally do (96 rushing yards per game). If that is the case, Schobert will need to try and slow down running back Josh Ferguson.
3, Michael Caputo S (NR): Caputo was the one defender who actually played fairly consistent throughout the Northwestern game. Although his efforts came up short, Caputo will have to be relied upon to make stops and motivate his teammates to make sure the defense doesn’t have a repeat performance of last week. With Vince Biegel playing a stand-up defensive end at times against Northwestern, which might happen again against Illinois, it will allow Caputo to play closer to the line. Although the Illini’s passing attack will likely suffer without Lunt under center, Illinois will likely still take shots downfield to see if they can get some big plays through the passing game to wide receiver Mike Dudek, who is averaging 16.3 yards a catch.
4, Joel Stave QB (NR): It is hard to know who the starter is going to be when Wisconsin plays Illinois on Saturday but it seems Andersen is leaning toward Stave. Although Stave had his struggles in his season debut against Northwestern, he did have more success running the offense and showed his ability to throw the deep ball, which will help take the top off the coverage. Stave does need to be better with his decision making, which should improve with a week of practice with the first team. Illinois has only three interceptions on the year, which shows the Illini don’t have the ability to pressure quarterbacks or shutdown defensive backs.
Andersen did allude to the fact that Tanner McEvoy could be on the field at the same time with Stave. If that does happen it will be interesting to see what kind of play they run out of that formation.
5, Rob Havenstein RT (NR): That may have been Havenstein’s worst performance of his career in pass protection as he was walked back a couple of times by Northwestern’s defensive line. For a man his size, that shouldn’t happen consistently. In order for Wisconsin’s quarterbacks to have the time to read the field and find their intended targets, Havenstein and the line have to hold up a lot better in pass protection.
6, Derek Landisch MLB (2): After putting together two solid weeks to end nonconference play, Landisch didn’t have the same kind of impact he did in passing downs against Northwestern, failing to record a sack or tackle for loss. That could change against an Illinois offensive line that has given up 16 sacks on the season. Leading the team in sacks (six) and tackles for loss (three), Landisch has the ability to rattle quarterbacks. O’Toole saw time against Wisconsin last year, going 5-for-5 for 69 yards and a touchdown, but Landisch and Schobert should be able to force O’Toole into a mistake with their pass rush.
7, Alex Erickson WR (3): The struggles of the passing game don’t fall solely on the quarterbacks, as the wide receivers need to be able to get open. Erickson has proven to be the most capable wide receiver so far this season and has chemistry with Stave that dates back to last season. Erickson is only averaging 12 yards a reception, a fact based on Wisconsin’s inability to complete a deep throw. Erickson appears to be UW’s best deep-ball target and a connection between Erickson and Stave down the field would be a welcoming sight for everyone.
Others to Note
Quarterback Tanner McEvoy: It will be interesting to see what McEvoy’s role will be this weekend and to what extent. Andersen needs to be careful to not disrupt rhythm in the offense and the coaching staff need to be smart with how they use McEvoy.
Middle Linebacker Marcus Trotter: It is still not known whether or not Trotter will play after suffering a groin injury against Northwestern. Wisconsin missed Trotter’s presence in the run game last weekend and with Ferguson likely to get the ball often, having Trotter’s strength against the run on the field would be a boost to UW.
Running Back Corey Clement: Clement’s 22 rushing yards against the Wildcats’ run defense was his lowest rushing output of the year, making this weekend an important bounce-back game. Andersen mentioned during his press conference that the running backs could be good targets in passing downs, likely through screen passes or check downs. When Clement catches a pass, he’s been averaging 14 yards per catch.
Wide Receiver Kenzel Doe: Doe had a breakout game of sorts at the wide receiver position, recording a career-high four receptions and hauling in his first receiving touchdown of his career. Prior to the Big Ten opener, Doe had only one reception on the season. Andersen wants more receivers to step up and Doe has talked openly about playing a bigger role in the offense. The key now is to see whether or not Doe can build off of that performance, as he has had issues battling consistency in his career at wide receiver.