Wisconsin’s second bye of the season came at the right time. Giving the team time to get healthy and continuing repairing the offense, the Badgers are starting to get healthier as they head into their weekend matchup against Maryland.
The extra week off has allowed head coach Gary Andersen to get his defense prepared for a balanced Maryland offense that features the talented Stefon Diggs at wide receiver and a ground game that averages 150.6 yards a game.
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 possibly register their second straight win in the Big Ten.
Last Week’s Rankings in Parentheses1, Melvin Gordon RB (1): There really isn’t much Gordon can’t do, and he has proven that consistently this year. Even though Gordon had a rough two weeks to begin the season, he has on fire since, rushing for at least 175 yards in the last four games and twice hitting the 250 mark. The Terrapins are allowing their opponents to rush for 198.3 yards a contest, which ranks 102nd amongst FBS teams. If you add that up it makes sense that the best rushing team in the country (343 yards a game) is going to use a player on the Doak Walker watch list the football as often as possible.
Obviously the Terrapins are going to try and stack the box like teams have done against Wisconsin in the past, but the offensive line has played well in the run game. You have to imagine that Andy Ludwig will line Gordon up in different places on the football field to try and keep the Maryland defense guessing. Against Illinois the Badgers ran a couple of jet sweeps, something that will likely be run again Saturday. Even though Gordon didn’t receive one of the carries, it would be surprising if there weren’t a play in the playbook that would allow Gordon to get in open space.
2, Derek Landisch ILB (6): Wisconsin has some talented pass rushers on the team but it is Landisch who leads the team in sacks (four) and tackles for loss (eight). Landisch once again will need to be able to provide the pressure especially because quarterback C.J. Brown leads Maryland in rushing. As Illinois showed during its game against Wisconsin, the Badgers still struggle with a mobile quarterback, as Illini quarterback Aaron Bailey rushed for 75 yards - all in the fourth quarter – to get Illinois back in the game. If Brown can have the same effect it will help open up the passing game for Maryland.
The Terrapins offensive line has allowed 2.4 sacks a game, so Landisch will have his opportunities. With Brown being able to extend plays with his feet, Landisch will have to be smart on how he attacks him with the proper angles and need to capitalize on his opportunities.
3, Darius Hillary CB (NR): Most thought it would be Sojourn Shelton who would take the bigger step in his development this year but instead it has been Hillary, who has been more consistent than Shelton.
Shelton will likely match up with Diggs as well but Hillary matches up better size wise then Shelton. Hillary has registered 12 tackles on the year with three pass deflections. Hillary hasn’t had too many balls thrown in his direction but has done a good job of deflecting and breaking up passes. That discipline will have to continue against Diggs, who’s averaging 6.4 catches per game, 12.9 yards a catch and 82.9 yards a game. If Hillary struggles to keep up with Diggs it could be a long day for the secondary.
4, Joel Stave QB (4): The bye week was important for Stave in a couple of ways, allowing him to develop some chemistry with his receivers and become more comfortable with the plan of possibly using two quarterbacks against Maryland. Although Stave only completed 50 percent of his passes against Illinois, he should be more effective through the air with more reps with the first team offense. Maryland hasn’t given up many big plays through the air (allowing just 11.9 yards a catch), so being able to complete long passes down the field won’t be an option. Wisconsin will try and take its chances but will most likely be effective with any intermediate throws. Wisconsin in general has struggled in this area through six games with its longest pass being 37 yards. Stave needs to be able to keep drives alive, as Wisconsin is only completing 37 percent on third down, which ranks 13th in the Big Ten. Regardless of the down and distance, Stave has to be accurate and can’t miss the easy throws.
5, Alex Erickson WR (7): Wisconsin is going to have to be able to strike that balance on offense. With Erickson leading the team in receptions with 27 and having a reception in eight straight games, he’ll likely be depended on to help on third down. With the deep pass being mostly nonexistent, one common play that could be run is a wide receiver bubble screen. This has been one of Wisconsin’s most successful plays in the passing game this season and should help open up some other throws for Stave, possibly slant routes or any pattern over the middle.
6, Vince Biegel OLB (NR): With Brown having the ability to scramble and keep plays alive, Wisconsin will need as many pass rushers as possible. Maryland likes to run zone-read option on offense so they can use Brown as an offensive threat, which Illinois did with Bailey. Biegel needs to be able to help keep containment and make sure Maryland gets in plenty of third-down situations. Like Wisconsin, the Terrapins are struggling to convert on third down, ranking 12th in the Big Ten by converting 37.9 percent of their third downs. Biegel has played well this season by being active in the defense, consistently taking good angles and containing players in the backfield. Brown has struggled with accuracy in his career and a consistent pass rush that could force Brown into making a mistake. Brown has thrown six interceptions on the year and has 19 career interceptions. Wisconsin hasn’t created a turnover in the last two games and that could change this weekend.
7, Tyler Marz LT (NR): It will be an interesting matchup between the Badgers offensive line and the Terrapins defensive line. Maryland is tied for third with Wisconsin in the Big Ten, registering 19 sacks on the year, but the Badgers offensive line has done a good job of protecting the quarterback only giving up four sacks. Marz has been one of the most consistent players on the line and has been able to do his job on a weekly basis by shutting down the opposition’s defensive line.
With Gordon likely running toward Marz side of the line, he’ll have to consistently help open up holes for the running game. Marz and the rest of the line will have to do a good job in the run game and pass protection to set up third-and-short situations. If they can consistently do that it will make Stave’s job easier to move the football.
Others to Note
Safety Michael Caputo: As important as Hillary is in trying to slow down Diggs on offense, Caputo will consistently have to help as the safety blanket if the corners get beat off the line of scrimmage. Caputo will also play close to the line of scrimmage as an extra linebacker to try and contain Brown. Caputo’s main area of focus is making sure Diggs doesn’t consistently catch the intermediate throws. Diggs may make a big play in the passing game but they have to try and limit him on intermediate routes by breaking on the football and limiting yards after the catch.
Tight End Sam Arneson: Second behind Erickson in receptions with 14, Arneson has also been a very consistent blocker for Wisconsin. A good example would come against Illinois when he was able to sustain his blocks on the end around, which allowed the ball carriers to turn up field and gain positive yardage. The jet sweep has become a staple of the Wisconsin playbook and with Arneson having so much success on that play as a blocker, it would be a surprise should Wisconsin not go back to that play to see if they can duplicate that success.
Nose Guard Arthur Goldberg: Senior nose guard Warren Herring looks like he could be ready to play this weekend after suffering an injury in the season opener against LSU. Even if Herring plays, Goldberg will see his fair share of snaps. In order for the linebackers to have success in slowing down the run and pass, Goldberg will have to do a good job of occupying the blockers, which will let them roam and make plays.
Cornerback Sojourn Shelton: When Shelton is out there he’s going to have to play better than what he has since Big Ten play started. Shelton consistently was beat against Northwestern and was flagged three times for pass interference against Illinois. Shelton needs to be smart and do a better job of winning his battle on the line of scrimmage. Regardless of whom Shelton lines up against on Saturday, he should expect the ball to be thrown his way.