By all accounts Paul Chryst had a successful first year at Wisconsin, as the program overcame injuries and a lack of depth at key offensive positions to register 10 wins for the fifth time in seven years. Entering 2016, Wisconsin has won 70 games over the last seven years and are just one of eight programs nationally to average 10 wins per season since 2009. Another one of those eight programs? LSU.
The Tigers went 9-3 last season, considered a disappointment after starting 7-0 before fading down the stretch. It has caused head coach Les Miles to retool his defense with new defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and build an offensive around one of the most dynamic players in the country in tailback Leonard Fournette. Combine that with the 18 starters returning, it’s no surprise that the Tigers are ranked fifth in the country and will provide a tremendous opening test for UW.
The rankings for the Front Seven are determined based on performance from fall camp, expectations this coming week and need. It was not easy determining who will be important in helping Wisconsin to a season-opening win over LSU inside Lambeau Field, the fourth meeting all-time between the schools.
1, Corey Clement RB: In order for Wisconsin to have success on offense, the Badgers need Clement to have a successful day on the ground. That won’t be an easy task against a LSU’s defense that only allowed 122.9 rushing yards a game a year ago, not to mention only two players to rush for over 100 yards last season. A healthy Clement has the talent to find success against LSU’s rush defense with his ability to create plays with his feet, his speed at which to hit the running lane, his physicality and his vision. If Clement and the offensive line can wear LSU’s front down as the game progresses, Wisconsin will need to take advantage and try to produce a long run against a defense that only allowed 3.8 yards per carry last season.
2, Vince Biegel OLB: Alabama tailback Derrick Henry served as a good challenge to begin the 2015 season and Leonard Fournette will certainly do the same this year. A player who demands a team effort in order to slow him down, it will likely be Biegel leading the way. Fournette is tremendous at breaking tackles, bouncing plays to the outside and accelerating to full speed quickly, all reasons he averaged 6.5 yards per carry last season. Biegel, who registered 66 tackles last season, will need to consistently stay disciplined in the open field and use his own strength to prevent Fournette from overpowering the defense. Not only will Biegel’s primary job be to contain Fournette, he’ll also need to find a way to make sure quarterback Brandon Harris doesn’t have time in the pocket. Harris completed only 53.7 percent of his passes last season, so any added pressure could be a big benefit.
3, Michael Deiter C: Entering just his second seasons on the field, Deiter has quickly proven his worth on the offensive line. The most experienced lineman with 13 career starts, Deiter will be vital in making the correct line calls and winning the trenches to prevent LSU’s front from creating pressure in the backfield. A unit that finished 18th in the country with 2.83 sacks per game, the Tigers had their entire starting defensive line returning until defensive end Christian LaCouture was lost for the season due to a knee injury. Despite the loss of LaCoutre, who could also play the nose, the Tigers have talent and depth along the line to still give the whole group a test. Deiter’s ability to help slow down any pressure LSU brings will allow Wisconsin to have a chance of creating a rhythm on offense.
4, Bart Houston QB: Finally getting the chance to make a start, Houston will be going up against a pass defense that allowed 224.2 yards a game last season. If Houston gets the time he needs in the pocket he should be able to find success against the Tigers’ secondary and develop a rhythm. The key for Houston is to be able to limit mistakes. LSU only registered 10 interceptions last year but Houston can’t gift wrap opportunities. Safety Jamal Adams could make Wisconsin, as he led the team with four interceptions and was tied for second with six pass breakups.
5, Sojourn Shelton CB: Shelton is coming off a strong fall camp and will need to use that as a springboard into the season. Shelton will be going up against two talented wide receivers in Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural, who finished last season with 698 and 533 yards, respectively. Whoever Shelton defends will require him to stay consistent in his technique. Dupre and Dural are both tall wide receivers who averaged 16 yards per catch last season, and Shelton won’t have the safety blanket he had last year with Michael Caputo and Tanner McEvoy to help him over the top. That lack of security makes it important that Shelton is physical at the line of scrimmage and the need to find ways to prevent his matchup from beating him off the line of scrimmage.
6, Rob Wheelwright WR: Wheelwright will have a chance to see plenty of targets come his way, as the senior gives Houston a good target to throw to with his frame and experience. In the game at Illinois last year, Houston connected with Wheelwright three times for 47 yards and a touchdown. Wheelwright has the ability to be able to get behind LSU’s secondary and provide a target when Wisconsin faces a third down or in the red zone. Consistency catching the football is vital to Wheelwright when he’ll likely be defended by Tre’Davious White, who led LSU with seven pass breakups last season.
7, Leo Musso S: Wisconsin’s cornerbacks will need Musso to play an important role of making sure the pass defense doesn’t allow a big play. Needing to be that safety net to limit chunk plays, Musso has to be assignment sound, put himself in the right positions to make a play and be a sound tackler with good technique so he’s not overpowered. If Wisconsin’s pass rush is consistent, the ball-hawking Musso is a solid option to register an interception.
Others to Note
Jack Cichy ILB: With T.J. Edwards out, it will be up to Cichy and Chris Orr to help direct the defense. Cichy ended last season on a high note by registering 41 tackles in the last five games (most on the team in that span) and will have his hands full trying to contain Fournette. He’ll need to stick to his gap responsibilities if he wants any chance to slow LSU’s run game.
Rafael Gaglianone K: Gaglianone’s strong fall camp appears to show his sophomore inconsistency is behind him. Points could be at a premium in a game like this, so Wisconsin needs Gaglianone to convert when the team gets in field goal range.
Chikwe Obasih DE: It’s going to take a complete effort from the front seven to slow the running game and supply the pressure, so Obasih’s role on Saturday will be huge. The junior will likely be lining up against either Karl Malone Jr. (zero career starts) or Maea Teuhema (11 career starts). If he can win his battles in the trenches, it should help make sure that Fournette can’t get outside on runs.
Ryan Ramczyk LT: Ramczyk is probably one of the most intriguing Wisconsin players entering Saturday, as he’s a bit of a mystery on how he’ll perform against the Tigers’ defense. Ramczyk has been called a freak athlete by his teammates and will certainly get a test by a front that has plenty of freak athletes on it. Ramczyk will need to be able to adjust to the trenches quickly in order to help create lanes for the running backs and keep Houston upright.