Rutgers returns to action after their bye week as more than four touchdown underdogs against Wisconsin (5-3) on the road on Saturday. The Scarlet Knights haven’t been competitive against the Badgers in any meeting since joining the Big Ten. This time around, Wisconsin is facing more adversity than usual, as injuries are an issue and they are coming off an upset loss to Northwestern last weekend. For our game preview, click here.
I was fortunate to speak with Jake Kocorowski of SB Nation’s Wisconsin blog, Bucky’s 5th Quarter about the current state of Wisconsin football. He answered a number of questions on a variety of topics, as well as gave a prediction for Saturday’s game. Let’s kick things off here.
AB: Its been a uncommonly down year for Wisconsin. What have been the biggest issues so far and how do you see the rest of the season playing out?
JK: They say football’s a team game, and for Wisconsin, it really is a team issue I would say. It’s not just one main area--it’s a few. The biggest issues revolve really around consistency and getting into a rhythm on offense and the defense needing to replace so many pieces from last year.
When Wisconsin rolls on offense, especially on converting third downs, it has the potential to be one of the better offenses in the country--something we as media had expectations for with so many returners and talent on that side of the ball. The talent is there with some All-American offensive linemen, a Heisman-caliber back, a redshirt junior QB1 (Alex Hornibrook) who gashed Miami’s defense in the Orange Bowl, and three wide receivers who stepped up last season when Quintez Cephus was lost for the rest of 2017 due to injury (plus a versatile fullback in Alec Ingold). They just have not hit on all cylinders like you’d expect.
I’ll point out third down conversions again. For example against BYU, Michigan and Northwestern on third down, UW moved the chains on third down only 10 times in 36 opportunities--that’s under 28 percent of the time. Even in a 49-20 win over Illinois, the Badgers were only 3-of-8 on third downs, so recently in the past three games against the Wolverines, Illinois and Wildcats. It’s a microcosm of Wisconsin’s success--if they move the chain on third down 50 percent or more, they’re in good shape.
That has put a lot of pressure on a Wisconsin defense that has some talent but also has missed some key starters on the defensive line and secondary--though I’ll argue the latter has actually really impressed me with so many reserve players stepping up. UW had to replace seven starters and a couple of contributors from last year on Jim Leonhard’s unit, which was a Top-5, Top-10 defense in the country. There was bound to be a drop off, but a season-ending injury to projected starting defensive end Garrett Rand prior to the season, along with fellow starter Isaiahh Loudermilk being out at times this season, has really forced two redshirt freshmen--Matt Henningsen and Kayden Lyles--to step up at that position group. Lyles is actually a converted four-star offensive linemen, which shows you the lack of depth at defensive end. The secondary, which was already starting three new starters to begin the year, has faced a lot of injuries but some young talent has shown up nicely there (especially cornerback Rachad Wildgoose, who I’ve become extremely high on).
Long story short, consistency, rebuilding a stifling defense and injuries have all played a role, though I always hate blaming a disappointing season on the latter.
AB: Injuries are piling up, can you give an update on key players? Who are replacements to watch for?
JK: Wisconsin just released its updated injury report on Thursday morning (I wasn’t able to make it down for head coach Paul Chryst’s availability, but thankfully it was reported by others).
So back to defensive line talk--senior nose tackle Olive Sagapolu (right arm) will be out for this game after suffering the injury in Evanston, so true freshman Bryson Williams will start at that position (and so three freshmen in Henningsen, Lyles and Williams will be starting on the line if Wisconsin starts in its base 3-4). Redshirt sophomore Cole Van Lanen has played really well at left tackle in a platoon with redshirt junior Jon Dietzen, but he is now questionable on Saturday (upgraded from out on Monday’s report) with a left leg injury.
Hornibrook is off the injury report from being questionable earlier this week, and it appears that is a sign he will play. If Hornibrook cannot go for some reason, expect second-year quarterback Jack Coan to be QB1. Some Badgers fans got their wish last week to see Coan, who has maybe a hint better arm and better mobility than Hornibrook, play against Northwestern, and he looked like a player starting his first game of his career (along with getting his first snaps of the season ... this is by all means nothing against the sophomore, who I am very high on, but he wasn’t the “savior” fans yearned for in recent games to replace Hornibrook).
With injuries to starting safeties D’Cota Dixon (questionable) and Scott Nelson (now out from initially being designated as questionable), the emergence and overall decent play of redshirt sophomore Eric Burrell and redshirt senior Evan Bondoc has helped stabilize the defensive backfield. True freshman Reggie Pearson, now back from injury himself, stepped up big against Michigan where he started in his home state.
Loudermilk is still questionable, and we will see if he, like Dixon, will be able to get some reps in.
AB: Rutgers fans are well aware of Jonathan Taylor. How has he been in his second season and will Wisconsin’s offense be more run heavy overall if Hornibrook doesn’t play at QB?
JK: Regardless of which quarterback is out there, Wisconsin will always be a team that wants to run the ball with its physical offensive line to wear down opposing defenses. With Coan in the game last week, Taylor only ran the ball 11 times for 46 yards (plus those two credited fumbles), but I feel that was a testament to Wisconsin not getting in a rhythm and groove on that side of the ball.
Overall, I feel like Taylor’s actually been more consistent than last year. He still leads the nation in rushing yards per game and I feel has been even more patient that he was last year in finding holes though I feel there has not been as many explosive chunk plays. Before the Northwestern game, I thought he really protected the ball well.
AB: The defense has struggled in losses to Michigan and Northwestern. What have been the issues and what are the strengths of this unit?
JK: I think I hit on those notes earlier in the first question, but there were just a lot of pieces to replace from 2017 and injuries to that unit has forced a lot of players to step up.
The strengths still start with its inside linebackers, Ryan Connelly and T.J. Edwards, who really anchor this defense. Edwards claimed All-America honors last season, and Connelly, a former walk-on who continues the fine legacy of that tradition, has really emerged the past three seasons to be a great presence in the group. Both are NFL-caliber players in my opinion. Though he’s out this week, Sagapolu is a leader and also an athletic nose tackle that I feel could play at the next level. Outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel appears healthy after suffering an injury against BYU, and he’s Wisconsin’s main edge rusher. With the secondary, again, I really like the first-year player in Wildgoose, who’s as physical as he is confident on the field.
AB: For Rutgers fans visiting Madison, which I know is a great town, any recommendations on places and activities to take part in this weekend?
JK: You missed the big Halloween party on State Street last weekend, so nothing too crazy with big events happening from what I know. :-)
However, there are tons of great restaurants and bars to go to if you’re in town this weekend. The Old Fashioned, Dotty Dumpling’s Dowry (my personal favorite), Ian’s Pizza, and so many more on State Street and around the state capitol.
If you get a chance to go maybe 10-15 minutes north of UW, our friends at Bierock (where we hold our live podcast recordings every Tuesday) have a great selection of beer and food. Their caramel apple bierock is a top-5 dessert, hands down, both in price and taste. They also converted their restaurant to look like Moe’s from the Simpsons on Halloween.
AB: What is your prediction for the game?
JK: I think Wisconsin comes out and re-establishes its run game on Saturday, while the defense gets a boost of confidence before Penn State in facing a struggling Rutgers offense. I’ll say Wisconsin 49, Rutgers 10.
Thanks to Jake for providing great insight on Wisconsin football. You can follow him on twitter here. For more football coverage on Wisconsin, visit Bucky’s 5th Quarter. To read my answer’s to Jake’s questions on Rutgers football, click here.