The Wisconsin Badgers (5-3; 3-2) will bring a four game winning streak and the top defense in the nation to Piscataway on Saturday. Rutgers (4-4; 1-4) looks to build off their win over Illinois a week ago in front of the home faithful.
In an effort to find out more about this weekend’s opponent, I was fortunate to connect with Drew Hamm, the managing editor of SB Nation’s Wisconsin site, Bucky’s 5th Quarter. We covered multiple topics regarding the season so far for the Badgers. Let’s kick things off here.
AB: Wisconsin has won four in a row after a 1-3 start. How much has the turnaround been a product of the schedule and what areas has this team improved in the most this season?
DH: The schedule has certainly gotten easier since the opening four games which featured Penn State, Michigan and Notre Dame, but I don’t really think that has too much to do with Wisconsin winning four in a row. The Badgers offensive line is the difference. In the opening month of the season they were, uh, not good. They couldn’t pass protect and they couldn’t run block either. They were also rotating up to nine guys in and out of the game which made it nearly impossible for anyone to develop a rhythm.
During Wisconsin’s four game winning streak the run blocking has improved greatly and the pass protection has become adequate. The Badgers have also seemed to settle on five players who should be playing on the line and, even with some injuries, the unit has gelled. The improved blocking has led to improved rushing which has taken pressure off of Graham Mertz and it just makes the whole offense work better. Oh, also UW has stopped turning the ball over and has started forcing some turnovers. That has helped too.
AB: The offense has really struggled but the emergence of freshman running back Braelon Allen has brought stability with four consecutive 100+ yard rushing performances. How important is he to the success of Wisconsin and what does he do well?
DH: Allen, who you will surely discover during the broadcast, is only 17-years old and should be competing in the Wisconsin state playoffs right now. He is a physical freak who can outlift most players on the team already and he has gotten better every week. Technically he isn’t even the starter, but he and Chez Mellusi work in tandem and, depending on the hot hand, will get close to the same amount of carries. For a freshman, Allen is incredibly patient. He has good footwork too and, being 6-foot-2 and 238 pounds, he is tough to tackle. While he isn’t a track star in the open field, he is fast enough to break off chunk runs. The running game is where Wisconsin’s offense gets started, so he and Mellusi having good games is imperative for the Badgers to win.
AB: With Graham Mertz struggling at quarterback, have defenses attempted to stack the box against the run and even if they haven’t, how has Wisconsin been able to be so effective in the run game without a true passing threat?
DH: As mentioned, the run blocking has improved greatly over the past month and the Badgers are also one of the few teams that still uses a fullback regularly, which gives them an extra blocker. It’s funny, because the Badgers actually have some pretty talented receivers on the team, they just aren’t used often. Moreso than many teams, Wisconsin needs to stay on schedule and gain yards on first and second down because they do not thrive in third and medium situations, let alone third and long. UW will also use jet sweep action occasionally, which can keep the defense honest.
AB: Greg Schiano called Wisconsin’s defense the best in the country. They allow just 212 yards per game, the lowest in the Big Ten by a wide margin. What makes them so good and are there any weaknesses?
DH: I’d quibble with Schiano’s statement because Georgia has the best defense in the country, but Wisconsin’s is pretty comfortably second best. There are a number of things that make the unit so good. NT Keeanu Benton is a legit NFL talent and controls the line of scrimmage well. ILB Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal are tackling machines from sideline to sideline who can also knife into the backfield for tackles for loss. OLB Nick Herbig is one of the best pass rushers in the conference as a sophomore. The veteran secondary is stingy with allowing receptions although they have been known to get beat over the top from time to time. That’s the only real weakness they have. I think Rutgers is going to have a very tough time moving the ball on Saturday.
The Wisconsin defense is a joy to watch and I would do anything they asked me to do.
AB: Who are some unsung players on Wisconsin that Rutgers fans should be aware of?
DH: DE Isaiah Mullens is a guy who doesn’t get mentioned often outside of Wisconsin-centric circles. He can rush the passes and get in the backfield to make TFLs but he is overshadowed by Benton and the entire linebacking corps. He is just one of the many weapons that can hurt an opponent even if the defensive “stars” are blocked on a given play.
Sophomore WR Chimere Dike is arguably the most talented wideout the Badgers have but he is, at best, fourth in line for targets after senior TE Jake Ferguson and senior WRs Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor. Wisconsin doesn’t throw it a ton, but Dike is one of the few guys who can get deep and put pressure on a defense over the top.
AB: Thoughts on Aron Cruickshank and his success at Rutgers? Do Wisconsin fans lament his departure even more so now?
DH: I’d like to think there is no ill will towards Cruickshank from Wisconsin fans, but I can’t speak for the entire fanbase. I thought it was great that he earned all-conference honors as a return man. He’s really good at it! He should win awards for returning kicks! He was never going to see the field as an actual wide receiver on offense at Wisconsin, so I don’t think it’s even worth lamenting his departure but........yes, I think Wisconsin misses him. The UW return game has been laughably poor this year (and most of last year, until the emergence of freshman WR Devin Chandler who...entered the transfer portal a few weeks ago) and has been the cause of much consternation among fans.
AB: What is your prediction of the game?
DH: As I’m sure you’re aware, Rutgers has scored more than 13 points in a Big Ten game this year exactly one time. Last week against Illinois...when they scored 20. I struggle to see a scenario where the Scarlet Knights even get to 13 points at all this weekend, let alone over it. The Wisconsin offense isn’t one that is going to score a ton of points either, but I think the score will be something like 28-7 or 28-10 in favor of the Badgers. However, if Cruickshank can break free for a special teams touchdown, that really changes the complexion of the game because that’s scoring without UW’s defense being on the field. I don’t think counting on special teams scores is a very sustainable way to win football games, but stranger things have happened!
Thanks so much to Drew for giving great insight on the current state of Wisconsin football ahead of Saturday’s game. You can follow him on Twitter here and for complete coverage of Wisconsin Athletics, make sure to check out Bucky’s 5th Quarter. To read my answers to Drew’s questions on Rutgers football, click here.