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Know Your 2017 Northwestern football opponent, Week 5: Wisconsin

The Badgers are the biggest challengers to Northwestern in the West.

NCAA Football: Northwestern at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

With the Most Important Players and Position Previews sections of our Summer Guide having wrapped up, we now move on to our Know Your Opponent series, in which we preview every team Northwestern will face this season. When we hit game week, we will have more in-depth and comprehensive coverage, but for now we give you a general overview of the team so you know what to expect in general.

Fresh off a bye week, a trip to Madison awaits Northwestern in Week Five. The Wildcats have taken two of the last three against the Badgers, including a wild 13-7 win at Camp Randall in 2015. Here’s everything you need to know about the reigning Big Ten West Champions.

The Basics

Returning Starters: 16 (eight offensive, eight defensive)

Returning Experience: 67%

2016 Record: 11-3 (7-2 Big Ten)

Coach: Paul Chryst (3rd year, 21-6 overall, 13-4 conference)

The Stats

The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly of SB Nation and Football Outsiders. You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.

2016 S&P+ Overall: 11th

2016 S&P+ Offense: 49th

2016 S&P+ Defense: 7th

2017 S&P+ Projection: 11th

2016 Capsule

Chalk 2016 up as a typical year for Wisconsin. The Badgers made the Big Ten championship game for the fourth time in its six year existence and consequently lost at Lucas Oil Stadium for the second time in the last three years. That said, Paul Chryst’s team ended the year on a high note, defeating a familiar foe, Western Michigan, 24-16 in the Cotton Bowl.

Wisconsin handled a daunting schedule last year, taking down LSU in its Week 1 opener and throttling then-No. 8 ranked Michigan State in East Lansing to commence the Spartans’ Big Ten demise. In the following two games, the Badgers came up a touchdown short on the road in Ann Arbor and fell to Ohio State in overtime, sparking a little concern as they looked up at three teams in the Big Ten West standings.

Starting 1-2 in conference play is tough, but winning your final six games isn’t a bad solution. Following the devastating overtime loss, Wisconsin rattled off three consecutive impressive wins — at Iowa, Nebraska, and at Northwestern — to entrench itself in the division race. A relatively easy end to the season including Illinois, Purdue, and Minnesota sealed the Badgers’ fate as Big Ten West champs. My apologies to those in Madison, but I’d be remiss in writing this recap if I did not mention the Big Ten championship game. Wisconsin led Penn State 28-7 with 5:15 to go in the second half and lost 38-31. Without Trace McSorley’s heroics and an improbable collapse from a defense that hadn’t surrendered 30 points all season, the Badgers would have likely returned to the Rose Bowl for the first time since 2012.

Wisconsin’s season was defined by its ability to avoid upsets and win the games it was supposed to. While they came up a touchdown short in each contest against the Big Ten East’s elite, Wisconsin substitutes Maryland and Indiana for Ohio State and Michigan State. Dodging Penn State’s explosive offense is a huge plus too. Expect Wisconsin to put together yet another Big Ten West run. This year could be special in Madison — perhaps the two obstacles between Wisconsin and a Playoff berth are a Sep. 30th game against Northwestern and a Nov. 18 date with Michigan, both of which are at home.

Offensive Overview

Wisconsin has basically had to work around its passing deficiencies since Russell Wilson set the single season FBS record for passing efficiency. Finally, there’s some stability at the position with returning starter Alex Hornibrook. Although the redshirt sophomore ended the season sidelined with injury, he showcased his potential by completing 58.6 percent of his passes for 1,262 yards with nine touchdowns and seven interceptions.

Those numbers are nothing crazy and Hornibrook made his share of poor throws, but this is the more certain quarterback situation in Madison in quite some time. The southpaw will get to throw to his two leading targets last season, tight end Troy Fumagalli and wide receiver Jazz Peavy. Now, it’s about keeping Hornibook healthy or else we’ll see redshirt freshman Kare’ Lyles or true freshman Jack Coan under center. Tasked with doing that will be an offensive line returning four of its starters. Losing tackle Ryan Ramcyzk to the draft hurts, but if Madison has anything, it’s good bars and offensive line depth.

Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale are out, and Bradrick Shaw and Chris James are set to replace them in the backfield. Shaw, a redshirt sophomore, took advantage of injuries to the aforementioned duo last season and rushed for 452 yards at a 5.2 yards-per-carry clip with five touchdowns. Shaw’s a big, 6-foot-1 back, but at 211 pounds, he showed impressive speed that let him break touchdowns against Nebraska and Purdue.

Chris James will compliment Shaw in the backfield. The Pitt transfer struggled under Pat Narduzzi his sophomore year, but under Chryst as a freshman he ran for 437 yards on 87 carries (5-yards per carry) with four touchdowns. James is the quicker and speedier of the two backs and should see most of the snaps on third down. More on him later.

As for the wideouts, Peavy and tight end Fumagalli return but No. 2 receiver Rob Wheelwright is gone. Senior George Rushing will likely get the first chance to replace him, but sophomores Quintez Cephus and A.J. Taylor should push him for the starting position. Both showed tremendous promise that earned them meaningful freshman year snaps. Just watch Cephus, 87, on this touchdown run by Clement. Peavy and the sophomores are capable of running Wisconsin’s wide receiver sweep, another aspect of the Badgers’ effective run game. Don’t forget about the freshmen either. Paul Chryst has shown he isn’t afraid to play them, and four-star Danny Davis is the leader of the class.

This offense will be run-oriented per usual but don’t expect it to be as one-dimensional as previous years. Paul Chryst has himself an experienced backfield behind a veteran offensive line. With Hornibrook throwing to Peavy, Fumagali, and other young, talented receivers, this could be Wisconsin’s most balanced attack in six years.

Defensive Overview

Wisconsin’s heralded defense only allowed 15.5 points per contest, good for fourth in the nation. Their success came from completely shutting down the run to the tune of 96.9 yards per game, trailing only Alabama’s lofty 63.4 rush yards conceded.

All six players on the two-deep of Wisconsin’s defensive line return, and the trio of Conor Sheehy, Alec James, and Chikwe Obasih have combined to start 62 games. Having this group back in full force will be huge for both the linebackers and secondary, where there might be some question marks.

Outside linebacker might be the biggest question mark on the entire Wisconsin team. With T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel’s departure, there’s not a lot of depth and even less returning production. Senior Garret Dooley recorded 40 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, and 3.5 sacks, stepping up when Biegel missed two games with injury. Redshirt sophomore Zack Baun and junior college transfer Andrew Van Ginkel will see most of the action opposite Dooley. Keep an eye on redshirt senior Leon Jacobs as well.

What outside linebacker lacks in experience and depth is compensated by the inside linebackers. T.J. Edwards, Jack Cichy, and Ryan Connelly are all back and ready to anchor Wisconsin’s defense to a third consecutive S&P+ Top 10 finish. Edwards led the team with 89 tackles, and posted 8.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, and three interceptions. Cichy only played seven games due to injury but recorded 60 tackles, seven tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, and two forced fumbles. Connelly posted 59 tackles, seven tackles for loss, and recovered a fumble for a touchdown in the Big Ten championship game. These are three stud linebackers that will keep the front seven from regressing much, if at all. Cichy and 2016 Week 1 starter Chris Orr should both be healthy for the start of the season. This position is DEEP.

Wisconsin did a terrific job of avoiding the big play last season. Part of that falls on the front seven’s ability to erase the run, but the secondary’s pass defense was terrific. Take away the Georgia State and Penn State games, and everybody else combined for a “50 percent completion rate, 11.7 yards per completion,” SB Nation’s Bill Connelly writes in his season preview. Cornerback Sojourn Shelton and free safety Leo Musso are gone, and that’s 73 solo tackles, nine interceptions, and two fumble recoveries that the Badgers will have to find elsewhere. Shelton also broke up 12 passes.

Starting corner Derrick Tindal is back for his senior year, and Hawaii transfer Nick Nelson should slide into the other corner position after sitting out last season. He started all 13 games as a sophomore in 2015, amassing 87 total tackles and 20 pass breakups in two years. Senior Lubern Figaro adds depth while sophomore Titus Booker saw the field as a freshman. Chryst thought so highly of his corner depth that Natrell Jamerson made the switch to free safety. That will help offset the loss of Musso, and so will dynamic strong safety D’Cota Dixon who racked up 60 total tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1.0 sacks, four interceptions, four passes defended, one fumble recovery, one forced fumble last season. Arrington Farrar was the program’s highest rated recruit in 2015 and he’ll challenge Jamerson for reps at safety. All in all, the secondary shouldn’t have much of a problem replacing the production of Shelton and Musso. If we know anything about a defense led by Jim Leonard, they secondary will be just fine.

Players to Know

WR Jazz Peavy

While he definitely, definitely did not catch it, Peavy has emerged as Wisconsin’s most explosive and versatile receiver. The redshirt junior amassed 635 yards on 43 receptions, along with five touchdowns. Out of the backfield on jet or fly sweeps, Peavy rushed for 318 yards (15.1 yards per carry) and one touchdown that we remember all too well. The receiver’s 71-yard scamper against Minnesota was Wisconsin’s longest run of the season, and he broke off 51-yarder in the Cotton Bowl. As Alex Hornibrook’s go to guy, expect to see a heavy dosage of Peavy as Paul Chryst continues to find ways to involve his playmaker in the offense.

OLB Garret Dooley

We know all about Wisconsin’s inside linebacker depth. Edwards, Cichy, and Connelly are all experienced and battle-tested, we know them as the core of the Badgers defense. Garret Dooley will be the player to keep an eye on this season. The senior is tasked with replacing the production of T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel, and it won’t be an easy feat. A Rochester, Ill., native, Dooley filled in for Biegal against Michigan and Ohio State and delivered. Playing behind a veteran defensive line and alongside the talented trio of ILB’s will open up opportunities for Dooley. He’s next in line to join a growing list of talented OLB’s to come out of Wisconsin.

RB Chris James

James, a Chicago native, gets the edge over Bradrick Shaw on this list simply because he’s the lesser known of Wisconsin’s talented duo. Both are exciting backs that will see their share of touches next season. James attended nearby Notre Dame College Prep in Niles, and committed to Pittsburgh in 2014 as the state’s second best running back behind Justin Jackson. A transfer to Wisconsin reunited James with Paul Chryst, and he’s ready to contribute after sitting a year for eligibility purposes. Shaw and James will go 1a and 1b in this offense, with the former being more a downhill back while James is a bit shiftier. Explosive, playmaking running backs have had a few success stories in Madison. James might be the next.