Northwestern takes on No. 10 Wisconsin this Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison. It’s a massive test for the Wildcats, but unless you’re a hardcore Big Ten football fan, you might not know what makes these 2017 Badgers so good. For that information, plus a different perspective on this weekend’s game, we went to Jake Kocorowski of the Wisconsin SB Nation site Bucky’s 5th Quarter.
Inside NU: Obviously, Wisconsin didn't encounter much resistance in the non-conference schedule. Are there any aspects of the team you're worried about heading into Big Ten play or is everything working for the Badgers right now?
Jake Kocorowski: I wouldn't say everything is fine for the Badgers right now, but I do feel they're in a good spot heading into Big Ten play. That's due to their most complete effort of the season in the 40-6 win over BYU nearly two weeks ago before their bye.
Defensively, they're a top-10 squad, but I do want to see how they continue to improve their communication in the secondary. At times early this season, Florida Atlantic and BYU gained some yards through the air on big plays. The first two games also showed UW giving up some yardage in the first half, but they adjusted appropriately and have not given up any second half points in their three wins. The dominant win against the Cougars showed what the unit could do.
Offensively, one minor concern is ensuring the starting offensive line is intact to keep Alex Hornibrook upright. It's the deepest Wisconsin has been since Paul Chryst has returned to Madison with probably eight game-ready players at the absolute least, but starting left guard Jon Dietzen is questionable (right leg) and Beau Benzschawel did play against BYU after being questionable that week.
That and not turning the ball over, as they did so four times in the first two games. Twice, the offense's turnovers led to opponents' touchdowns in the first two games, as the defense was forced into a short field to work with.
INU: Did anyone see this outburst from freshman RB Jonathan Taylor coming? What has made him so successful, and will he continue to dominate carries over Bradrick Shaw and Chris James?
JK: We all knew he was talented coming out of Salem, N.J., but honestly, the talk was about the two-headed monster of Shaw and James headed into camp. Shaw is off the injury list and gained some carries against BYU, and James is the third down back who has a combination of speed and elusiveness in the open field. I was personally high on James this year in both spring and fall camps. All three have the ability to feed off of each other, and as seen in years past like UW's 2010 Rose Bowl run, the Badgers will probably utilize the skill sets of all three to attempt to reach the Big Ten championship game.
Taylor's ascension really began in the middle of fall camp during a scrimmage. While getting reps with the first-team offense, he was able to break through against the first-team defense, and it appeared they started to feed him more and more after that. We normally saw first-team reps from Shaw and James during the two weeks of fall camp that were open to the media to watch, so seeing the "OR" as three co-starters the Monday of game week was a bit surprising. Then with Shaw injured against FAU, Taylor — nicknamed "Beast Mode" by safety D'Cota Dixon — utilized the extra reps to gain 223 yards and 3 touchdowns, and he's only continued to impress.
He currently ranks 15th in the nation in rushing yards and fifth in rushing yards per game. He's extremely mature for being a first-year player (especially since he didn't enroll early), but he knows he has a lot to work on. There's a patience and a vision, in my opinion (I'm not a former college player or scout), that is beyond his years. Then add on to that some game-breaking speed out in the open field and the ingredients are there for a special player for years to come.
INU: What are the biggest ways in which QB Alex Hornibrook has improved from last season to this one?
JK: I think you can point to his knowledge of the offense in year two of being in Chryst's offense, along with his film study and preparation, as major factors of his growth this season. Hornibrook was named the starter in the spring and was able to work on timing with his receivers. He's always had the ability to place a deep ball effectively to let his receivers make plays, but he's also added some zip to his passes that's allowed him to make stronger throws to the outside or fit a strike into a tight window in the middle of the field. He worked with quarterback guru George Whitfield, and as good friend Jesse Temple wrote about earlier this year, he also changed his diet. All have contributed to a strong start outside of a couple of quarters against Florida Atlantic, as he broke the single-game school record for completion percentage against BYU.
INU: With guys like TJ Watt, Vince Biegel, and Sojourn Shelton no longer around (and Jack Cichy out for the season), this defense doesn't have a lot of big names. Pick an X-factor from that side of the ball for this Saturday's game.
JK: I think you go with inside linebacker T.J. Edwards. The redshirt junior has recorded 14 tackles, three for loss (tied for second on the team in that category), and he leads the team in interceptions with two. He's led the team in tackles the previous two seasons and is a consistent force in the defense. With running back Justin Jackson being a focus (and a significant factor in the '14 and '15 games), the front seven will have to keep him in check to get a win on Saturday. Edwards will be one of those tasked with slowing Jackson down.
INU: What's the level of optimism surrounding this program right now? Do Badgers fans feel like their team can not just compete in the Big Ten, but potentially be a Playoff participant come January?
JK: I think there's a level of optimism at Wisconsin to be something more than what it's been. Now, there's always a difference between what the players feel and the fans believe, but I think both do consider there's a possibility for the Big Ten title, and just maybe that College Football Playoff if the stars align. The paper schedule initially looked extremely favorable, and it still looks possible for the Badgers to make a deep run and be favored in all of their remaining games. Some of their opponents, however, will be more difficult than anticipated. That includes the likes of Purdue, who is improving exponentially under Jeff Brohm, and Indiana. Iowa and Northwestern are now the biggest challengers for the Big Ten West with Nebraska trying to find itself, with the Hawkeyes being a hair more dangerous than the Wildcats. Wisconsin plays Michigan after Iowa and then a feisty Minnesota squad under the reins of P.J. Fleck. They can win every regular season game this year with who's playing on each side of the ball. It's awfully difficult to do so, however, but this team may have the best chance to make that happen [compared to previous teams].
INU: Lastly, let's hear your prediction for Wisconsin-Northwestern. The 14.5 point spread seems like a lot to me, but of course, I'm biased.
JK: I think it's a heckuva lot closer if this is played in Evanston, since that area’s been Wisconsin's version of the Bermuda Triangle up until last year's win. I think it all starts with the Badgers thwarting the combination of Jackson and quarterback Clayton Thorson. If Jackson can't burn Wisconsin in the run game, I think Jim Leonhard's defense can rely on its secondary despite some communication blips against pace-based offenses seen earlier this season. If not, it could be a long game.
Offensively, Wisconsin's balanced in a way that hasn't been seen in years. The run game is the bread and butter, but Hornibrook has a variety of receiving targets at wide receiver and at tight end, which includes preseason All-American TE Troy Fumagalli.
This will be another hard-fought game by all means. I do feel Wisconsin pulls away for a 27-14 win, with its offense being a bit too much for Northwestern to handle and the defense making enough plays to control Jackson and Thorson. This should be another fun one to cover up in Camp Randall Stadium.
Big thanks to Jake for taking our questions. You can follow him on Twitter at @JakeKocoB5Q.