Wisconsin has owned the Big Ten West since its inception in 2014, winning three out of four division titles. The Badgers are near the top of the West against this season, and, with a win over Iowa under their belt, present arguably the biggest obstacle between division-leading Northwestern and the division crown. To get a better feel for what to expect from Wisconsin, we got the inside scoop from Jake Kocorowski of Bucky’s 5th Quarter, Wisconsin’s SB Nation site.
Inside NU: Wisconsin has had disappointing losses to BYU and Michigan, but is still in a good position in the Big Ten West. Given those things, how do you evaluate Wisconsin’s season thus far?
Jake Kocorowski: I would say the Badgers have not lived up to the hype that was generated outside of the program itself (so media and fans’ expectations). The loss to BYU was extremely surprising, one where they allowed big chunk plays in the ground game that was uncharacteristic of years past coupled with an erratic offense that couldn’t move the chains on third downs.
UW played Michigan close for nearly three quarters until the wheels fell off in Ann Arbor, but again the offense could not get going against an elite defense like the Wolverines have.
I will say, goals of getting back to the Big Ten Championship game are still attainable, as is a conference title if they’d upset the East division representative who would likely be a favorite. Nothing is a gimme, though, especially with road contests at Northwestern, Penn State and Purdue the rest of the way. However, the thoughts of the College Football Playoff are dashed, and fans are overall disappointed there is not a chance anymore for that to happen.
INU: How do you evaluate Alex Hornibrook’s play this season, especially as compared to last season?
JK: I think Hornibrook has improved this season, as he’s kept the turnovers low (only 6 interceptions so far) and has tossed 11 touchdowns. His completion percentage is lower after completing around 63 percent last season, though, and I will say it has been a a bit of an up-and-down year. He’ll play well (see: Iowa) but also have games against Michigan (7-of-20 for 100 yards, 75 of those coming in garbage time) and even Illinois. Against Lovie Smith’s defense, he threw for 188 yards with three touchdowns but also had two interceptions that did not look pretty (for sure there was miscommunication between Hornibrook and A.J. Taylor on the first pick).
The problem with Hornibrook is he isn’t Russell Wilson. Every Wisconsin quarterback has had to try (and ultimately failed) to live up to those standards since that magical 2011 season. Hornibrook is who he is--decent arm, has great leadership qualities, but also is not very mobile and sometimes has a throw or two per game that could turn into turnovers.
INU: What makes Jonathan Taylor such a special talent at running back?
JK: There is a combination of maturity for his age both on and off the field, coupled with the vision, patience, speed and physicality to be one of the best backs in the nation. Taylor’s ascension to RB1 last season was impressive, but he has also cut down his fumbles this season from 2017 (only two, and those were in the first two games).
In my opinion, Taylor still needs to work no becoming more of a pass catching threat to be the most complete back in the nation, but this season he has been more consistent--as he’s gone over the century mark rushing in all seven games so far.
INU: Is this a typical Wisconsin defense? Where are the strengths and weaknesses, and who are the players to watch?
JK: Defining typical depends upon how far back you look really, but ever since Gary Andersen and Dave Aranda brought the 3-4 look to Wisconsin in ‘13, the Badgers’ defense has set a new standard. Obviously, both Andersen and Aranda have left the program, but coordinators Aranda, Justin Wilcox and Jim Leonhard have kept the base scheme with their own wrinkles based on the personnel in that time.
When looking at the standards from 2013-now, I would say no, as Wisconsin has had to replace seven starters and two key contributors from last season’s Top-10 ranked unit. The first two games of the season gave a false sense of confidence, in my opinion, that the team could simply reload on that end, but many are still young and learning. Injuries have also hurt the team, with junior Garrett Rand out for the year before the season even began which thinned the defensive end group even further. This week’s starters in the secondary likely will not be the starting four you normally would see (more on that in question No. 6).
However, there are still playmakers on Leonhard’s unit which start with the inside linebackers. All-American T.J. Edwards and former walk-on Ryan Connelly are the best in the conference at the position, who can make plays in the backfield. Outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel had been injured since the BYU game, but last week came back to what looked like full strength and registered a sack. He is UW’s main pass rushing threat.
The secondary’s two standouts, safeties D’Cota Dixon and Scott Nelson, are both questionable, but Dixon provides a physicality and leadership presence in the defensive backfield. Nelson is a redshirt freshman who has that ball-hawk mentality you like to see at that position.
INU: In your estimation, how is Wisconsin (and its fans) viewing this weekend’s game against Northwestern?
Every game from here on out is really a must win, and in particular getting the W on Saturday greatly helps their chances in the Big Ten West division. The players preach taking each contest one at a time as to not look over each opponent, so they will definitely not take the Wildcats lightly. Before the 2016 road win in Evanston, playing at Northwestern seemed to be an abyss for success for Wisconsin--so there’s still anxiousness from a fanbase that has seen the team impress in a road win at Iowa but also falter inside Camp Randall Stadium against BYU.
INU: The Badgers have been pretty beat up recently -- what’s the status of the injured players heading into this week’s game?
JK: Yeah back to those injuries. The preliminary injury report released on Monday showed five defensive contributors--the aforementioned Dixon and Nelson, along with safety Reggie Pearson, cornerback Faion Hicks and nose tackle Olive Sagapolu--questionable. All have started games at some point this season, with Sagapolu’s injury potentially being the one to watch the most. He is the senior leader on the line, and if he cannot go on Saturday, true freshman Bryson Williams would step up as the starter at one of the defense’s vital positions.
Despite injuries to three of its four top safeties and to a few cornerbacks recently, the secondary has looked promising the past couple of weeks. If Hicks can’t go, expect true freshman Rachad Wildgoose to start his third consecutive game, who I’m high on, alongside either redshirt sophomore Caesar Williams or Deron Harrell.
Also out on the defensive line for the second consecutive game is redshirt sophomore defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk. So in a base 3-4 look, redshirt freshmen Matt Henningsen and Kayden Lyles would start.
INU: What is your prediction for the game Saturday?
JK: Wisconsin 27, Northwestern 21. I’m wondering how the Badgers’ secondary, with its injuries and growing experience, will react to and defend a Wildcats offense that passes for nearly 300 a game. On the opposite side, I think UW does enough in the ground game against an NU unit that gives up over 143 per contest.
It will be a typical grind ‘em out Wisconsin-Northwestern contest, but I think the Badgers do just enough to get out with a W.