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.
Wisconsin had one of the best seasons in program history last season and the Badgers return star running back Jonathan Taylor, most of their offensive line, and three excellet linebackers. With Big Ten West titles and top-10 finishes each of the past two years, Paul Chryst has proven himself as a head coach and Wisconsin is the prohibitive favorite to win the division each year.
The Badgers will visit Northwestern on October 27. Here’s what you need to know about Wisconsin:
Returning Production: 60 percent (79 percent on offense, 42 percent on defense)
2017 Record: 13-1 (9-0 Big Ten)
Head Coach: Paul Chryst (Entering fourth season, 34-7, 22-6 Big Ten)
2017 S&P+ Overall: 28th
2017 S&P+ Offense: 41st
2017 S&P+ Defense: 3rd
2018 S&P+ Projection: 12th
In Week One of the 2017 season, Wisconsin thrashed Utah State 59-10 on ESPN to put the nation on notice. Dominance ultimately became a trend for the Badgers as Wisconsin boasted the only undefeated season by a Power Five conference team in 2017.
At a perfect 12-0, one of the Badgers’ most closely contested game last season actually came in their Big Ten opener against Northwestern. The game came down to a safety with 59 seconds left to bury Northwestern’s final attempt, setting the final score at 33-24. The game was one of only two regular season games that ended in less than a 14-point victory for Wisconsin. This is telling of both Wisconsin’s dominance in play and their 2017 strength of schedule.
Ultimately, Wisconsin missed the College Football playoff by one game, coming six points short in the Big Ten championship to Ohio State. Despite missing the playoff, the Badgers were able to cap their season off with a 34-24 Orange Bowl win over Miami and their infamous turnover chain. Wisconsin finished the season ranked 7th in the nation according to the AP Poll.
Of Wisconsin’s 22 Orange Bowl starters, 14 are returning. This includes 10 out of their 11 offensive players. It’s safe to say that the Badgers won’t be missing a beat on offense.
When it comes to Wisconsin offense, you have to start with the historically run-heavy team’s offensive line. Wisconsin is slated to have potentially the best starting five in their program’s history as they return three All-American linemen with Michael Deiter, Beau Benzschawel, and David Edwards. Furthermore, sophomore running back Jonathan Taylor will be looking to have another explosive and impactful season for Wisconsin after accumulating almost 2,000 yards last season. One of Wisconsin’s only offensive loses from last season will be Taylor’s backfield partner, graduated fullback Austin Ramesh.
Outside of their traditional run game, the Badgers’ offense will readily offer serious danger in the air. Wisconsin finished last season ranked seventh in both passing and passing downs S&P+ and junior quarterback Alex Hornibrook finished 21st in QBR last season. All of this was accomplished in spite of the fact that the Hornibrook’s best target, Quintez Cephus, missed the final stretch of the season due to a leg injury. Cephus will be fully recovered for the 2018 season and joining Danny Davis, A.J. Taylor, and Kendric Pryor, three other stellar wide receivers. These targets should give the Badgers offense some creativity to mix their lethal ground game with legitimate areal threats.
While Wisconsin’s offense will bringing back an experienced squad, the Badgers’ defense will have the heavy task of replacing seven starters this season. Let’s begin with Wisconsin’s strong suits then move into their question marks.
The linebacker spot is by far Wisconsin’s most stacked defensive position group. Wisconsin will be returning ILBs Ryan Connelly and T.J. Edwards, who are both coming off of impressive seasons. Connelly and Edwards combined for 169 tackles last season and Connelly’s 88 tackles indicated a huge step up from his 59 tackles the year prior. The pair of fourth year linebackers will be joined alongside star OLB Andrew Van Ginkel, who recorded two forced fumbles, two interceptions, and 39 tackles last season.
Outside of the linebacker spot, there’s a lot of unknowns for this Wisconsin defense. The Badgers graduated a pair of starting cornerbacks, a pair of vital safeties, and a pair of talented defensive ends last season. This leaves a number of vacant spots left to be filled by underclassmen. If Wisconsin wants to contend for a title this year, they’re going to have to hope that some less experienced players such as cornerback Dontye Carriere-Williams step up and that veterans such as safety D’Cota Dixon take serious leadership roles within the defense. Despite these question marks, it would be unwise to look down on this Wisconsin defense as the Badgers have one of the best defensive coordinators in the Big Ten in Jim Leonhard.
Three Players to Know
RB Jonathan Taylor
I’m going to let you all in on a little secret… Wisconsin really likes to run the ball. Taylor finished his freshman season with 1977 yards at a rate of 6.6 yards per an attempt. To put that into perspective, in Justin Jackson’s best season, he finished with 1743 yards on 298 attempts (one less than Taylor). Throw in the fact that Taylor is going to be running behind one of the best O-Line’s in the nation, and this could be a scary sight for the rest of the Big Ten.
ILB T.J. Edwards
Plain and simple, Edwards is one of the best linebackers in the country. He finished last season as a Butkus award finalist and first-team All American, cementing his place at the top of his position nationally. He also added 81 tackles to his resume with a career high of 53 of those tackles being unassisted. Edwards is hoping to prove his NFL value this season in preparation of the 2019 NFL Draft, so expect another dynamic season out of the fourth year Badger.
OLB Andrew Van Ginkel
With OLBs Leon Jacobs and Garret Dooley gone, Van Ginkel is going to be a very important presence and leader for Wisconsin’s defense. Between Zack Baun, Arrington Farrar, Noah Burks, and Christian Bell there’s plenty of returners that could fill these Jacobs and Dooley’s spots, however Van Ginkel’s experience and leadership will be vital to maintaining Wisconsin’s title as one of the best linebacker groups in the nation.