If anyone were told that Wisconsin, in the first year of Luke Fickell and OC Phil Longo, would have a better record by just one game in November than Northwestern, nobody could have possibly comprehended it. But, that’s the present reality for two Big Ten West teams that have shown promise, yet inconsistencies. Before the Wildcats do battle with the Badgers from Camp Randall Stadium, learn more about NU’s away opponent courtesy of WSUM Sports’ Krissy Birdsall.
Inside NU: The Badgers are 5-4 but haven’t felt like the dominant team we anticipated. Aside from injuries, what’s gone awry from a schematic standpoint?
Krissy Birdsall: At least with those last two losses, especially the one against Indiana, I think that the injuries were maybe the first time that we really saw them play a factor into the game. But outside of that, I think that just bringing an entirely new system, an entire new coaching staff, a bunch of transfer players coming in, it took a little bit longer for that development, and the transition from one head coach to another that run completely different schemes. I think that Wisconsin was able to kind of start finding its stride, at least through the early part of October, but after the injury to [Tanner] Mordecai — who’s your starting quarterback — and bringing in a quarterback [Braedyn Locke] that’s never played at the Division I level. Was at Mississippi State last year; didn’t play. He comes in as a transfer; he sees the field for the first time. You’re going to hit those bumps in the road. Then obviously, the injuries to Chez [Mellusi] and Braelon [Allen] and Chimere Dike don’t help either, because you really just lost the bread and butter of your offense.
INU: In your opinion, what went wrong against Indiana, and can the ship be turned around?
KB: I think one thing that the Badgers have struggled with the entire year was getting off to a fast start. This has been a problem since the first game of the season. They struggled against Buffalo in the first half; they were down 24-9 at the Washington State game, and they had really struggled in the first half. Georgia Southern they were up I think 13-10, but it really shouldn’t have been that; they actually should have been tied. A couple of the other games they really struggled in the first half, so Indiana took full advantage of that in the first half. They were able to get up to an early lead. Wisconsin, usually in the second half, having Tanner Mordecai in the back there — really good at saving comebacks. Yeah, they were able to stage to come back against Illinois, but it’s Illinois defense. I think that’s a factor, too. So, I think Indiana was just able to catch Wisconsin off guard, and they weren’t really able to respond in the second half like they’ve normally been able to. Whether that has to do with the injuries or just not being able to click together, that’s up for discussion. But yeah, Indiana definitely got the better of Wisconsin in that one.
INU: The injuries are front and center to Wisconsin’s offense. Do you expect Mordecai, Allen or Dike to play against Northwestern this Saturday?
KB: They haven’t released anything official. Mordecai was dressed for the first game for against Indiana; he was taking some pregame snaps, but he wasn’t able to obviously see the field. I don’t expect him to play. Braelon Allen and Chimere Dike are definitely more likely to play. Allen was listed as questionable; he didn’t even dress. He’s dealing with a sprained ankle injury, so that could be one of those, they can come back in two weeks, they can come back in four weeks. Chimere Dike had a knee injury, and it seemed like he was able to do some pregame warmups but wasn’t fully ready to go. I mean, I would probably say in terms of who’s going to come back, the most likely would be Allen or Chimere Dike, but I’m not fully expecting either of those guys to be 100%.
INU: The Badgers have quietly put together another really strong defensive season despite losing several key pieces. Which playmakers have stepped up for Mike Tressel’s unit?
KB: Wisconsin’s defense definitely took a little bit to get going over those first couple of games. But in the last game, and especially that Ohio State game, I thought were their two best performances of the year. If you’re gonna talk about players specifically, S Hunter Wohler was one of the guys that was tabbed as one of the preseason stars of this defense, and he has basically led the team in tackles in nearly every single game. LB C.J. Goetz has taken a really step up over the last three games. He’s done a really great job filling in for the defense and kind of spinning into that Mike Tressel system as a linebacker. Wisconsin has had great linebackers over the last couple of years, so he’s really filling in that position as well. And then Ricardo Hallman, which is probably one of my favorite players to watch, just in that cornerback position. He was pretty lockdown on Marvin Harrison Jr. Any time that they went 1-on-1, he was able to almost always shut him down. I think he only gave up one pass to Marvin Harrison Jr., which was really big for him; it was kind of his first time showing his talent on the national stage. He’s gonna be one of those players to watch throughout the rest of the season and the rest of his time at Wisconsin.
INU: What would you say the overall mood is surrounding the program as we approach the 10th game of the Fickell Era?
KB: If you want to look back all the way in August, there were a lot of people who completely thought that this team was going to win 10 games — not only because of the new system and the new players and the playmakers that were coming in, but just the way that the schedule was, too. I mean, you look at Indiana game even coming into the game, despite not having Braelon Allen, [the Badgers] were favored. Everybody thought that that was going to be a for sure win; that didn’t happen. So Northwestern, I think everyone’s going to be a little bit more cautious about these last three games that, originally back in August, everyone said that these were easy wins for the Badgers. I think at this point, though, in terms of the rest of the season, you need a lot of help to win the West. Wisconsin is going to have to win out, and you need Iowa to lose two games. So, I feel like a lot of people are kind of throwing that out at this point, just because it seems like you really need to hope for Iowa to do wrong. But at the end of the day, I think just trying to finish off strongly and get a decent bowl game is really where Wisconsin fans are looking.
INU: What’s your score prediction for Saturday, and why?
KB: Well, the one good thing about this game against Northwestern is it’s not at Ryan Field. Wisconsin has typically struggled at Ryan Field, but they did well last year at Ryan Field, and that was all during the time of Paul Chryst was fired, Jim Leonhard was taking over as the head coach. Kind of in a similar situation, although they’re coming back in Camp Randall. They’re in need of a bounce-back game; they’re in need of this team getting together and rallying at the end of the season. I think just the way that the schedule lines up, and the mindset that Wisconsin has going into it, I think they’ll be able to pull away with the victory. I don’t think it’s going to be an easy or very pretty victory. I was thinking somewhere along 17-10 [Wisconsin]. So, low-scoring, but it’ll be interesting.