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5 Biggest Questions facing Badgers football following spring practice

UW’s annual spring football camp left plenty of questions to be answered in the fall. Does it mean good news or bad news?

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Friday night under the lights of Camp Randall gave us all the final glimpse of this Wisconsin Badgers football team until August. It also meant 15 practices were in the books and now is the perfect time for reflection.

It is what the coaching staff will be doing while they hit the recruiting circuit in earnest.

So, we’ll follow suit all week here and take a look back at the 2017 spring football camp.

That will start with a look at the unanswered questions coming out of spring camp, and for a team with a lot of turnover there are plenty left to be answered.

What Will the Offensive Line Look Like?

The spring was a bit of a mixed bag for the offensive line. On the one hand, there are plenty of players with starting experience in the mix. On the other hand, a lot of those players were missing from spring football.

It opened opportunities for players like Tyler Biadasz and Micah Kapoi, both of whom had solid spring camps. However, it also puts offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Joe Rudolph in a very interesting position.

Many thought the offensive line was pretty easily set, lining up like this from left to right — David Edwards, Jon Dietzen, Michael Deiter, Beau Benzschawel and either Jacob Maxwell or Patrick Kasl at right tackle.

But, Edwards, Dietzen, Benzschawel and Maxwell all missed parts or the whole of spring camp. It meant Biadasz playing a lot of center and playing it at such a high level he may be pushing Dieter out to a different position come the fall.

If that happens, we’re likely to see Deiter at left tackle and Edwards back at right tackle. But, that is all a big if at this point.

While there are some really good pieces to the puzzle in play, figuring out the five best players and where they belong will be a huge challenge for Rudolph and Co. come the fall. At least this group has the depth to worry about who the best five are and not just finding five capable players anymore.

Depth isn’t a concern, just chemistry and the best thing for this offense overall.

Who Is the Backup Quarterback?

As deep as the offensive line is, Wisconsin is razor-thin at quarterback. It was easy to see why sophomore Alex Hornibrook was named the starter before spring camp even broke for the first time. He’s lightyears ahead of early enrollee Jack Coan and redshirt freshman Karé Lyles.

In fact, if the spring game was any indication, UW may be in some serious trouble if something happens to Hornibrook.

Lyles looked timid at times, while Coan is clearly still trying to develop within a college offense. At least the raw tools seem to be there for Coan and the confidence was also more evident. But, he’s got a lot of progressing to do if he wants to have that redshirt taken off of him.

It is also incumbent on Lyles to become more comfortable throwing in the pocket over the tall offensive line in front of him. Can he overcome the biggest issue we see in his game to overtake Coan and become the backup?

If the Badgers really want to redshirt Coan, Lyles is going to have to give the coaching staff a reason to beat out the other freshman on the roster. Summer workouts and fall camp are going to be vital to the progression of the quarterback position as a whole.

Right now, it is difficult to be confident that this group can be more than a game-managing one at best.

Is There Enough Playing Time For All The Talent at Linebacker?

A lot of teams would love to be in the position the Wisconsin Badgers find themselves in at the linebacker position. Not only does UW have four returning starters at inside linebacker, it also had two players who made a case to be starters after spring football — Griffin Grady and walk-on Mike Maskalunas.

We should see the full return of players like Jack Cichy, Chris Orr, T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly. So, if you’re counting along with us at home that makes six really good players for two positions at inside linebacker. It also means there is going to be a huge fight for snaps come the fall.

You could say the same thing at outside linebacker where Zak Buan and Garrett Dooley have starting experience, but there’s a host of talented and exciting options outside of those two names. Players like Andrew Van Ginkel and Alabama transfer Christian Bell have stepped up and so has the returning Leon Jacobs (who moves back to where he started his career in a Badgers uniform) along with sophomore Griffin Grady and freshman Izayah Green-May.

All could stake a claim to being good enough to start, and all are likely to see the field in some capacity this season.

That’s where the interesting part of Jim Leonhard’s first year in charge of the defense will come. How does he rotate and get players the snaps they need based off production in camps? There may simply not be enough snaps to go around and patience may be key at this position in 2017.

Will Move of Natrell Jamerson to Safety Be the Right One?

There’s no questioning that Natrell Jamerson is one of the four best defensive backs the Wisconsin Badgers have. However, the bigger question is if the role they have put him in — strong safety — is the right one for this team.

Let us flashback to Penn State and even Western Michigan torching the UW secondary last year. Jamerson wasn’t one of those players getting regularly torched and that was due to his ability to be a rangy player in the back of the defense. He also was one of the three best cornerbacks UW had.

Fast forward and Jamerson won’t be a starter at cornerback thanks to Nick Nelson’s emergence after transferring and sitting out last season. Still, the Badgers have very little experience or quality behind the starters.

Would Jamerson be better suited at a less-loaded position like cornerback and allow for younger players like Eric Burrell and Patrick Johnson III to settle in at safety? A lot of the answers are going to come from the play of Donyte Carriere-Williams and Lubern Figaro.

If Figaro can figure out how to stop getting burned and Carriere-Williams can continue his strong progress from the spring to the fall, then Jamerson’s move to safety could be the best for this defense. However, don’t be surprised to see more tweaks to the secondary from defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard.

Can Rafael Gaglianone Be the Weapon He Was Supposed to Be as Kicker?

When you hear the words back surgery and kicker in the same sentence, one gets a bit squeamish. That is exactly what happened to Rafael Gaglianone last season and it was for the second time in his life too.

That has to be worrisome for a kicker who relies on power and a kicking style that is hard on the body. He also has been a huge weapon in knowing he can kick deep field goals at a good clip.

In the spring game we saw him hammer a few home from 42 yards out and that is a good sign that the strength is still there. Still, one has to wonder if 42 yards was put out there on Friday night because that was as far as Gaglianone could comfortably kick or not.

How Does Running Back Group Shape Up?

We know a lot about Bradrick Shaw, and he seems to be the most decisive and downhill runner the Badgers have in the backfield this season. However, Pitt transfer Chris James was neck-and-neck with him throughout most of spring.

Some believe he may even have a leg up thanks to his better pass protection and ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. Oh, and then there is Taiwan Deal, who is coming off ankle surgery in the hopes of staying healthy.

When healthy, Deal has shown enough to be considered in the race for the No. 1 spot. But, can the affects of surgery and injury be shaken off in time to catch up to Shaw and James during fall camp?

Competition is great, and a welcome sight to a running back group that has been depleted over the past few years beyond the starter. It also means that fall camp will have a lot of the answers to the question of how this group shapes up.

It will certainly be a fun group to watch compete and work in camp, that’s for sure.

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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Wisconsin Badgers vs. Iowa Hawkeyes: 5 Things to Know

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How do you get over a heartbreaking defeat? The Wisconsin Badgers will find out quickly, as they turn around from a loss to BYU last week with a game against rival Iowa on Saturday night. 

The now annual battle for the Heartland Trophy has a lot of attention on it, and rightfully so. Could the winner be the frontrunner for the Big Ten West division?

While we won’t know the answer to that for a few weeks, there are some key facts to know about these teams and this game. So, let’s look at five things you should know heading in to the battle for the Heartland Trophy (and Wisconsin’s continued dominance in the battle for the Rusty Toolbox). 

5: A win on Saturday would make Wisconsin the 5th team in Big Ten history to reach 700 wins as a program. 

Despite decades of bad football, the Badgers program is on the verge of history. The program currently sits at 699-491-53 overall in its history. Wisconsin would join the ranks of the 700-win club with the likes of Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State and Penn State and would become just the third long-term member of the Big Ten to make it to that milestone. What better way to reach win No. 700 than to do it against a rival like Iowa? 

4: Iowa is looking for a 4-0 start for the fifth time in the Kirk Ferentz era

Good starts to the season generally mean good finishes. Case in point the Kirk Ferentz era for the Iowa Hawkeyes. Iowa has previously started 4-0 in 2003, 2006, 2009 and 2015. In three of those four previous seasons they’ve won at least 10 games. The lone outlier is the 2006 season, in which they started 4-0 and limped to the finish line with a 6-7 overall record and a 2-6 record in Big Ten play. 

What does that tell us? It tells us that either Iowa wins and goes on to dominate the West division…or it losses and won’t be able to catch the Badgers. Either way, this shows just how important this game is to the future of both programs in 2018. 

3: Wisconsin is going for its third-straight win the series with Iowa. 

The Badgers are owners of back-to-back wins in this series, taking a 17-9 decision in 2016 and a 38-14 win at Camp Randall last season. UW has also won five of the last six games, including a three-game win streak (2010, 2014, 2015) in the series. In fact, since the East-West division split for the Big Ten, the Badgers-Hawkeyes series 

2: Iowa is second in the nation in total and scoring defense.

Whatever you make of Iowa’s schedule heading in to conference play, the fact of the matter is that the Hawkeyes have been impressive on defense so far this season. They are allowing just 209 yards per game and an average of 8.0 points per game. Of course, it’s also been nice to play all three games in the friendly confines of Kinnick Stadium, but the Badgers offense is going to be tested much like it was last week against BYU if you look at the stat sheet. 

1: That is the number of losses in true road games for Wisconsin under Paul Chryst.

Playing on the road in the Big Ten is supposed to be really hard, but for the Paul Chryst-led Badgers it has been easier than it is supposed to be. UW is 14-1 in true road games in the four years Chryst has been at the helm of the program, and own a 9-game road winning streak. That win streak is second longest active road win steak in the country, trailing only Oklahoma’s 17-game win streak. 

Wisconsin’s lone loss on the road in Chryst’s tenure was to Michigan in the 2016 season. That loss was a narrow one, with the Wolverines winning 14-7. 

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Badgers Hangover: Season far from over for UW

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One look at the Twitter universe around the Badgers after Saturday’s loss to the BYU Cougars and it is easy to see Wisconsin’s season is over with.

The common refrain went something like this: 

But, the Twitterverse is often not indicative of reality. Such is the case with the all the doom and gloom surrounding the 2018 Wisconsin Badgers season. 

As one person on Twitter said in response to a Tweet we made, the season really isn’t lost. The path forward is more difficult, but there is history to show that winning a lot the rest of the season goes a long way towards repairing that one loss early on in the season. 

Another thing lost in all of this doom and gloom from around the social media world? BYU is pretty dang good. 

The Cougars have played three Power 5 opponents to start the season and are 2-1 — owning wins on the road against Arizona and Wisconsin. It’s loss to Cal was a narrow one and guess what? BYU happens to still have three more games against Power 5 opponents.

Up next for BYU is a date with McNeese State prior to a big one with Washington. Then there is a red-hot Boise State program and a season-ending date with Utah too — all three of them on the road no less. Those are major teams to compete against and potentially win against. 

Is it far-fetched to think the Cougars can’t win those games? Not after what we saw on Saturday inside Camp Randall. This is a program that is stout up front, assignment sure and has a quality run game. You can win a lot of games in college football with that formula…just ask the Badgers. 

How the Cougars play the rest of the season will only matter if the Badgers do their part and win out though. 

That begins with regrouping for a major rivalry game at Iowa on Saturday night. Winning that against a 3-0 Hawkeyes team sets up the Badgers for it’s first step towards national respect once again — controlling its own destiny in the Big Ten West division. 

Then there are big matchups with Michigan and Penn State to win as the season goes along. Get both of those games and Wisconsin is suddenly right back in the picture. 

Of course, all of this is speculation and if’s and but’s and wonderment. That’s what losing a game will do — make you speculate instead of controlling your own fate. 

Ultimately, the Badgers still have their main goals in front of them. Win the Big Ten West division. Play for and win a Big Ten championship and let the chips fall where they may for the College Football Playoff committee. 

Wisconsin still controls how those things could happen — even if Saturday’s loss felt like a familiar gut-punch to hype and hope for the Badgers faithful. 

It certainly isn’t time to jump off the bandwagon or abandon all hope. 

Saturday’s loss hurts, but if we are being honest, one loss doesn’t define a season like it used to in college football. Wisconsin’s reaction to that loss…well, that will define it’s season. 

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BYU stuns Badgers as non-conference play comes to an end

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All good streaks must come to an end.

Wisconsin had a 41-game home win streak in non-conference play coming in to Saturday’s contest with the BYU Cougars. It no longer has that streak as the Cougars bested the Badgers 24-21 at Camp Randall Stadium. 

The Cougars used a large part of Wisconsin’s game plan to beat the hosts — beating them in the trenches and racking up 191 yards on the ground in the win. 

Squally Canada needed just 11 carries to get 118 yards and two big touchdowns. His first score tied things up at 7-7 and his second took away another Badgers lead, scoring from two yards out early in the third quarter to make it 21-14. 

UW’s Heisman hopeful, Jonathan Taylor, was largely bottled up on the day. He ran the ball 26 times for just 117 yards and never got in to the end zone. Instead, it was senior Taiwan Deal pushing the ball over the goal line twice for the Badgers.

With the run game struggling, much of the hope turned to the pass game. Junior Alex Hornibrook didn’t respond well, completing 18 of 28 passes, but only gaining 190 yards. 

He also had a bad turnover, missing the underneath coverage on a huge third down play on the Badgers opening second half drive. 

Any momentum that the defense was able to gain was squandered over and over by the offense on the day. 

But, this one started off looking like the Badgers had found a way to spark itself early on — a problem that plagued them in the first two weeks of the season. 

Wisconsin got on the scoreboard first against BYU as running back Taiwan Deal capped off an 8-play, 63-yard drive with a 2-yard touchdown run.

But, the lead was short-lived, as BYU answered right back on their next drive. Cougars running back Squally Canada capped off a 75-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown and it was 7-7 just 3:10 after the Badgers took the lead. 

BYU forced a 3-and-out by the Badgers on the next possession and then drove the ball right down the UW defense again. However, it was a trick play that put the Cougars up 14-7, as Aleva Hifo hit Moroni Laulu-Pututau on a wide receiver pass for 31 yards. 

Despite the struggles, the Badgers responded back with a late touchdown by fullback Alec Ingold to knot the score at 14-14 with 1:17 to go in the second quarter. 

After a three-and-out forced by the Wisconsin defense to open the second half, it appeared the typical quick start to the half was in order in Madison. 

That feeling didn’t last long though, as Alex Hornibrook threw an interception on the ensuing possession. It was returned to the Badgers 27-yard line and the defense needed to come up big. 

However, BYU took advantage of the miscue and punched in a short-yardage TD by Canada to make it 21-14 Cougars with 9:54 to play in third quarter.

Wisconsin tied things up two possessions later, as it went 10 plays and 82 yards for a touchdown. Deal got his second score of the game and it was 21-21 with 12:43 to play in the final stanza. 

The defense gave up a huge run to Canada on the ensuing drive, but held up after that and forced a 45-yard field goal to make the game 24-21 Cougars with 9:58 to play in the game. 

UW couldn’t get anything going on the next drive, eating over three minutes of clock in just five plays and were forced to punt. 

That gave the defense one last opportunity to make a stand, and they did exactly that. However, BYU’s punt bounced in front of Jack Dunn, who let it go and rolled inside the Badgers own 10-yard line. 

The ensuing drive saw Wisconsin attempt to take the clock down and get within scoring range at the same time. Instead of going for the touchdown and the outright victory, it appeared head coach Paul Chryst was content turning things over to his senior kicker Rafael Gaglianone. 

However, that strategy backfired as Gaglianone missed a 42-yard field goal attempt way wide left with just 35 seconds to play in the game. 

The senior was seen apologizing to his teammates for the uncharacteristic miss, but this loss was far from his fault.

Even if he would’ve made the field goal, overtime would’ve loomed large and anything could’ve happened at that point. 

Wisconsin will look to rebound next week as it opens Big Ten play against the rival Iowa Hawkeyes. Kick is scheduled for 7pm CT on ABC from Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa. 

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Wisconsin Badgers vs. BYU Cougars: Preview, predictions and prognostications

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We’re here — the final game of non-conference play is upon us quickly. That means a visit to Camp Randall by the BYU Cougars. 

The Badgers are looking to make it 42 straight non-conference wins at home. If UW were to win, it would put them one game behind Kansas State for No. 4 on the all-time list and continue the longest active streak in the country. 

But, this is a very difference challenge than the other two teams that came to Camp Randall. BYU isn’t afraid of a challenge, owning a win over Arizona in Week 1 and narrowly losing to Cal last week. 

How does this game play out? Let’s take a dive in to the game on Saturday at 2:30pm CT on ABC. 

1 Burning Question: Can the Offense Start Fast?

Wisconsin’s defense may have given up an opening series touchdown to the New Mexico Lobos, but they largely shut down the visitors last week after that. 

The Badgers offense? Well, it has failed to get off to a hot start in either of the first two weeks. As we pointed out earlier this week, Wisconsin has put up just 10 points in the first quarter this year. 

It would be nice to see this team dominate a game from start to finish, and what better way to do that than against the best opponent it has faced so far this season?

2 Key Stats

2: That is the number of touchdowns and interceptions thrown by BYU quarterback Tanner Magnum. Last season the Badgers saw a injury-riddled QB situation in Provo, this season they face an experienced Magnum, but he is a struggling player through the first two weeks. Cal’s defense, under former Wisconsin DC Justin Wilcox, picked off the Cougars QB twice. UW has had the interception bug on defense early on, picking off three passes already this year. 

12: That is the number of penalties committed by the Badgers this season. Wisconsin has been a team predicated on doing the little things right. Usually that includes not doing a lot of stupid things, like penalties. So far the Badgers are averaging six penalties a game after two weeks and that is up over just 3.4 penalties per game when the Badgers led the B1G two seasons ago. If this team doesn’t get off to quick starts, it needs to play smarter and avoid the penalties. 

3 Key Players

Tanner Mangum, BYU (QB)

BYU will go as far as its quarterback goes. It’s been the theme of this program for the vast majority of my lifetime and that isn’t changing in 2018. It also was highlighted by the fact that when Mangum played well (Arizona) his team won, when he played bad (Cal) his team lost. Wisconsin will be the best defense BYU has faced and Mangum has been interception prone for his injury-riddled career. He’s thrown 10 touchdowns to 11 interceptions over the last nine games in his career. The Badgers defense is showing to be adept at picking the ball off in 2018, so how Mangum plays on Saturday will likely determine what challenge the Badgers will really face. 

Jake Ferguson, Wisconsin (TE)

Yes, the depth chart will tell you that Kyle Penniston and Zander Neuville are the starters, but how many catches do the duo have this season? That would be a grand total of one and that came from Neuville last week for a grand total of three yards as well. The man leading the way as a receiver at tight end has been Ferguson, who has five receptions for 47 yards so far in 2018. He’s been a big help on third down situations and is becoming a bigger part of this offense. He may be needed to extend drives against a stingy BYU defense. 

Caesar Williams, Wisconsin (CB)

Yes, both New Mexico and Western Kentucky found ways to test the Badgers secondary, but of the three opponents faced in non-conference play, BYU brings the best level of talent at wide receiver this group will face. That means the young secondary must be up to the challenge, something that Williams has been more than capable of. If the Badgers want to make Magnum pay, Williams must continue to show he is a shut-down type of cornerback. 

Prediction

Wisconsin 31, BYU 10

I know, it’s not the crazy high point total some are hoping to see this Badgers team put up, but you have to respect the BYU defense that has played well against both Arizona and Cal — two offenses meant to score a ton of points. 

Wisconsin will put up the most points given up by BYU so far this year and the defense will continue to show why it needs to be respected nationally once again. We’ll also go with Scott Nelson with an interception again this week. 

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