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An early look at 2018 Wisconsin Badgers offense

What could be in store for the Wisconsin Badgers on offense in 2018?

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The dust has barely settled on Wisconsin’s 13-1 season in 2017, but as the calendar flips to a new year it is already time to look forward to what the Badgers have in store for them next season.

We start on offense, looking ahead to what could be and how we see things playing out.

Biggest Question Mark:

Who steps up at tight end?

Wisconsin has had one of the best tight ends in the country over the last two seasons, but Troy Fumagalli graduates and that means big shoes to fill. Fumagalli leaves having put up 135 catches for 1,627 yards and 7 touchdowns for his career.

Kyle Penniston came to UW as a much-hyped pass catching tight end prospect, but has yet to really live up to the recruiting hype. He had just seven receptions for 56 yards and one touchdown on the year and 13 receptions for 158 yards and three touchdowns for his career.

Sources I’ve talked to who have seen practice this season say there could be a lot of star power in freshman Jake Ferguson. He’s apparently been a handful for UW’s defense on scout team duty during his redshirt season. Don’t be surprised to see him emerge as a prime option to replace Fumagalli’s production.

It will be interesting to see how senior Zander Neuville responds to being the best blocking-pass catching option for UW as well. He played well before being injured in 2017, but that was as the secondary option. Can he be the No. 1 guy?

Reason to Be Optimistic:

Alex Hornibrook’s Orange Bowl Performance

No topic was more throughly discussed and dissected during the 2017 season than the performance of Alex Hornibrook. For me, the frustration came because you could see he’s got the tools needed to be a dynamic playmaker for the offense and just never put it all together.

That changed in the Orange Bowl, as three for three touchdowns and no interceptions to go along with 258 yards. Wisconsin was able to beat Miami because it had balance on offense.

It was easily the most dangerous the Badgers offense looked all season long, and having Hornibrook show up on the big stage was huge. He can certainly build on that, especially when you take a look at the pass-catching options returning.

Quintez Cephus will be back from a knee injury and sophomore A.J. Taylor came in to his own late in the year.  True freshman Danny Davis was a difference maker all season long and Kendric Pryor showed improvement all season long.

It’s as deep and diverse of a receiver group as we’ve seen at Wisconsin and it all came together to show us what 2018 could look like for the Badgers offense.

Reason to be Pessimistic:

Alex Hornibrook the rest of 2017

As fun as it was to see Hornibrook just light up a defense with accurate passing, bold moves and most importantly smart decision making it was just one quality game.

The rest of the 2017 season for Hornibrook was an up and down affair to say the least. On the one hand, he did complete 62.3 percent of his passes for 2,644 yards. On the other hand, he had 15 interceptions to go with 25 touchdown passes.

For every Orange Bowl performance, there were down games like Nebraska, Michigan and Ohio State in the Big Ten championship. If the Badgers can’t get more consistency from Hornibrook it could stunt a potentially great offense just as it is going to be leaned on in a big way.

Projected Starting Lineup:

QB: Alex Hornibrook, Jr.
RB: Jonathan Taylor, So.
FB: Alec Ingold, Sr.
WR: Quintez Cephus, Jr.
WR: Danny Davis, So.
TE: Jake Ferguson, RS Fr.
LT: Michael Dieter, Sr.
LG: Jon Dietzen, Jr.
C: Tyler Biadsz, So.
RG: Beau Benzschawel, Sr.
RT: David Edwards, Jr.

Overall Outlook

As long as both David Edwards and Michael Dieter return, this Badgers offense could be scary good in 2018. Of course, that also hinges on Hornibrook becoming more consistent, and that could be a big ask.

But, the good news is that every major part of the offense is likely to return and the depth is there to overcome any injury situation.

Jonathan Taylor, three quality receiving options and a veteran offensive line? That’s always a recipe for success. Can the offense handle increased expectations? That’s what 2018 is going to be all about.

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: Preview, predictions and prognostications

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There’s something special about playing under the lights in college football. It’s exactly what will take place this Saturday as the Wisconsin Badgers tangle with the Iowa Hawkeyes. 

A Heartland Trophy win is huge by itself, but with this game kicking off both teams’ Big Ten conference season, the implications are even bigger. Can Wisconsin get off to another big lead in the West division title race or will last week’s loss carry over to this week? 

Plenty of questions abound for both teams as they enter the Week 4 matchup. Wisconsin does carry momentum in the series, having won each of the last two in the series. A win in this one would match the longest win streak for the Badgers in this series since a 5-game win streak from 1997 to 2002. 

With so much on the line, let’s take a deeper look at how this game could stack up. 

3 Key Players

Toren Young, RB (Iowa)

A hallmark of quality Hawkeyes offenses has always been a tough run game. So far in 2018, that run game has yet to really scare anyone. Enter a big matchup for Toren Young, who went from UW’s backyard (Monona Grove) to the sworn enemy. So far this season he’s leading the team with 234 yards rushing on 43 attempts and has two rushing touchdowns. They are decent numbers, but Young was held in check by Iowa State’s stout defense in their Week 2 contest. Wisconsin is coming off a brutal performance against BYU’s backs and will have something to prove. If Young can get the ball rolling downhill, the Hawkeyes could control this game. 

Christian Bell, OLB (Wisconsin)

Andrew Van Ginkel’s injury has put his status up in the air for this contest. In his place will likely step former Alabama transfer Christian Bell. He’ll have some big shoes to fill, as Van Ginkel started the season off hot. Luckily, Bell looked the part after Van Ginkel went down with injury…but he has yet to record a tackle. That’s been made up for by the fact that he’s already picked up a quarterback hurry and a pass break up in limited snaps. Iowa’s offense is another big test after that BYU whooping up front last weekend. He’s got to pass it if the Badgers are going to win. 

T.J. Edwards, ILB (Wisconsin)

Wisconsin’s lone returning All-American on the defensive side of the ball has lived up to the hype early on this season. He’s got 14 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and 2 quarterback hurries to his name. This week, Edwards is likely to draw the assignment of spying on one of the country’s best tight ends in Iowa’s Noah Fant. Let’s see if Edwards can keep pace and create plays that will get his team off the field or if Fant’s size and speed combo are too much for him to handle. 

2 Key Stats

13.9: That is the points allowed per game on the road by the Badgers under Paul Chryst. It’s one thing to be stingy in the friendly confines of Camp Randall, but during the Chryst era it really hasn’t mattered where the Badgers play — the defense hasn’t really given up points to the opposition. Staying around that 13 to 14-point mark on Saturday night in Kinnick certainly would go a long way towards establishing a win for the visiting Badgers. Wisconsin also finished last season giving up just 13.9 points per game and have allowed just 13.7 so far this year. I think you get the point — getting touchdowns against this Badgers defense isn’t easy.

2: That is the number of losses in Big Ten play when Alex Hornibrook is under center. Sure, it may be debatable as to whether his 13-2 record in Big Ten games is because of him or despite him, but it’s hard to deny that the Badgers have been highly effective against the Big Ten since he took over as a starter. His only losses in Big Ten play have come against Penn State and Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game as well. Can the Badgers find another big win with Hornibrook under center or will the junior’s inconsistency and Wisconsin’s iffy pass protection prove his downfall? It’s hard to bet against a guy who has found ways to win despite adversity time and again…13 times to be exact. 

Prediction

Wisconsin 27, Iowa 21

Going in to Kinnick and winning isn’t easy, especially so at night. However, if there’s a team in the West division capable of doing just that it is the Badgers. There’s no doubt that last weekend’s result was not good — mainly because a strength (the offensive line) became a weakness. 

Look for the Badgers offensive line to respond, Jonathan Taylor to go over the 100-yard mark and for Danny Davis to come up with a big touchdown late as Hornibrook works his 2-minute magic per usual. Wisconsin earns a hard-fought victory and begins Big Ten play with a win over its chief rival at the top of the division. 

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Wisconsin Badgers vs. Iowa Hawkeyes: What we’re watching for

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Kicking off conference play with a bitter rivalry game is one thing. Doing so following a bitter loss in the non-conference finale is another. 

That’s what the Wisconsin Badgers face as they go to Iowa City to take on the Hawkeyes this Saturday night. 

What could this matchup hinge on? We’re going to be watching for a few key things to tell us how this game is going to go. 

Badgers O-Line vs. Iowa D-Line

It’s true, one could likely put this as a thing to watch every year between these mirror image programs. But, in 2018 and following a loss in which the Badgers offensive line played far below expectations, this is going to be a tell-tale sign of how things are going to go on Saturday night. 

Winning the battle up front is normally a big deal, but in this contest it truly will be be the difference between a win or loss. UW’s O-Line has to show up in a way it really hasn’t so far this season — against the pass rush.

Iowa comes in to this game with 12 sacks as a team, second-most in the Big Ten behind Penn State’s 13. The Hawkeyes starting defensive line has proven to do most of that damage, with end A.J. Epenesa racking up four sacks already. Anthony and Matt Nelson have a sack each and Parker Hesse has two to his name. That’s a total of eight of the 12 sacks Iowa has put up. 

UW’s offensive line has given up six sacks on the season along, which is tied for 10th early on the season. 

You can bet this is going to be a huge point of emphasis for the Badgers offensive line and winning it could mean winning the game. 

Iowa’s Run Game

One of Wisconsin’s strongest points to its defensive success as of late has been its ability to make offenses one-dimensional. Relying on the pass game is something that usually hasn’t ended well for opponents. 

However, early on this year the Badgers defense has had trouble containing the run game of opponents.

New Mexico caught the Badgers off guard with a variation of the option offense in the first half of its Week 2 matchup before settling in and allowing just 77 yards on the ground. Last week saw BYU run consistently against the Badgers defensive group, racking up 191 yards as a team in the win. 

It’s led to Wisconsin ranking just eighth against the run in the Big Ten, allowing opponents to put up 130.6 yards per game on the ground. 

Iowa is looking to establish a run game behind Monona Grove product Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin. The early results suggest that is a work in progress to say the least. 

So far this year, the Hawkeyes are averaging 173.6 yards per carry. That may seem high, but given the opponents played they rank just 11th in the Big Ten. Young leads Iowa in rushing, but his 234 yards on the ground is only good for 12th individually in the conference. 

Wisconsin can’t let the Iowa’s mediocre run game get going and expect to win. Let’s see if UW can learn from the film Iowa State put up, allowing just 105 yards on the ground in a defensive slug fest two weeks ago. 

Can Hornibrook Break Out?

It seems like this is a weekly wish for Badgers fans, and rightfully so. He’s teased us with greatness at various points in his career, but he’s never been able to harness that greatness on a consistent level. 

Any hopes of that happening in 2018 seem to have diminished already. It’s easy to see why when you compare his numbers last season to this season — they are eerily similar. 

Take a look for yourself: 

Courtesy GoIowaAwesome

Yes, you can point to Hornibrook being unlucky to have one of those two interceptions counting against him, but the numbers are what they are and once again we’re seeing a QB that’s efficient when he has to be, but is far from spectacular more often than not. 

After an opener in which he put up 257 yards, Hornibrook hasn’t topped the 200-yard mark in either of the next two games. Sure, he wasn’t counted on much (just 11 attempts) against New Mexico, but he went just 18 of 28 and averaged just 6.8 yards per attempt with 190 yards and no touchdowns against BYU last weekend.

If that doesn’t sound like inconsistent football, I don’t know what will from a quarterback. 

If ever there was a game for the junior to get back to that level he showed us in the Orange Bowl, this would be a perfect time to do it. 

We’ll keep hope alive for a bit longer, but at some point we’ve got to see him turning the corner to believe this team can get to the level needed to compete nationally. 

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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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