The moment everyone has been talking about all offseason is finally here — the most brutal Big Ten schedule in the history of the conference. Welcome to the gauntlet, Wisconsin Badgers.
However, before the Michigan State game is here it would behoove us to take a look at the state of the program heading in to conference play.
Can this team take its start and make an improbable run to the College Football Playoff, or will its undefeated start to the season be squandered thanks to an onslaught of top competition? Let’s look at how the Badgers stock up heading in to Big Ten play.
The Good News:
The Wisconsin Badgers are 3-0. It simply can’t get any better than that, what with all eyes on the season opener against LSU at Lambeau Field and the expected loss there. Instead, the Badgers out-physicaled the Tigers up front on both sides of the ball and held star running back Leonard Fournette in check en route to a 16-14 victory to start the season.
It then went on to trounce Akron in Week 2 and find a potential playmaker at quarterback in Alex Hornibrook, who directed a late-game comeback win over Georgia State in Week 3.
If you told anyone associated with or covering the Badgers program that they would be 3-0 heading in to Big Ten play, they likely would’ve told you you were crazy. Yet, the team is poised to enter conference play with plenty to like about itself.
Simply put, the non-conference season couldn’t have gone any better when it comes to the W’s and L’s on the board.
The Bad News:
Plain and simple, the Badgers enter conference play as one of the most banged up teams in the country. Coaches won’t ever use injuries as an excuse, nor will they not tell you it is all about the “next man up.”
Those clichés are going to get a severe test for the Badgers, as not only is star running back Corey Clement struggling to get back from an injury, but three total running backs out of four available are injured. One, redshirt freshman Bradrick Shaw has already been ruled out for the Michigan State game this weekend and it seems likely that sophomore Taiwan Deal is going to be a no-go as well.
UW’s offensive line has seen both left guards injured, and Jon Dietzen out for the MSU game while Micah Kapoi may not be able to go either. There’s also starting inside linebacker Chris Orr, who was lost on the first play from scrimmage of the season with an ACL tear, and nickel back Natrell Jamerson out with a broken leg.
Oh, and even special teams has been hit with the injury bug as kicker Rafael Gaglianone is out for the MSU game with a back injury.
Let’s just say there isn’t exactly a lot of good news on the injury front for a team with Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State coming in three of the next four weeks.
If there is a silver lining in all of the injury news, it is that UW has found out it is far deeper than they ever thought going in to the season. No one exemplifies that more than inside linebacker Ryan Connelly, who was supposed to be the fourth linebacker in the group, but was thrust in to a starting role after just one play of the LSU game.
With Chris Orr down, Connelly stepped up against the Tigers and never blinked in an eight-tackle performance that included a key dramatic stop of Fournette out in the open on a screen pass with two offensive linemen in front of him.
The Badgers are going to need more performances like that against top competition from the likes of Brett Connors (OL) and Andrew Endicott (who has never attempted a kick in a college game in his career).
Player Who Has Stepped Up: Derrick Tindal, CB
There was no bigger question mark for the Badgers entering the 2016 season than the secondary. With three starters gone from last season, questions were only natural. However, three games in and the secondary has become less of a liability and more of a strength of this team.
A lot of that is due to first year starting cornerback Derrick Tindal. Following last season as an understudy to both starters, Tindal has taken his opportunity to start and run with it. He is tied for the team lead with four pass break ups already and has an interception to his name too. It doesn’t hurt that he has 10 total tackles, eight of them solo on the year either.
For a team with so many questions at the back of the defense, Tindal has gone a long way to answering them in a positive way.
Player Who Needs to Step Up: Corey Clement, RB
OK, this is actually more like get on the field and stay there. After missing the majority of last season with a sports hernia and a suspension, Clement was expected to be a star and key player for the Badgers offense.
That hasn’t exactly happened, as the injury bug bit Clement once again. He injured himself in the first half of the Akron game and has shown some of the talent that everyone saw in him early in his career. To date, Clement has racked up 197 yards (111 of them in the first half against Akron alone) and three touchdowns.
Clearly the talent is there as well as the production, if only it could be done on a consistent basis.