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Can Wisconsin’s offense rise to the occasion against Michigan?

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What do you get when looking in the mirror if you’re Wisconsin and Michigan? Usually it is a game devoid of points and high on defensive production.

But, as these two teams look at each other heading in to the 2018 matchup, its the offense of Wisconsin that will take center stage. 

Ever since the return of the series between these two teams in 2016, the games have become defensive slug fest’s. In 2016 it was a 14-7 victory for Michigan, while last season saw Wisconsin pull out a 24-10 victory. 

With both teams fighting at the top of the Big Ten defensive boards, those results were to be expected. Fast forward to 2018 and this version of the Badgers vs. Wolverines has a strong possibility to look very different. 

Michigan has it’s highly productive defense going, while the Badgers are still trying to find their way on that side of the ball after giving up over 500 yards and 27 points to Nebraska’s offense last Saturday. 

The Wolverines have also found a steadying hand at quarterback in Shea Patterson, which stands in stark contrast to what took place the last two seasons. 

The Ole Miss transfer is completing 68.8 percent of his passes on the year for 1,187 yards and 10 touchdowns to 3 interceptions. Compared to a team that had just nine touchdown passes a season ago, Patterson has certainly made this team more dangerous at quarterback.

It doesn’t help that those players the Badgers usually count on on defense are beginning to drop like flies. 

Starting safety Scott Nelson is out for a half thanks to a targeting call in the second half of the Nebraska game. Then there are names like Isaiahh Loudermilk (leg), Caesar Williams (leg), Deron Harrell (concussion) and Travian Blaylock (leg) all listed on the injury report as questionable or game-time decisions as of Monday afternoon.  

The simple fact is, it all adds up to Wisconsin’s offense having to pave the way to victory in Ann Arbor this week. 

Last weekend that didn’t prove to be a problem, as UW’s offense had an answer for just about everything the Huskers were able to do.

Wisconsin put up over 500 yards of total offense on its own, racking up 370 yards on the ground and going 6 of 12 on third downs to eat away at the Huskers defense. 

It was a great confidence booster to an offense that struggled over the previous two games. Of course, doing it against Nebraska is one thing, doing it against Michigan is a whole different task.

Just how difficult of a task can it be to be successful against this Michigan defense?

No team has converted on more than 46.6 percent of their third down opportunities (Notre Dame in the opener) and the Wolverines haven’t allowed more than 147 yards on the ground to any team so far this season. 

Michigan is No. 1 in scoring (15.8 points per game), passing defense (134 yards per game) and total defense in the league. The Wolverines also rank No. 3 in rushing (96.5 yards per game) defense in the Big Ten. 

The good news is Wisconsin’s run game is by far the best Michigan has faced all season long. UW ranks fourth in the country in rushing yards, averaging 287 yards per game as a team. 

Michigan’s best rushing opponent of the season so far has been Maryland, who are No. 21 in the nation. The Terps are also the team to rack up the most yards on the ground against the Wolverines defense, putting up 147 yards in a loss last week in Ann Arbor. 

UW’s offensive line is certainly more impressive than Maryland’s and the numbers put up by Jonathan Taylor this year are certainly eye-popping. However, it’s one thing to see it on paper and another to get it going fast enough in a game against Michigan.

Getting that run game going early has been inconsistent at best for the Badgers this season and Michigan has been able to bottle opponents up early on. 

That was even the case last weekend against Nebraska, as Taylor had a respectable but not spectacular 65 yards on 18 carries in the first half. He broke things wide open with an 88-yard run, showing that patience and persistence in the run game can pay off. 

But, that was against a bad Nebraska defense that tired out thanks to a lack of quality depth and quality starters. Michigan doesn’t have either of those problems. 

Then there’s the problem of Wisconsin giving up big plays on defense. If those big plays catch them early, UW may have to turn to the passing game to get things to open up. 

Doing that hasn’t been a great idea in the past few seasons either. Does that change in 2018 with a quarterback in his third year behind center?

Yes, Hornibrook has been more efficient with the football and been impressive in last-minute situations. Hornibrook is completing 64 percent of his passes and has 7 touchdowns to just 2 interceptions on the year. 

But, he also has had a tendency to not play well against the best defenses he’s faced during his career. 

In two career starts against Michigan, his best effort was completing 47.7 percent of his passes for 147 yards. He’s also got just two career touchdowns to four interceptions against the Wolverines. 

Against ranked Big Ten opponents, only his game against Michigan State in 2016 stands out and it turned out that MSU was not very good on the year. Take that game away, and Hornibrook has never completed over 57.9 percent against a ranked Big Ten opponent in his career. He also has just four career touchdowns against those same opponents. 

Michigan’s defense has been great against the run. Can Hornibrook buck two years of trends against top level Big Ten opposition? 

Look for Michigan to dare Hornibrook to beat them and look for his early play to be a tell-tale sign of if he’ll be up to the task. 

If so, the Badgers offense may have what it takes to lead the way for a defense so full of question marks heading in to Ann Arbor on Saturday. 

If not, it could be another disappointing result when the Badgers need to get over that hump to complete respect on the national level. 

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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3 Badgers named first team All-American’s by Pro Football Focus

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Quibble all you want with last week’s announcement of the Big Ten’s all-conference selections and award winners. Those lists are completely subjective based on the thoughts of media and coaches. 

Give me numbers, facts and figures baby. 

That’s where Pro Football Focus steps up to the plate, grading out players based on performance metrics for every snap of the season. With all that analysis done, the team at PFF has put out its 2018 All-American and All-Big Ten offense and defensive teams. 

Wisconsin got three players named first team All-American in running back Jonathan Taylor and offensive linemen Beau Benzschawel and Tyler Biadasz. Fellow offensive lineman Michael Deiter was named Honorable Mention All-American. 

However, those weren’t the only honors garnered by the Badgers from PFF. 

Wisconsin was heavily represented on the offensive side, with four players earning first-team honors. Running back Jonathan Taylor was joined by offensive linemen Cole Van Lanen, Beau Benzschawel and Tyler Biadasz. 

PFF also came strong in backing up their selections. 

Here is what they had to say about each of the Badgers on offense: 

Jonathan Taylor — “Taylor averaged an outstanding 4.2 yards after contact this season and forced 58 missed tackles, leading the nation by almost 300 yards in total rushing yards. His 1,175 yards after contact were more than all but 14 other running backs had total rushing yards this season.”

Cole Van Lanen — “Van Lanen surrendered just two sacks and one hit on 212 pass-blocking reps in 2018.”

Beau Benzschawel — “Benzschawel anchored the Badgers line with Biadasz as he allowed just seven QB pressures on 328 snaps in pass protection. His 83.8 run-blocking grade was 2.0 points higher than the next closest and second only to Prescod among guards.”

Tyler Biadasz — “While his pass-blocking grades rank in the top half of all centers this season, Biadasz did his best work in the run game. His 83.7 run-blocking grade was the best among all centers.”

UW also had a few players on offense make the PFF second team in tight end Jake Ferguson and guard Michael Deiter, who actually won the Big Ten’s Offensive Lineman of the Year last week.

Meanwhile, on defense, only senior linebacker T.J. Edwards made the first team. 

Here’s what PFF had to say about his final season in a Badgers uniform: 

T.J. Edwards — Edwards tallied an impressive 51 run stops in 2018, 13 of which were recorded for either a loss or no gain.

Fellow inside linebacker Ryan Connelly made the second team and rounded out the All-Big Ten selections from Pro Football Focus. 

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Wisconsin Badgers 2018 season review: The good, the bad and the ugly

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Yes, the Wisconsin Badgers still have one game remaining in the season, but that one game isn’t going to make or break how we see the 2018 season for the Cardinal and White. 

As we move on towards the bowl game and try to get over the fact that Paul Bunyan’s Axe is no longer in the Badgers trophy case, it’s also time for us to reflect back on the season as a whole. 

Over the next few weeks we’ll give various looks in to the 2018 season. That starts today with a look at the good, the bad and the ugly of the season that was. 

Of course, before we get there we have to acknowledge that this season on the whole was a bitter disappointment. Going from one of the top teams in the country to 7-5, not winning the Big Ten West division and losing to bitter rival Minnesota to close out the season was not how anyone believed this season would go. 

If anything, the 2018 season is a cautionary tale in believing that one game makes or breaks the reality for a team. It seems that many bought in to UW’s performance against Miami in the Orange Bowl last season as a sign that this team was turning a real corner as a program. 

Clearly that didn’t happen, but what did happen in 2018 to get us where we are today? 

The Good

Two words, one player — Jonathan Taylor. 

It’s scary to think of how the 2018 season would have gone without him leading the way for the Badgers offense. Taylor followed up a stellar freshman season with another record-setting year for the Badgers. 

So far this season, Taylor has racked up 1,986 yards and is very likely to top 2,000 yards when the Badgers play whatever bowl game they’ll end up in. His combined two-year total yardage is the best for anyone in FBS history and he finished the year averaging over 24 yards more per game than the next best number on the year. Oh, and he bested the next best rushing total in the Big Ten by a measly 800 yards

Wisconsin’s run game accounted for 268.4 of the 433.2 yards per game on the year. Taylor accounted for an average of 165.7 of those 433.2 yards per game, otherwise known as 38.2 percent of the teams total yards in a game. 

Of course, Taylor wasn’t the only one that got their jobs done well in the run game. UW’s offensive line was impressive, continuing to maul and wear down opposition defenses time and again. 

By the end of the season, four of the Badgers starters were named All-Big Ten first team selections and senior guard Michael Deiter was the Big Ten’s Offensive Lineman of the Year. 

It was arguably one of the best rushing seasons in program history and the best per-game average of any Badgers team since 2014 to put it all in perspective. 

The Bad

This one is easy — injuries. 

Wisconsin’s defense started the season behind the eight ball with a pair of devastating injuries to expected defensive end starters in Garrett Rand and Isaaiah Loudermilk and it just snowballed from there. 

Rand missed the entire season with a torn Achilles tendon, while Loudermilk struggled to get consistent playing time thanks to his injury nagging him on and off all season. As it was, he played in just eight games on the year and racked up just 14 tackles, 2.0 tackles for loss, 1.0 sack and 2 pass break ups in those eight games. 

The injury bug bit both Andrew Van Ginkel and Zack Baun at outside linebacker, as they both picked up nagging injuries early on in the season. Neither of them hit their stride until near mid season and UW’s defense came along nicely after their return.

But, that didn’t last long as the Badgers secondary then got the injury bug too. Scott Nelson and D’Cota Dixon missed games and that led to freshman Reggie Pearson getting a start, only to see himself get injured. 

UW’s cornerback depth nearly ran on empty at points this season as a myriad of injuries were racked up by the young group. Yes, Madison Cone played all 12 games and Faion Hicks played in 11, but literally no one was able to go all season without missing plays due to injury. 

Names like Travian Blaylock and Alexander Smith, who weren’t expected to be contributors at all got in four and three games respectively this season, largely because UW had no other choice at times given in-game injury situations.  

In fact, eight of UW’s 10 cornerbacks on the roster saw game action as a cornerback (and not just on special teams) this season. Only walk-ons Cristian Volpentesta and Kobe Knaak failed to make an appearance on the stat sheet this year. 

Wisconsin came in to the season young and inexperienced in the secondary and up front as well. What it found out is that the combination of young, inexperienced and injury-prone wasn’t a fun one. Depth is great, but it only extends so far and the Badgers extended it to their extremes on the defensive side of the ball in 2018. 

The Ugly

Nothing was more ugly for this Badgers team than quarterback play. Arguably, the biggest reason for optimism heading in to 2018 came from the way Alex Hornibrook played in the Orange Bowl win. With UW’s run game bottled up at times, it was Hornibrook that really led the way in the win. He was on time with his passes, threw the ball with real zip and played with complete confidence. 

But, the cautionary tale of the 2017 season was that the Orange Bowl was an outlier to the rest of Hornibrook’s season. Would that one game be the catalyst for change or would it be more of the same. 

The answer was clearly more of the same and that didn’t bode well for a Badgers team that needed to challenge defenses with more than just a powerful run game. 

Hornibrook completed less than 60 percent of his passes and threw nearly as many interceptions (11) as touchdowns (13) for the second straight year. 

He also went down with two concussions in a three game span and that gave sophomore quarterback Jack Coan a golden opportunity. He didn’t take advantage of it at all, albeit against some really stiff competition — Northwestern and Penn State. Coan finished the year completing 61 percent of his passes for just 442 yards and 4 touchdowns to 2 interceptions. There was a 60-yard performance in a start at Penn State. 

Simply put, no one stepped at the quarterback position and without that happening, the Badgers were so one-dimensional that it made it easy for teams to tee-off on defense. 

Wisconsin has to go back to the drawing board at quarterback this offseason if it really wants to become a national contender. What they got from Coan and more importantly, Hornibrook, was completely unacceptable. 

Perhaps the biggest offseason question has to be if the No. 4 pro-style quarterback in the country, Graham Mertz, can come in and take the job by the horns. If not, it’s hard to see how the Badgers are more competitive on offense next season. 

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Badgers chopped down by Gophers 37-15

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All good things must come to an end. 

For the Wisconsin Badgers that meant a 14-game win streak over the rival Minnesota Gophers, who took down the Badgers 37-15 on Saturday afternoon at Camp Randall Stadium. 

Not only did the Gophers end the 14-game win streak by the Badgers, it was also the first win by Minnesota in Madison since 1994 and the worst loss by the Badgers at home to the Gophers since 1934’s 34-0 loss. 

The Gophers used all three phases of the game to dominate the scoreboard. They turned four Badgers turnovers in to 24 points, got a punt return for a touchdown and scored twice on offense as well. 

Wisconsin native Emmit Carpenter was the star of the day for Minnesota, as the kicker knocked home three field goals to extend the game out of reach for UW. He hit from 34, 23 and a long of 42 yards in the win. 

Alex Hornibrook returned as the Badgers starting quarterback and turned in a forgettable performance. While he was 22 of 33, he had just 189 yards and threw three interceptions, fumbled the ball once and a pair of touchdowns. 

Badgers star running back Jonathan Taylor was held to just 120 yards on only 19 carries in the loss. He did top the 2,000-yard mark for the season in the loss. 

Minnesota countered with a team effort on the ground, rushing for 201 yards as a team. Mohamed Ibrahim had 121 of those yards and a touchdown, while Bryce Williams had 50 yards and two touchdowns on just eight carries. 

The opening drive of the game proved to be a microcosm of the whole day for Wisconsin.  

UW drove deep in to Minnesota territory on that drive, but stalled out at the 13-yard line. Rafael Gaglianone pushed the short field goal attempt wide right and a productive drive came up empty. 

The Gophers drove right back on the Badgers, but also stalled out deep in opposition territory. Unlike the Badgers, Minnesota’s Emmit Carpenter knocked home his short field goal attempt for a 3-0 lead. 

Scoring was at a premium in the first half, but it was all Minnesota on the scoreboard. After trading punts for awhile, the Gophers got the first touchdown of the game on a 4th and 1 with 2:21 to play in the second quarter. 

Wisconsin couldn’t get anything going in a quick three-and-out possession, and on the ensuing punt the Gophers extended their lead to 17-0. Demetrius Douglas took the punt back 69 yards and it appeared all the momentum was on the Gophers side. 

But, that touchdown finally woke the Badgers up from their first-half slumber. Hornibrook lead a huge drive in the two-minute drill and hooked up with his favorite target — Jake Ferugson — for a 7-yard touchdown with one second remaining in the first half. 

Minnesota lead was cut to 17-7 at the half, despite being outplayed on the stat sheet in the half. UW actually led almost every statistical category in the first half, but it didn’t matter on the scoreboard. 

The Badgers led in passing yards (119-98), rushing (84-49), total yards (203-147) and had the ball for 16:36 of the half. 

Wisconsin has been known as a second half team, but they just never got it going out of the intermission and Minnesota proved to be the team that responded most out of the half. 

A pair of Carpenter field goals had the game at 23-7 to end the third quarter, but UW still had some hope thanks to stalled drives by the Gophers. 

Stalled drives were the story of the game for Wisconsin and following another one early in the fourth quarter Minnesota put the final nail in the coffin in very Badger-like fashion. 

The Gophers theoretically put the game away with a methodical 15-play, 55-yard drive that ate up 9:16 off the clock. It was the longest drive of the season for Minnesota. However, it also ended with Carpenter missing a short 28-yard field goal to keep the score at 23-7. 

However, the real final nail in the coffin would come on a series of two plays following that drive. Hornibrook turned the ball over for the third time on the game, getting stripped as the tried to avoid a sack and watching Minnesota fall on the ball. 

Bryce Williams took the next play off tackle for a 29-yard touchdown run and a 30-7 lead with 4:56 to go in the game. 

Hornibrook’s horrible night continued on the next possession as he threw his third interception on the night. Williams took a carry off right tackle from 16 yards out to make it 37-7 with 2:31 left to play. 

A garbage time touchdown from Hornibrook to Danny Davis from 13 yards out and a two-point conversion gave us the final 37-15 scoreline. 

Wisconsin will await its bowl pairing, which won’t come until after next week’s conference championship games go down. Expect the Badgers to be playing in either California or New York at this point. 

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Wisconsin Badgers vs. Minnesota Gophers: 5 Things to know

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The week we all look forward to is here. It’s Axe Week, otherwise known as that week where Wisconsin puts a X in the win column in permanent marker every year. 

Wisconsin has owned the Golden Rodents through some of the best, worst and definitely mediocre seasons that Eastern Dakota has ever seen for nearly two decades now. The win streak in the Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe has been a fixture in Madison for 14 straight years and there’s no sign of that stopping heading in to 2018’s matchup either. 

So, what should you know about the annual butt-kicking of that safety school to the West? Let’s look at the 5 things to know about this game.  

5: The Eastern Dakota Golden Rodents Suck

Nothing more needs to be said about a 14-year streak of dominance. The Golden Rodents of Eastern Dakota University sssssuuuuuuuuucccccckkkkk.

4: What Colors are the Gophers anyway? 

I’m confused, are their colors black and white? Perhaps Maroon and Gold plated? Maybe Maroon and Yellow? What about Gray, White and Gold or Gray, Maroon and Gold? What’s next….pink, purple and teal? Ohhh, I know, they’ll maybe pay homage to rowing a boat with uniforms that are wood-grained and tan in nature…that’ll do the trick.

Who do they think they are? Oregon of the Midwest? I mean, please get an identity, make it work and stop with all the gimmicks. If gimmicks are the only thing you’re selling it’ll be fleeting and its no wonder why you lose to us every year. You’re too worried about how you’ll look instead of actually game planning for the damn game. It has to be exhausting deciding between about 100 color combinations and all those helmet decals that have to be applied. 

I’ll take vanilla uniforms and beating our rivals on an annual basis any day of the week. 

3: Most Rodent Players Don’t Even Know What the Axe Actually Looks Like

No, it’s true…the streak is so long that the players who are playing in this game have literally no memory of the Rodents winning the Axe. Just take Blake Cashman for example. 

“It’s everything,” Cashman told the Minneapolis Star Tribune this week. “It’s what everybody talks about all year. 

“I can’t even remember the Gophers ever having it, I’m so young.”

The only time they’ve seen it, if at all, is when the Badgers annually chop down the goalposts following their rightful victory. Let that sink in before you realize you won’t see it again this year except for in the hands of a victorious Badger. 

2: No Bowling for You

The Rodents have to win this game to finally get to a bowl game under P.J. Fleck, the snake-oil salesman-in-chief. For a guy who talked a big game, his results haven’t followed. 

Eastern Dakota didn’t go bowling last season, this after inserting Fleck in to a team that made five straight bowl game appearances without the “Row the Boat” master. 

What does two seasons of not winning do to this program? Well, the empty stands at that thing they call a stadium in Minneapolis suggests the natives of Eastern Dakota aren’t buying what Fleck is selling and won’t return until they put a winner on the field…fair weather fans as they are. 

Perhaps Fleck’s writing a check with his mouth that his team can’t cash? Perhaps it’s better to stop making public spectacles and just go about your business of building a program & talking when you finally have something to be proud of on the field…just a thought. 

1: The Axe Will Stay Home

Come on now, let’s be real here…The Rodents aren’t good, Wisconsin has the best running back in the country and at least a competent enough defense to keep the Rodents in check. 

Wisconsin wins this game and completes a 15-year streak in winning the Axe. Besides, do you think this group of seniors is going to be the one that will let victory fade? After all that’s happened this season, you can bet your bottom dollar the Badgers seniors will do anything to keep this trophy home in Madison. 

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