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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. 

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Badgers football

Badgers in the 2019 NFL Mock Drafts

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Believe it or not, we’re just three weeks away from the start of the 2019 NFL Draft. While, it’s likely your focus is on your favorite NFL team, its needs and who will go where, for fans of college football it’s also a time to sneak a look at where their favorite players will be going.

So, as we near the draft, I thought it a perfect time to take a look at where every former Badgers player stands. We’ll look at some of the most comprehensive 7-round mock drafts.

Making our cut were CBS Sports, Draft Wire, Draftteck and Walter Football.

Without further ado, let’s jump in in alphabetical order.

Beau Benzschawel, OL

CBS Sports: 3rd Round (No. 102 overall) to the Baltimore Ravens
Draft Wire: 4th Round (No. 114 overall) to Carolina Panthers
Draftteck: 4th Round (No. 116 overall) to Miami Dolphins
Walter Football: 5th Round (No. 149 overall) to Cincinnati Bengals

Ryan Connelly, LB

CBS Sports: Undrafted
Draft Wire: 7th Round (No. 238 overall) to Chicago Bears
Draftteck: Undrafted
Walter Football: 5th Round (No. 159 overall) to Seattle Seahawks

Michael Deiter, OL

CBS Sports: 4th Round (No. 108 overall) to New York Giants
Draft Wire: 3rd Round (No. 75 overall) to Green Bay Packers
Draftteck: 5th Round (No. 169 overall) to Los Angeles Rams
Walter Football: 2nd Round (No. 55 overall) to Houston TexansO

D’Cota Dixon, S

CBS Sports: Undrafted
Draft Wire: Undrafted
Draftteck: 6th Round (No. 190 overall) to Minnesota Vikings
Walter Football: Undrafted

David Edwards, OL

CBS Sports: 6th Round (No. 174 overall) to Seattle Seahawks
Draft Wire: 3rd Round (No. 94 overall) to Los Angeles Rams
Draftteck: 3rd Round (No. 88 overall) to Detroit Lions
Walter Football: 6th Round (No. 181 overall) to Buffalo Bills

T.J. Edwards, LB

CBS Sports: 5th Round (No. 162 overall) to Chicago Bears
Draft Wire: 7th Round (No. 215 overall) to Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Draftteck: 5th Round (No. 145 overall) to Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Walter Football: 6th Round (No. 178) to Jacksonville Jaguars

Alec Ingold, FB

CBS Sports: Undrafted
Draft Wire: Undrafted
Draftteck: Undrafted
Walter Football: Undrafted

Olive Sagapolu, DT

CBS Sports: Undrafted
Draft Wire: Undrafted
Draftteck: 6th Round (No. 182 overall) to Denver Broncos
Walter Football: Undrafted

Andrew Van Ginkel, OLB

CBS Sports: Undrafted
Draft Wire: Undrafted
Draftteck: 7th Round (No. 235 overall) to Oakland Raiders
Walter Football: 6th Round (No. 211 overall) to Cincinnati Bengals

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WATCH: Chryst addresses Spring Ball at halfway point

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Believe it or not…the Wisconsin Badgers are halfway through the 2019 spring practice season.

On Tuesday, Chryst addressed the media on where things stand. The head coach made it known the team is nowhere near ready to take the field in the fall, but that competition is fierce.

So much so, that there is nearly an open competition going on at every position on the team.

Some may see that as a bad thing, but considering the youth and the amount of graduated players, the fact that there are multiple players stepping up and performing well enough to compete for positions on this squad is a good thing.

Check out what else the head coach had to say at the halfway point here:

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Badgers football

Badgers using Axe loss as motivation for 2019 season

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The 2018 season did not go exactly as planned for the Wisconsin Badgers football program. Putting the cap on a disappointing season was UW’s first loss in 15 games to bitter rival Minnesota.

Not seeing Paul Bunyan’s Axe in the Badgers trophy case had to be a strange feeling when it happened. But, it has also become motivation for the Badgers to remember that awful feeling and never let it happen again.

To that end, apparently the coaching staff has put a picture of the Gophers players chopping down the goal posts following their win last seasons.

Ferguson and others note that the loss and the fact that UW went from a preseason College Football Playoff contender to the Pinstripe Bowl has served to make this offseason much more serious than a year ago.

“When we walk into the locker room, we’ve got the Nebraska trophy, the Iowa trophy, and then on the right is where the Axe would be,” Ferguson told the media. “Right behind it where it would be is that big picture.”

“Kinda pisses me off,” he continued. “But I think it’s a good thing we have that, and I’d say a lot more guys are focused up and a lot less goofing around in the weight room. Everyone’s holding each other accountable.”

With a much younger team and a whole lot of spaces up for grabs, things should be serious this spring as well.

The Badgers will move on from Alex Hornibrook at quarterback and four players have taken nearly equal reps overall so far this spring.

There’s youth being served along the defensive line, at linebacker and a host of young (but experienced) players at cornerback to give the Badgers plenty of focus overall.

But, it is interesting that with over seven months to go until the Badgers and Gophers knock heads again for the longest-played rivalry in college football, the Badgers have focused in on getting that trophy back in their possession.

While winning the trophy doesn’t guarantee success, it certainly has gone a long way towards letting everyone know the Badgers are successful on a near annual basis for the previous 14 years.

Can that focus on getting the Axe back be a catalyst for the improvement needed from the young roster? Only time will tell, but the fact that those young players appear to be locked in this early is a positive sign.

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5 Badgers who need to break out this spring

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As with any talk of spring ball, individual play is always at the forefront. It’s what Wisconsin Badgers head coach Paul Chryst is emphasizing the most this spring.

With injuries to potential starters like Christian Bell, Tyler Biadsz and Cole Van Lanen, there are more spots open for reps this spring. Add in a young overall roster and you can see why spring is big for the Badgers in 2019.

But, there are some players who need to showcase themselves more than others. For a group of players it may be their last chance to put it all together and show the coaching staff the belong in the mix.

So, let’s take a look at the five players who need to break out the most this spring.

Noah Burks, Jr. (Outside Linebacker)

MADISON, WI – NOVEMBER 03: Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor (23) is tackled by Wisconsin outside linebacker Noah Burks (41) and Wisconsin defensive end David Pfaff (52) during a college football game between the University of Wisconsin Badgers and the Rutgers University Scarlet Knights on November 3, 2018 at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, WI. (Photo by Lawrence Iles/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Will Burks turn the potential that had him as a 4-star linebacker coming out of Carmel (Ind.)? It hasn’t totally happened so far and part of it has been other players ahead of him, but part of it has been his inability to win a position in the regular rotation.

To date, Burks has amassed 21 games played, 8 total tackles and a forced fumble to his name. If he’s ever going to take on the role as a starter, this spring is the time to do it. Christian Bell is out and there is plenty of room for snaps if one can prove they deserve them.

Burks has a big opportunity in front of him and the good news early on in practice is that he seems to be taking to that opportunity. Look for his name to be one that makes the jump necessary by the end of April.

Jack Coan, Jr. (Quarterback)

BRONX, NY – DECEMBER 27: Wisconsin Badgers Quarterback Jack Coan (17) gets set under center during the Pinstripe Bowl Game between the University of Miami Hurricanes and the University of Wisconsin Badgers on December 27, 2018 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, NY. (Photo by John McCreary/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Yes, he’s got experience as a starting quarterback and yes he is entering his junior season. But, one could argue no player needs to take the bull by the horns more than Coan does. With Alex Honribrook off to Florida State, the quarterback position is wide open this spring.

All the hype may be around early entrant Graham Mertz, and if he wins the job great. But, ideally the Badgers would like to not put Mertz in a situation where he’s not fully ready.

That requires Coan to show he’s growing and can be trusted to be a solid option, unlike what was there for most of last season. If Coan can’t put it all together in the spring, will he ever be able to be a solid option for the coaching staff to count on?

Anthony Lotti, Sr. (Punter)

ANN ARBOR, MI – OCTOBER 13: Wisconsin Badgers punter Anthony Lotti (15) punts during a game between the Wisconsin Badgers (15) and the Michigan Wolverines (12) on October 13, 2018 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We’re talking about punters…yes punters. The truth is, Wisconsin needs better overall play from special teams and arguably no area needs more improvement than the consistency from the punter position.

Lotti came in as one of the most promising punters in the country according to scouts and hasn’t really lived up to that hype. He’s got 140 punts under his belt in the first three years, averaging just 38.8 yards per punt though.

Last season saw Connor Allen also get a crack at the punting duties and he wasn’t much better, booting 22 punts for an average of 37.5 yards per punt.

With a roster in flux at major positions on both sides of the ball, having some confidence in the special teams units would be nice. That means Lotti turning on the big leg and accurate punting that he was known for coming in to Wisconsin.

If he can’t turn it on consistently this spring, it could be time to give a new face a look in the fall.

Nate Carter, So. (Tight End)

Wisconsin knows it has a star in tight end Jake Ferguson, but what it doesn’t know is who in the heck can be counted on behind him. Expected second-string tight end Luke Benzschawel is out for an extended amount of spring ball and even he hasn’t proven to be a pass-catching threat.

In fact, there isn’t a Badgers tight end outside of Ferguson who has caught a pass in college ball yet. So, enter former quarterback turned tight end, Nate Carter.

The Waunakee native is 6-5 and nearly 210 pounds, so clearly he will need to put on some weight. But, if he can emerge as a good pass catcher and pick up some blocking schemes this spring perhaps the Badgers have another option.

Clearly the coaching staff thinks enough of his athleticism to put him in to a pass-catching role. Will that pan out or will the Badgers be searching for that other answer further in to the fall?

Aron Cruickshank, So. (Wide Receiver)

BRONX, NY – DECEMBER 27: Wisconsin Badgers wide receiver Aron Cruickshank (1) runs during the fourth quarter of the 2018 New Era Pinstripe Bowl between the Wisconsin Badgers and the Miami Hurricanes on December 27, 2018 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, NY. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

One part of Wisconsin’s passing game woes seemed to be inconsistent (at best) play at QB, but UW also struggled to get separation down field from its wide receivers too.

One potential cure for that is speedy sophomore Aron Cruickshank. The coaching staff thought enough of him to make sure he got the ball in his hands a few different ways all the way through the 2018 season.

But, can he go from a gimmick player to a real threat in the every-down offense? So far the returns in practice this spring indicate he’s having fun burning the crap out of UW’s defensive backs.

He’s already hooked up for a number of deep passes and made the quarterbacks lives easier. If he could help open up the deep passing game to go along with Jonathan Taylor’s home run hitting ability in the backfield, this could be a dynamic offense.

Of course, spring ball isn’t Saturday’s in the fall, but having him emerge as a true weapon in the regular pass game would be massive.

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