Saturday night will be very interesting. Pressure is on both the Wisconsin Badgers and Michigan Wolverines in this one.
It could be a simple as winner survives with a chance to go to the College Football Playoff and loser knocks itself out of contention.
But, there are key moments and decisions that are likely to tip the balance in the matchup on the field. So, what will be watching and keying in on from the Big House?
Let’s take a look at a few of those things.
Next Man Up for UW Defense
Wisconsin’s defense has had a pretty average start to the 2018 season, especially considering recent past performances. However, this group is going to be challenged more than it has ever before this season when it goes up against Michigan.
It isn’t just that Michigan’s offense has been potent at times this year, but it also is the fact that key pieces will be missing.
UW’s coaching staff announced that starting defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk has been ruled out. It’s expected that redshirt freshman Matt Henningsen will take the starter role, but there will also be a heavy dose of David Pfaff.
Also missing will be freshman safety Travian Blaylock and sophomore linebacker Griffin Grady. Both have been down the depth chart at times, but have become bigger players as the season has gone on.
Wisconsin will also be without freshman starting safety Scott Nelson for the first half thanks to a suspension for targeting in the second half of the win over Nebraska.
Oh, and there are two big names that will be game-time decisions in the secondary as well — cornerbacks Deron Harrell and Caesar Williams.
By now you should get the picture. Wisconsin’s defense is going to face challenges even before Michigan gets on the field. But, it has always been next man up for this defense since the transition to the 3-4 under then defensive coordinator Dave Aranda.
Will that mentality equal success or struggle on Saturday night?
Hot or Not for Hornibrook
Earlier this week we took notice of Wisconsin’s need for the offense to get going against Michigan. That remains true as we get closer to game time, especially with the news mentioned above.
Given UW’s proclivity towards running the ball, it should be fully expected for the Wolverines to stack the box and dare Alex Hornibrook to beat them. It’s a strategy that has largely worked for other top teams throughout his career as a Badger.
We highlighted all those reasons in that article earlier in the week, but what will make the difference come Saturday? It simply comes down to whether or not Alex Hornibrook is on point from the start of the game or struggles with accuracy and can’t sustain drives.
Much like most of the season, we’ll be watching to see if the Hornibrook we saw against Miami can show up against another big team. This is his first chance since that game in the big spotlight and UW needs him to step up if the traditional game plan is going to work at all.
Chryst vs. Harbaugh
There is no denying that the identity of both these teams is similar. Michigan and Wisconsin want to pound you in to submission on offense, stop you from doing it on defense and mixing up the pass rush too.
So, when two teams want to do the same things to each other, the game often times can come down to motivation, in-game adjustments and simple confidence in the game plan.
Which coach will come in to Saturday having his team ready to go? Can Chryst make the usual halftime adjustments to make opponents submit after pounding away in the first half?
Chryst has been great at getting his team to get going after half time, but doing it against one of, if not the best defenses in college football is going to be interesting. So will be how he choses to test the Michigan defense.
Will Chryst look to put wrinkles in to his offense or will he look to play it slow, get some film and hit weaknesses shown on film for big gains later on in the game?
Can Chryst get the offense going fast enough to jump on a Michigan team and crowd that will be amped to make things difficult for the Badgers?
Then there is the Harbaugh side of this, and unlike Chryst, it seems like he has struggled to find a way against other top coaches and teams. Michigan may be 21-8 against the Big Ten since Harbaugh arrived in Ann Arbor. But, 4 of the 8 losses have come to teams ranked in the top 10 at the time of the game.
Yes, the Badgers are not a top 10 team according to rankings (because you know how much we believe in those things in these parts), but there is clearly trouble in winning games against teams that are competing at a very high level.
Michigan’s lone loss so far this season was to a highly thought of Notre Dame team that continues to impress. Harbaugh’s Wolverines have also won just four times in 11 tries against the likes of Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin since he arrived on campus.
Something just isn’t right when it comes to Harbaugh, Michigan and playing big competition. Will Harbaugh be able to figure it out on Saturday night?
For those who say coaching doesn’t really matter come game day, tune in on Saturday night and you’ll see why coaches like Chryst and Harbaugh make a difference.
Penn State all but ends Badgers West division hopes in 22-10 loss
The chances of a Wisconsin Badgers West division title in 2018 rested on winning out, but the Penn State Nittany Lions had other ideas and frustrated the Badgers in a 22-10 win on Saturday afternoon.
With the loss, the Badgers are all but completely out of West division contention. Wisconsin would need the Wildcats to lose all three of their upcoming games and win out the rest of the way to take the title.
Running back Jonathan Taylor did all he could, rushing for a game-high 185 yards and a touchdown in the losing effort. 71 of those 185 yards came on the third play from scrimmage for UW’s offense, as he raced up the middle to a touchdown.
It would be the Badgers lone TD of the game, as Penn State’s defense got major pressure all day long and never allowed the pass game to get going.
Conversely, Penn State got 159 yards and a touchdown from running back Miles Sanders en route to the win.
Wisconsin also killed themselves with four turnovers, two fumbles and a pair of interceptions from quarterback Jack Coan.
The sophomore, who was making just his second career start, managed just 60 yards on 9 of 20 passing with the pair of interceptions.
He didn’t have much help from his offensive line, as the Badgers gave up five sacks on the day.
For the second straight week the Badgers scored on the opening drive. This week it came on a 71-yard touchdown run by Taylor, who burst through low arm tackles on a 3rd and 2 for the score.
Penn State responded back with an 8-play, 75-yard drive that saw a 14-yard touchdown pass from McSorley to DeAndre Thompkins tie the game up at 7-7 midway through the first quarter.
Coan, making his second start in three weeks, also had his second fumbled snap in as many starts on the Badgers ensuing drive.
Penn State took over at the Badgers 31-yard line but were forced to settle for a 49-yard field goal attempt. It squeaked over the crossbar and gave the hosts a 10-7 lead.
The hosts lead would grow thanks to a 1-yard run by Miles Sanders with 8:09 to play in the second quarter, but a missed PAT would make it 16-7 Penn State leading.
Sanders had a pair of big plays to keep the drive alive prior to his touchdown, ripping off a 17-yard run on the first play of the drive and a 23-yard run on a 3rd and 7 that put his team at the Badgers 17 yard line.
Wisconsin’s offense began to stall out at that point, and it was compounded by an interception in its own territory on UW’s final possession of the half.
Penn State couldn’t turn it in to points, as Issaiah Loudermilk blocked a field goal attempt with time running out on the half.
Following the break, Wisconsin scored on its first possession with a short Rafael Gaglianone field goal to make it 16-10.
It would be the only scoring the Badgers did in the second half as Penn State’s defense shut down them down.
Penn State kicker Jake Pinegar knocked home two field goals from beyond 40 yards in the second half and his six points were enough to ice the game away.
Wisconsin looked like they may score late, but a promising drive stalled out with under three minutes to play. However, a bad snap by Penn State on the next drive was recovered by the Badgers deep in PSU territory.
It was a final shot to get within a score, but one again pressure up front by Penn State dashed those hopes. With the Badgers needing 20 yards for a touchdown on 4th and goal Coan threw his second interception of the game and killed any chance of a miracle comeback.
UW will play Purdue next weekend in West Lafayette, Ind. Kick time has yet to be set but this could be an important game for both teams depending on what happens between Iowa and Northwestern.
Wisconsin Badgers vs. Penn State Nittany Lions: 5 Things to know
November is in full swing and the game everyone believed would be the Badgers swing game has become a matchup between two really desperate teams.
If either the Penn State Nittany Lions or Wisconsin Badgers want to win their division, it starts with winning this game. Simply put, the loser eliminates themselves from contention in their respective divisions thanks to previous losses in the Big Ten (and Penn State is all but 100 percent eliminated heading in to the game).
However, the winner lives to put all sorts of pressure on the other teams at the top of their division.
Will that be the Badgers or Nittany Lions? Let’s take a look at 5 facts and figures you should know heading in to the game.
5: Alec Ingold and Taiwan Deal each have 5 rushing TD’s this season
The senior running backs for Wisconsin have come up big when needed. Yes, Jonathan Taylor’s 11 touchdowns lead the team, but the main backup and fullback are also dangerous weapons with the ball in their hands.
Deal has 5 TD’s on just 65 carries so far this season, while Ingold has scored 5 times in just 20 carries.
Stopping Taylor is a good place to start if you’re Penn State, but Wisconsin has proven there are plenty of other options to get in the end zone in the run game.
4: Wisconsin is 4th in the Big Ten in scoring defense
For all the talk of a down year for the Badgers defense, they are still in the upper group of teams in terms of allowing points. UW comes in to the game against Penn State ranked 4th in the league in scoring defense, giving up just 20.2 points per game. The three teams ahead of them are also the only teams to allow fewer than 20 points per game so far this year.
It’ll be a really interesting matchup between the Badgers defense and Penn State offense, who come in averaging 37.2 points per game which is 2nd best in the Big Ten.
On the flip side, the Badgers are facing a Penn State defense that has been way more suspect on the scoreboard this season. They are 7th in the league, giving up an average of 24.4 points per game. The Badgers are averaging 31 points per game, good for 5th in the league.
The point here is that the combination of points scored and given up are a bigger advantage for the Badgers than Penn State.
3: Penn State owns a 3-game win streak in the series
Few teams have been able to dominate the Badgers the way Penn State has, owning a 3-game win streak in the series between these two schools. But, the devil is in the details on this matchup.
The last meeting was back in 2016, a Penn State win in the Big Ten championship game and the beginning of the streak took place in a 2012 win at Happy Valley. It’s safe to say it’s been a long-term issue for the Badgers as of late, but one with these programs in very different spots.
Penn State also owns a 3-game win streak in games played at home against the Badgers. UW hasn’t won a game in Happy Valley since 2003.
The all-time series between Penn State and Wisconsin stands at an even 9-9 despite those recent dominant numbers for the Nittany Lions.
2: Penn State is 2nd in the B1G in Red Zone scoring offense
Winning the battle in the red zone while on offense is a really good way to ensure you win games. Penn State is 6-3 on the season in large part because it has been successful in the red zone.
Penn State scored on 35 of 37 red zone trips this season — including turning 30 of those 35 scoring drives in to touchdowns. The 81 percent touchdown conversion rate is the best in the Big Ten.
Conversely, Wisconsin’s defense is third in the conference in red zone defense allowing opponents to convert on just 24 of 30 opportunities. That includes just 16 touchdowns allowed, with a 53.3 percent rate which is good for 5th in the league.
It’s safe to say when the Nittany Lions get in to the red zone, conversion of those opportunities will be highly important affairs in this game. That’s especially the case with Trace McSorley’s health in serious question for this matchup.
1: Wisconsin has lost just one game in November in the last 5 years
The final month of the season can be a make-or-break one for a program like Wisconsin. For the past five years or so the Badgers have been able to control their destiny thanks to a great November.
Over the past five years just one loss has happened in the final month and that came at the hands of Northwestern in 2015. Wisconsin is also 5-1 in games against ranked opponents in the month of November since the 2014 season.
UW started this November off with a trouncing of Rutgers, but this is a massive step up in competition level. Will history of success in the final month of the regular season play or or will history between these two teams repeat itself?
Coan made most of 2nd opportunity to lead Badgers offense
With Alex Hornibrook’s return from a concussion, all was back to normal for the Wisconsin Badgers offense against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights.
Unfortunately, “normal” for the 2018 offense has been sluggish starts, off-target throws and bad interceptions.
After seven straight games of inconsistency from Hornibrook, an eighth half of ineffective offense with Hornibrook at the helm had many asking questions about whether it was time to give Coan a second shot when the Badgers came out of the locker room.
With the Badgers leading just 10-0 and Hornibrook responsible for a pair of inexcusable interceptions against a defense that had troubles getting turnovers all season long, something had to give.
Either Hornibrook got things pointed in the right direction or someone else would be better suited to lead this offense. A team with so much promise coming in to the season couldn’t afford that bad a performance against the Big Ten’s worst team.
However, the decision was taking out of the hands of head coach Paul Chryst as Hornibrook took a big hit late in the first half and never returned. After the game, Chryst noted that it was because he may have showed symptoms of a concussion once again.
Following a first half that saw Hornibrook complete just 7 of 16 passes for 92 yards and a pair of awful interceptions, the Badgers offense was led by sophomore quarterback Jack Coan in the second half.
Coan didn’t have to do much at first, as the run game carried UW early on in the second half and paved the way to a 31-17 victory over Rutgers.
However, when Coan was given the opportunity to throw in this one, he took full advantage. Coan finished the game 5 of 7 for 64 yards and a touchdown. He also didn’t throw an interception.
Wisconsin’s run game also went off with him behind center, rushing for over 200 yards in the second half and scoring two touchdowns.
Whatever Coan did or didn’t do as a pure passer, it was hard not to notice that the energy of this team changed out of the half. Coan was much more energetic and much more of a motivational presence on the field than Hornibrook ever has been.
It seemed like he took naturally to being in and the players around him responded to whatever it was he was putting out there. Perhaps it was the nerves gone from getting his first start or playing Rutgers really bad defense.
Either way, whatever it was that clicked, the Badgers coaching staff need to find a way to bottle that up the rest of the way.
Of course, it helps that it was Rutgers defense across the field from the Badgers. But, seeing a young quarterback respond like he did certainly is worth thinking twice about going forward.
It still remains to be seen if Coan in the long-term answer or a short-term band-aid because of Hornibrook’s injury.
Chryst also isn’t one to make snap decisions on personnel either. He stuck with Hornibrook through seven games of inconsistency after seeing the very same thing all of the 2017 season, so what would make him not stick with him?
Health of course, and Chryst mentioned that as the big factor in using Coan or not.
There’s also the consideration of Coan’s redshirt. Wisconsin’s coaching staff has gone out of its way to play redshirt freshman Danny Vanden Boom in mop up duty for Hornibrook to keep Coan’s redshirt season intact.
If Coan plays in the next three games or any three more games in total, he’ll lose his ability to redshirt.
But, does a redshirt trump giving yourself a chance to win big games against Penn State and Purdue in the coming weeks? Does Hornibrook give you the best chance to win those games?
History suggests the junior isn’t good in big games and that the great Orange Bowl performance to end last season was a fluke more than a sign of a corner being turned.
It also doesn’t hurt that Coan rose to the occasion the second time he got the opportunity at significant snaps. His day was certainly a better one than his debut against Northwestern, where UW needed the pass game to get the Wildcats defense off the back of the run game.
While it was a limited opportunity, Coan may have made enough of it to give the coaches enough to think twice about the starting position.
Then again, Penn State in Happy Valley is up next.
It will be an interesting week in the quarterback room, even if Hornibrook is deemed healthy enough to go.
If you’re Coan, all you can do is rise to the occasion when given it. On Saturday he did that, now it’s up to the coaches to make the big decision for the future of this program in 2018 and beyond.
Taylor powers Badgers past Rutgers
The Wisconsin Badgers used a big second half from running back Jonathan Taylor to ease to a 31-17 victory over the Rutgers Scarlet Knights on Saturday inside Camp Randall Stadium.
Taylor, who had just 11 carries and fumbled twice in the loss to Northwestern last week, got loose for 208 yards and three touchdowns on the day.
Wisconsin has started slow for most of the season, but that didn’t happen against Rutgers. Instead, the Badgers scored on their opening drive for just the second time all season.
Jonathan Taylor capped off a quick 6-play drive with a 5-yard touchdown to make it 7-0 just 2:35 in to the first quarter.
The game was made 10-0 after Wisconsin pounded their way deep in to Rutgers territory on their third drive of the game. But, the promising 18-play, 78-yard drive stalled out inside the 15-yard line and Rafael Gaglianone knocked home a 32-yard field goal with 14 minutes to go in the 2nd quarter.
It was all the scoring that would happen in the first half.
After the Badgers defense forced the fourth straight punt of the game on the following drive from UW’s field goal, Hornibrook took just one play to throw his second awful interception of the game.
Luckily, the Badgers defense and special teams continued to come up big.
Rutgers had their lone chance to put points on the board blocked by linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel on the ensuing drive. Despite a huge 34-yard return by D’Cota Dixon, UW’s offense couldn’t do anything and were forced to punt inside the Rutgers 40-yard line.
Another defensive stop resulted in a big Rutgers punt to pin the Badgers back at the 1-yard line with just 1:05 left to play in the half.
UW got out of the shadow of its own end zone as Jonathan Taylor busted a 17-yard run off the left side. Taylor would put up 97 yards and the lone touchdown on 17 carries in the first half.
A 15-yard sideline interference penalty on Rutgers following a short completion to Danny Davis put the ball on the Wisconsin 41-yard line with 22 seconds left in the half.
Hornibrook couldn’t get the Badgers in to scoring position though, missing running back Garrett Groshek and then taking a bad sack on the ensuing play to end the half.
With junior quarterback Alex Hornibrook struggling — throwing a pair of interceptions and completing just 7 of 19 passes for just 92 yards — the Badgers managed to lead just 10-0 at the half.
Change happened coming out of the locker room, with sophomore quarterback Jack Coan inserted to start the second half after Hornibrook was ruled out due to an apparent head injury late in the first half.
Instead of throwing him to the wolves, Coan turned in to a handoff machine early on in the half. UW ran 13 straight rushing plays to open the second half.
The Badgers didn’t disappoint on those run plays either, gaining 163 yards and two touchdowns during that streak to really break the game open at 24-3.
The second half got off to a quick start for UW too, as the combination of Taiwan Deal and Taylor took over. Deal went off for 38 yards on two carries and on the very next play it was Taylor busting loose for a 38-yard touchdown run to make the game 17-0.
Rutgers finally got on the board on their next drive, but failed to turn a 1st and goal at the 9-yard line in to a touchdown. Instead, the Scarlet Knights settled for a 22-yard field goal to make it 17-3 with 4:17 to play in the third quarter.
The Badger run game couldn’t be stopped and the second possession of the half also ended in a big run from Taylor for a touchdown. This time he punched it un untouched up the middle from 18 yards out for a 24-3 lead.
Rutgers offense got explosive plays late from running back Raheem Blackshear. He actually did most of his damage in the pass game, collecting 8 receptions for 162 yards and a touchdown.
That included a late TD to make the game 31-17 with 1:01 to play and after the Badgers had answered a previous Rutgers scoring drive.
UW wouldn’t let this one get any closer as the run game kept working and eventually wore down the rest of the game clock.
Wisconsin will take on Penn State in Happy Valley next weekend, with game time still unknown.
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