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Wisconsin Badgers vs. Michigan Wolverines: What we’re watching

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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. 

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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Projecting the Wisconsin Badgers 2019 defensive depth chart

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Yesterday we took a look at how the Wisconsin Badgers offense may look heading in to spring ball. Today, we turn to the other side of the ball as UW looks to figure out life without its lifebloods the last few years.

UW will face life without two of its biggest stars — inside linebackers T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly — as they head in to 2019 and there’s little question that replacing them will be the key to just about everything in this offseason.

But, that isn’t the only question to be answered and we’ll attempt to answer them all with a look at how we see the potential depth chart set itself up.

Defensive Line

End

1. Garrett Rand, RS Jr.; 2. Aaron Vopal, RS So./Isaiah Mullens, RS Fr.
1. Isaiahh Loudermilk, RS Jr.; 2. Matt Hennignsen RS So.

There was a significant drop-off in pass rush and overall production from the 2018 Badgers and a lot of it can be attributed to a very thin defensive line. UW lost Rand before the season, and Loudermilk couldn’t shake the injury bug after a summer leg injury hampered his start to the season.

In 2019, both should be back and healthy and it will make a big difference. Both Vopal and Henningsen got a ton of experience and should be better off for it, but behind the scenes I’ve heard rave reviews for the game of Mullens and wouldn’t be surprised to see him jump in to the mix quickly in 2019.

Nose Guard

1. Bryson Williams, So.
2. Gio Paez, Fr.

Wisconsin is going to need young players to step up and provide depth in 2019, just like it needed Bryson Williams to do so in 2018. The good news is that Williams could be trusted and got plenty of playing time, starting a few games to end the season after Olive Sagapolu’s season was cut short. While we could see walk-on senior Gunnar Roberge as a backup, my money is on 2019 signee Gio Paez helping big time off the bench.

Outside Linebacker

1. Zack Baun, RS Sr.; Tyler Johnson RS Sr.
1. Christian Bell RS Jr.; Noah Burks RS Jr.

The only thing that seems set for the Badgers in 2019 at outside linebacker is that Zack Baun will be one of the starters. However, that doesn’t mean there’s a problem afoot.

Instead, Wisconsin has a chance to find out what they have with about four players who could all easily become the starter opposite of Baun. My money is on former Alabama transfer Christian Bell becoming that player, as he saw more and more of the field as 2018 went on. He’ll get an interesting challenge from former 4-star recruit Noah Burks and the man who backed up Baun last season, Tyler Johnson. Don’t sleep on Izayah Green-May either, as he’s one of the most intriguing pass-rushing prospects on this roster.

Inside Linebacker

1. Chris Orr, Sr. 2. Mike Maskalunas, RS Jr.
1. Jack Sanborn, So. 2. Griffin Grady, RS Jr.

Losing Edwards and Connelly is going to hurt, but we’ve seen a ton of depth at this position over the last few years. Orr would’ve started for most teams in the conference the last few years and will have his final season to impress NFL scouts. The real interesting mix will be how the play of Sanborn, Grady and Maskalunas works itself out in the offseason.

Sanborn playing the snaps he did in 2018 suggests he’s the front runner, but the good news is this position will likely see plenty of rotation and even starters won’t be meaningful given the depth.

Cornerback

1. Rachad Wildgoose, So. 2. Caesar Williams, RS Jr.
1. Faion Hicks, So. 2. Deron Harrell, RS So.

Wisconsin saw a lot of youth work in at cornerback in 2018 and when the dust settled they appeared to have found some pretty good players for the next few years in the likes of Wildgoose, Hicks and Harrell for sure. Expected starter Caesar Williams disappointed in his opportunity and we could easily see Madison Cone get in to the mix here as well. The name to watch this offseason is Travian Blaylock, who played in four games this season as a true freshman and was able to keep his redshirt.

Safety

FS: Reggie Pearson, RS So.; Collin Wilder, RS So.
SS: Scott Nelson, RS So.; Seth Currens, RS Jr.

This may surprise some of you, because we all saw Eric Burrell start in the Pinstripe Bowl due to injury to D’Cota Dixon. However, I believe the talent of Pearson and Wilder is so good that they may bypass him this offseason. It’s a nice problem to have to say the least.

Nelson is a lock to play at strong safety after starting all season in 2018. However, it was an up-and-down freshman campaign and more consistency will help this group grow immensely.

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Projecting the Wisconsin Badgers 2019 Offensive Depth Chart

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January is perhaps the most dead period of action for a college football player and for the Wisconsin Badgers it’s been a period of waiting for answers to NFL futures for a few players.

We’ve gotten those answers and that means we have a much clearer perspective on what the Badgers 2019 depth chart will look like when then head to Tampa Bay to take on USF in the season opener on Aug. 31.

With that in mind, let’s break down the depth chart as we see it playing out heading in to spring ball in a few months time.

Quarterback:

1. Jack Coan, Jr.
2. Graham Mertz, Fr.
3. Danny Vanden Boom, So.
4. Chase Wolf, RS Fr.

First, the smart bet is on Alex Hornibrook not returning to football after major issues arose following a concussion later in the 2018 season. That said, a lot of outside pressure will be on naming Mertz the starter. I believe that won’t happen right away and Coan will be the one that gets the nod for the start of 2019. His level of play increased as he got on-field reps and could be enough for a stop-gap until Mertz is either ready to play this season or they try to keep his redshirt available and allow him to start in 2020.

Running Back

1. Jonathan Taylor, Jr.
2a. Garrett Groshek, RS Jr.
2b. Nakia Watson, RS Fr.
3. Bradrick Shaw, Jr.
4. Julius Davis, Fr.

Get ready for the swan song of Taylor’s career in the Cardinal and White. He’s been a record-setter already and that should continue in 2019 baring injury. With Taiwan Deal and Chris James graduated, someone has to step up in to the role of the true backup option. It could be a returning Bradrick Shaw, but Nakia Watson showed real promise and could be in line for major snaps this season too. Groshek will continue to be a primary pass-catching and extra blocking option, but don’t expect his role to expand as a runner.

Fullback

1. Mason Stokke, RS Jr.
2. Quan Easterling, Fr.
3. John Chenal, So.

Over at fullback, the Badgers will have to live life without Alec Ingold, who was a stalwart at the position. Converted linebacker Mason Stokke is going to get the first look, but Wisconsin went out and got a scholarship fullback in Quan Easterling for a reason. Don’t be surprised to see him get a serious look in fall camp and maybe take the job from day one.

Wide Receiver

1. Danny Davis, Jr.
2. AJ Taylor, Sr.
3. Kendric Pryor, Jr.
4. Aron Cruikshank So.
5. Taj Mustapha, RS Fr.
6. Jack Dunn, RS Jr.

There isn’t a position deeper on the Badgers offense than wide receiver. While the production didn’t match the hype coming in to 2018, let’s chalk that up to bad QB play first and foremost. The combination of Davis, Pryor and Taylor is a good one and UW continues to add quality and speed at the position.

No question looms larger at wide receiver in the 2019 offseason than what happens with the cases pending against Quintez Cephus. Will they resolve themselves in 2019 and will he back on campus or in prison? If it’s the first one, the Badgers have a huge playmaker back, if not, they’ll need to find a downfield playmaker more than ever. It was a giant missing piece to the puzzle in 2018.

Tight End

1. Jake Ferguson, RS So.
2. Luke Benzschawel, RS Jr.
3. Kyle Penniston, RS Sr.
4. Cormac Sampson, RS Fr.

Jake Ferguson’s first season lived up to the hype of his high recruiting ranking, as he became the go-to receiver in big situations. But, the Badgers expect more out of the position in 2019 as they hope to get a healthy Luke Benzschawel back to help in the blocking game. Look for Cormac Sampson to also emerge as his understudy and an intriguing overall prospect for the future too.

Offensive Line

Left Tackle: Cole Van Lanen, RS Jr., Logan Brown, Fr.
Left Guard: Jon Dietzen, RS Sr., David Moorman, RS Jr.
Center: Tyler Biadasz, RS Jr., Kayden Lyles, RS So.
Right Guard: Jason Erdmann, RS Sr., Alex Fenton, RS So.
Right Tackle: Logan Bruss, RS So., Tyler Beach, RS So.

Wisconsin went 1-of-2 on getting potential early entrant NFL prospects back for 2019, as Tyler Biadasz turned down a potential 1st round situation to stay in Madison. UW will only have to replace David Edwards, Michael Dieter and Beau Benzschawel instead of all four of the potential draft picks.

The biggest question at offensive line is just where 5-star Logan Brown fits in. Will he work inside first and maybe take on right guard before sliding out or will he compete with the likes of Bruss and Beach at right tackle or will he slot in behind Van Lanen for a year at left tackle?

This group is going to be fun to watch shape out over the next eight months.

Overall Thoughts:

Wisconsin brings back a ton of talent at wide receiver and running back, but they do have a lot of questions (both major and minor) to answer at key positions like starting quarterback and along the offensive line.

Those likely aren’t going to be sorted out by the end of spring ball, so expect this depth chart to fluctuate a lot in the coming months. I do feel confident in this is how it will look to start the offseason though.

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Mertz has record-setting day at The All-American Bowl

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There was plenty of hype and hope for incoming freshman quarterback Graham Mertz. The newest Wisconsin Badgers quarterback did little to slow down the hype with his performance in the annual All-American Bowl.

All Mertz did was was stand up and make everyone take notice on the biggest stage in high school football.

Against some of the best players and with some of the best players in the country, Mertz rose above them all. He completed seven passes in the game, five of them going for touchdowns and racked up 188 yards.

Both his five touchdowns and 188 yards were The All-American game records. All of it added up to him winning the MVP award for the game.

Mertz’s ability to throw big passes all over the field was on full display. He threw with touch and even most of the incomplete passes he had were put in positions for his receivers to make plays on the ball.

It’s that touch and big-play ability that has been missing for a few years now in the Badgers offense.

Of course there are things he’ll need to work on at the next level, but he showcased an ability to make the basics look easy and plenty of promise as well.

Mertz’s big day caught the eye of some big names around the world of football.

It wasn’t just those in attendance or the hopeful Badgers faithful that were excited by what Mertz did on the day. Names like Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs took to Twitter to mention him.

His fellow Badgers commits Dean Engram and Julius Davis also had comments.

Oh, and the Badgers football Twitter account couldn’t miss a chance to hype the early-entrant quarterback either.

Obviously we won’t know if his play at the high school level will translate right away to the college game, but it’s hard not to see his passing skills and wonder what could be for the Badgers offense in the near future.

Ultimately, it will be his ability to take on the offense and make the needed plays in the spring that will dictate his ability to make a quick or slower impact at Wisconsin.

However, if playing with and against the best players in his incoming class is any indication, there’s no reason to suggest he won’t be a player who ends up starting at Wisconsin and likely in relatively short order.

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Badgers 2019 signees in All-American games

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The Wisconsin Badgers capped off a disappointing season with a second butt-kicking in a row of the Miami (FL) Hurricanes. With that the offseason officially started.

So, next up on the calendar are the high school All-American bowl games.

While the Badgers success wasn’t great on the field, off the field it was arguably the best class in UW recruiting history and officially the greatest in the recruiting rankings era (since 2000).

Certainly that means the Badgers will be represented in the All-American games and you would be right.

So, let’s take a look at the players that are in the various games over the next week.

The Under Armour All-American bowl game started things off on Thursday night and Wisconsin walk-on kicker Blake Wilcox (Kettle Moraine High School) was the lone UW representative in Orlando.

He is a punter and kicker and could take on both duties for the Badgers in the coming years, but is also still coming in to his own in the football kicking game after being a top soccer player at Kettle Moraine up until his junior season.

There wasn’t much reporting done on Wilcox or the specialists as a whole at this game, but the crew from Kohl’s Kicking Camps are in love with what Wilcox brings to the table so early in his career as a kicker and punter.

Meanwhile, at the All-American game in San Antonio (the former U.S. Army All-American game) the Badgers have their two highest profile signees in quarterback Graham Mertz and 5-star offensive lineman Logan Brown participating.

By all accounts, Mertz is having himself his usual high-end showing around scouts and in competition.

He was ranked as the No. 2 player in the first day of practices according to 247Sports and the No. 3 QB of the day in day 3 of drills.

From 247Sports:

Mertz continued to showcase his clean mechanics and smooth feel in the passing game. The Wisconsin pledge is at home operating from the pocket and looks to be a strong fit for the Badgers’ offense under Paul Chryst. On Thursday, Mertz had one of the better throws on the day, hitting a tight-window touchdown to Virginia Tech signee Jaden Payoute, who was running a crossing route in the back of the endzone.

Rivals believed he was the best looking QB on the East squad after the first day of drills.

Brown has lived up to advanced billing for those who haven’t seen him already, stoning multiple pass rushers in one-on-one drills. He was ranked as one of the Top 10 overall players at Day 3 of practice by 247Sports.

We’ll see how he holds up in team scenarios on Saturday, but it appears he could be a plug-and-play player for a Badgers offense seeking to replace a pair of guards in 2019.

Overall, it appears the biggest names are performing at or near the very top of their groups while going up against elite talent.

Given the pressure that is likely to be on this group with the high ranking they received, these types of performances are good signs indeed.

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