Preview: (9) Wisconsin vs Utah State

THE BASICS

The teams: The No. 9 Wisconsin Badgers (0-0) vs the Utah State Aggies (0-0)

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The time: 8 p.m. CDT, Friday

The place: Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, Wis.

The TV coverage: ESPN with Adam Amin and Dusty Dvoracek in the booth, and Molly McGrath on the sideline.

The last time: In 2012, Utah State’s Josh Thompson missed a 37-yard field goal with 6 seconds left, allowing Wisconsin to escape with a 16-14 victory over Gary Andersen and the Aggies.

The series: Tied 1-1

The line: Wisconsin -27.5

The Badgers injury report:

OUT

Game:

RB Taiwan Deal (leg)
WR Kendric Pryor (face)
WR George Rushing (leg)
FB Jake Whalen (head)

Season:

LB Jack Cichy (knee)
LB Zack Baun (foot)
RB Sam Brodner (knee)
LB Mason Stokke (leg)

THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH

1) The start

Wisconsin opens the 2017 season with high expectations. The Badgers are a consensus top-10 team for the first time since 2007 and nearly everyone is picking them to take home a third Big Ten West title in four years. And by all indications they are capable of fulfilling those expectations and more. On a team-wide basis, this fall camp, at least what the media got to see, was the most impressive since at least 2013. Will what we saw in practice show up when the lights come on? If it does, watch out.

2) Year No. 2 for Alex Hornibrook

Wisconsin’s offense has a number of very accomplished veterans, but it’ll go only as far as sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook takes it.

The good news is that he appears primed to lead it to new heights. After going 7-2 as a starter in 2016, Hornibrook set out to eliminate weaknesses in his game, spending his winter and spring break in California with quarterback guru George Whitfield, attending the invite-only Manning Passing Academy in June and leading player-only throwing sessions. The results, at least in fall camp, have been more than positive. His pocket presence is vastly improved and he has a little more zip on his passes, allowing him to fit throws into tighter spaces.

Fans will get to judge it for themselves on Friday, but the consensus among media members was Hornibrook took a big step from last fall.

3) The replacements

The Badgers lost a number of really talented players from their 2016 squad that are now fighting for jobs in the NFL, and many eyes will be on their replacements.

It starts at left tackle, where All-American Ryan Ramczyk left early for the draft and was a first-round pick of the New Orleans Saints. Wisconsin went with junior Michael Deiter as his replacement, and while he’s started 27 straight games, none of them have come at tackle. His ability to handle the edge is paramount for the offense.

In the backfield, Wisconsin lost more than 1,800 yards rushing from Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale. That void will be filled by at least three players and maybe more as junior Chris James, sophomore Bradrick Shaw and freshman Jonathan Taylor battle for carries.

On defense, outside linebacker Vince Biegel and T.J. Watt got drafted in April, but their fill-ins — seniors Garrett Dooley and Leon Jacobs — are more than capable of stepping up, especially Jacobs, who had a monster fall camp and has the makings of a dominant pass rusher.

And in the secondary, where cornerback Sojourn Shelton and safety Leo Musso needed to be replaced, the Badgers appear to have top-flight options in the form of transfer Nick Nelson at cornerback and wide receiver-turned-cornerback-turned safety in senior Natrell Jamerson.

4) Young guys on deck

Wisconsin isn’t known for playing a lot of true freshmen, but there are a number of them in the two-deep, including three at skill positions.

Jack Coan beat out redshirt freshman Kare Lyles for the backup quarterback job, Taylor’s performance in the final few weeks of fall camp has the coaching staff salivating over his potential and wide receiver Danny Davis has proven to be as good as his 4-star recruiting ranking suggests.

Taylor and Davis are almost guarantees to play, while it remains to be seen how coach Paul Chryst wants to use Coan in blowout situations.

5) Back in time

After two so-so years, the Wisconsin offensive line looks to be on the verge of returning to the dominating form it’s showed so often over the last 25 years. There aren’t any seniors, but nearly all the contributors are in their third or fourth years in the program, having gained the strength and experience necessary for success. Utah State’s defensive line might not be the greatest test, but it is the first and it’s one the line is ready to attack.

NUMBERS TO CONSIDER

Wisconsin has won 37 straight home games against non-conference teams, the second-longest streak in the country. The last loss came in 2003.

Friday will be the sixth time the Badgers have opened the season with a night game at home. They are 4-1 in those games, including a 51-17 whipping of UNLV in 2011.

Senior Troy Fumagalli needs 81 yards to move into fifth-place for career receiving yards among tight ends in Wisconsin history. If he puts up the same numbers he did a year ago — 580 yards — he would finish his career with the second-most yards for a tight end at UW.

PREDICTIONS

Zach Heilprin’s prediction: Wisconsin 41, Utah State 3 (0-0 on the season)
Ebo’s prediction: Wisconsin 44, Utah State 6 (0-0 on the season)
Joe Miller’s prediction: Wisconsin 42 , Utah State 7 (0-0 on the season)

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