What the future holds: Running back

With the 2017 season in the books, it’s time to look ahead to 2018 for Wisconsin. Over the next few days we’ll be going position-by-position to see what the future holds for the Badgers.

For the purposes of this article, we’ll refer to the players’ class in terms of what they’ll be in 2018. If someone was a sophomore in 2017, they will be called a junior here.

Running back:

Returning: Jonathan Taylor (SO), Chris James (SR), Bradrick Shaw (JR), Garrett Groshek (RS SO), Alec Ingold (SR), Sam Brodner (RS SO), Hunter Johnson (RS FR).

Leaving: Rachid Ibrahim

Arriving: Nakia Watson

Season grades

Biggest question: What can Jonathan Taylor do for an encore?

Jonathan Taylor was as impressive of a true freshman as Wisconsin has ever seen. He ran for an FBS freshman record 1,977 yards and added 13 touchdowns. He earned All-American honors, was a consensus first-team All-Big Ten selection and was finalist for the Doak Walker Award, which goes to the best running back in the country. The only thing more stunning than his move up the depth chart from fifth-string to first-string in fall camp was the astonishing array of broken tackles and breakaway runs that dominated the first half of Wisconsin’s season.

But this year is now behind him and everyone is wondering what he’ll do next. Historically, at least at Wisconsin, besting what a player has done in his first year hasn’t been easy. In fact, only one running back that rushed for at least 1,000 yards as a freshman ended up running for more in their second year — Anthony Davis in 2002. But it’s unrealistic to expect Taylor to one-up himself in 2018. Not only is the 1,977 yards the most by a freshman in FBS history, it’s the 10th-best mark in Big Ten history.

So, what is realistic to hope for? Well, one, watching Taylor become a three-down back. Most young players struggle in pass protection and he was no different. The good part is that the willingness is there. Now, it’s just a matter of technique. If he’s able to stay on the field for all three downs, he becomes an even bigger threat.

However, his biggest focus should be on ball security. Taylor lost six fumbles in 2017, the most of any running back in the country. That can’t continue if he’s going to reach the lofty heights that so many think he’s capable of.

Other notes:

No one quite knew what to expect when Wisconsin added Rachid Ibrahim as a graduate transfer last summer, but he proved to be very valuable. His ability as a third-down back covered for the injury to Chris James, and he contributed more than anyone thought he would. With him gone, James steps back into that role for his final year, along with spelling Taylor on early downs.

Junior Bradrick Shaw and redshirt sophomore Garrett Groshek provide depth.

At fullback, Alec Ingold steps into a starting role in place of the graduate Austin Ramesh. Wisconsin will need to identify a backup to the senior.

Depth chart:
Tailback
1) Jonathan Taylor (SO)
2) Chris James (SR)
3) Bradrick Shaw (JR)
4) Garrett Groshek (RS SO)

Fullback
1) Alec Ingold (SR)

What the future holds:
Quarterback

Wisconsin 45, Indiana 17: 2-minute drill

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — The Wisconsin defense forced three turnovers and fullback Alec Ingold scored three touchdowns as the Badgers beat Indiana 45-17 to move to 9-0 for the first time since 2004.

Play of the Game

Wisconsin trailed 10-7 midway through the second quarter when outside linebacker Tyler Johnson ripped the ball free from Morgan Ellison just before he hit the turf. Though officials initially said Ellison was down — and the whistle blew — a mad scramble for the ball ensued and the Badgers recovered. It then went to replay and officials determined it was indeed a fumble, giving Wisconsin the ball deep in Indiana territory. Two plays later, the Badgers took a lead they would not relinquish.

Game Balls

Offense: Jonathan Taylor

After missing nearly three quarters against Illinois with a leg injury, the freshman running back was a force against Indiana. He took his first carry for 45 yards and finished the day with 183 — his sixth game of at least 100 yards this season. Taylor showed great vision on his touchdown, taking a jet sweep, cutting up and then out to get free. Wisconsin’s offense is a different animal when he’s on the field, even if he wasn’t necessarily 100 percent.

Defense: Joe Ferguson

Subbing in for an injured D’Cota Dixon, the senior safety was involved in all three of Wisconsin’s takeaways. He recovered the pivotal fumble that led to a touchdown, and then had a pair of second-half interceptions that led to touchdowns. According to UW, Ferguson has been involved in six of Wisconsin’s 19 takeaways this season.

Dixon has been very good and the Badgers are better with him on the field, but Ferguson has been a nice fill-in when needed, including on Saturday.

Special Teams: Wisconsin’s punting unit

The duo of Connor Allen and Anthony Lotti combined to punt four times and none were returned. They also dropped two of them inside the 20-yard line, forcing the Hoosiers to start deep in their own territory.

In their own words
Wisconsin fullback Alec Ingold talks about his three touchdown day.

In Case You Missed It

— Wisconsin was hit hard by injuries on Saturday. The Badgers lost linebacker Chris Orr to a leg injury in the first quarter, safety D’Cota Dixon to a leg injury in the second quarter and then wide receiver Quintez Cephus also to a leg injury in the third quarter.

— Wide receiver Danny Davis returned to the field after missing the past two games with a leg injury. He finished with one catch for 10 yards.

— When Indiana went up 7-0 in the first quarter, it was the first time since the Big Ten opener that Wisconsin had trailed.

Inside the Numbers

15 — That’s the number of games Wisconsin has won in a row with Alex Hornibrook under center.

18 — That’s the number of pass break-ups cornerback Nick Nelson has this season, just one short of the school record.

14 — That’s the number of touchdowns Alec Ingold has in his career after scoring three on Saturday. He’s averaging a touchdown every six times he touches the ball.

10-0 — That would be Wisconsin’s record if it beats Iowa next Saturday. The Badgers have never been 10-0.

What’s Next

Wisconsin (9-0, 6-0) will welcome Iowa to Camp Randall Stadium next Saturday. The home team hasn’t won in the series since 2008.

Preview: No. 7 Wisconsin at Purdue

THE BASICS

The teams: The No. 7 Wisconsin Badgers Akron Zips (8-2, 5-2) vs the Purdue Boilermakers (3-7, 1-6)

The time: 11 a.m. CDT, Saturday

The place: Rose-Ade Stadium, West Lafayette, Ind.

The TV coverage: ABC with Mike Patrick and Ed Cunningham on the call, with Dr. Jerry Punch on the sideline.

The last time: Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave threw for 322 yards, and running back Alec Ingold scored a pair of short touchdowns, as the Badgers beat Purdue 24-7 at Camp Randall Stadium last year.

The series: Wisconsin 46-29-8

The line: Wisconsin -28

The Badgers injury report:

QUESTIONABLE

FB Austin Ramesh (shoulder)

OUT

OLB Zack Baun (leg)

OL Jake Maxwell (shoulder)

NT Olive Sagapolu (arm)

THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH

1) Keeping your foot on the pedal

Top teams continue to lose, the latest being No. 5 Louisville Thursday night at Houston. And while that’s good for Wisconsin’s chances of making the College Football Playoff, it’s also a reminder that any team can lose on any day, and the Badgers can’t think that just by showing up on Saturday they’ll come away with a victory. It’s going to be a fight.

“It’s not one of those things where we can lay back and think things are all finished out and good to go,” wide receiver Jazz Peavy said. “We got to make sure we keep winning games and keep preparing (to win them).”

2) Running game comes alive

Through five games, the Wisconsin running game was average at best, putting up just 160 yards per game. But in the five games since, the old dominant ground attack that the Badgers have been known for has come to life.

Following a 363-yard performance against Illinois last week, Wisconsin is now up to 198 yards per game. And a lot of credit has to go to an offensive line that has found some continuity, playing the same five guys in the last three games.

“It doesn’t just happen where you can run the football,” coach Paul Chryst said. “It’s a group that’s working. The ability to play with the same group has been helpful. They’re doing some good stuff, but we’ve still got work to do.”

Wisconsin will have the opportunity for another big day on the ground on Saturday, as Purdue comes in ranked 122nd in the nation in rushing defense, allowing an average of 248 yards per game.

3) Passing defense will be challenged

Purdue doesn’t do a lot of things well, but one area they have had success at times is in the passing game. The Boilermakers are averaging 309 yards per game through the air, tops in the Big Ten, and sophomore quarterback David Blough is first in passing yards, and second in the conference with 21 touchdowns.

But the Badgers pass defense has been among the better surprises this season. How the three new starters — cornerback Derrick Tindal, along with safeties Leo Musso and D’Cota Dixon — would fill-in was a big question. 10 games into the season and the answer is pretty darn well. Wisconsin is allowing 191 yards through the air — ranked 19th in the country — while also making quarterbacks pay for poor throws, picking off 14 passes, the third-best mark in the Big Ten.

4) Getting healthy

Wisconsin’s starting outside linebackers — Vince Biegel and T.J. Watt — have both battled injuries this season. A cracked bone in his right foot kept Biegel out of the Michigan and Ohio State games, while Watt has played through a myriad of ailments, including a shoulder injury that left him in agonizing pain at times. But both are starting to feel like themselves again, and that could mean trouble for opposing offenses.

“We can always be the guys to make a difference or make a play,” Watt said this week. “We can impact the run or the pass so much and in so many different ways. Whether it’s rushing the passer, knocking down passes or dropping in coverage.

“I think as we continue to get healthier, more and more comfortable and gaining more and more confidence, you may see (those big plays from us).”

5) Two quarterbacks again

For a fifth straight game, it’s expected the Badgers will use both of their quarterbacks — Alex Hornibrook and Bart Houston. Though it can’t be called a overwhelming success, Wisconsin has won all four games where they’ve implemented the time share and Chryst intends to stick with it.

They know they don’t have to carry the whole load,” Chryst said of one of the positives of the arrangement. “They know they’re going to be contributors. I like to think it helps.”

Wisconsin is averaging 151 yards passing in this four-game stretch, with four touchdowns and two interceptions. And Chryst believes that both quarterbacks are getting used to it, and says communication has been the key.

“We’re really transparent with them as far as the plan and what’s going on so there isn’t a lot of guessing what’s going to happen,” Chryst said. “They don’t need to worry about that.”

NUMBERS TO CONSIDER

Wisconsin has won the last 10 games in the series by an average of 23.2 points per game

The Badgers have given up just nine points in the first quarter of games this year, and are the only team in the country that hasn’t allowed a touchdown

Led by defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox, the Badgers are allowing just 12.7 points per game, the third-best mark in the country and the fewest by a Wisconsin defense since 2006.

PREDICTIONS

Zach Heilprin’s prediction: Wisconsin 45, Purdue 3 (6-4 on the season)
Ebo’s prediction: Wisconsin 38, Purdue 7 (7-3 on the season)
Jake Zimmermann’s prediction: Wisconsin 38, Purdue 3 (8-2 on the season)
Joe Miller’s prediction: Wisconsin 45, Purdue 13 (7-3 on the season)
Eric Rogers’ prediction: Wisconsin 38, Purdue 3 (8-2 on the season)

 

Wisconsin football preview: Quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers

MADISON | The Wisconsin football team will open fall camp on Aug. 8, so over the next few days we’ll be going position-by-position to preview head coach Paul Chryst’s second team in Madison.

Today we’ll take a look at the quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers.

Quarterbacks

For a fifth time in the last six years, Wisconsin will enter fall camp without having named a starting quarterback.

The two options are senior Bart Houston or redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook. Each had their moments during spring ball, but very little will separate the two when they hit the field next Monday for practice.

Houston is the more experienced of the two, playing in 13 games over the last three years. But it wasn’t until last season that he saw extended action, filling in for an injured Joel Stave against Illinois. The California native threw for 232 yards and two touchdowns, but he also tossed a pair of interceptions in the end zone.

Entering his fifth fall camp, Houston has been through a lot in his time in Madison, including undergoing shoulder surgery as a freshman and being relegated to punting duties as a sophomore under the former coaching staff. Now, in his second year under the guy (Chryst) who recruited him it’s now or never.

On the other side is Hornibrook, who appeared in serious jeopardy of knocking himself out of contention for the job midway through spring. In one practice alone he threw five interceptions. But he closed nicely and is definitely going to give Houston a run for the starting gig against LSU.

Starting prediction: Bart Houston

I’ll go with Houston simply because of the experience, but it won’t be shocking to see Hornibrook win it. The coaching staff loves the mental aspect of his game, as well as an already well-developed ability to throw with anticipation.

Running backs

Wisconsin’s running game was not its usual self a year ago. The 150.3 yards per game they averaged on the ground was the fewest for a season since 1995. Some of that had to do with the revolving door of lineups along the offensive line, but not all the blame can go there.

Not having Corey Clement for nine games (eight with injury, one for an off the field incident) was a major factor. But he’s back now, fully healthy and weighing a robust 227 pounds. And unlike a year ago, when he was talking about rushing for 2,000 yards and heading to the NFL draft, Clement appears focused solely on the team.

If Clement stays healthy, the 1-2 punch of him and senior Dare Ogunbowale could make for an offense that is much more dynamic. A former walk-on defensive back, Ogunbowale ran for a team 819 yards and seven touchdowns a year ago, but was also a factor in the passing game catching 36 passes. Expect his role in that capacity to be expanded.

Redshirt sophomore Taiwan Deal was solid in his first of action, even though injuries cost him time midway through the season just as he was looking to become the lead back. Still, Wisconsin likes their top three players at the position.

Meanwhile, at fullback there will be three guys – junior Austin Ramesh, sophomore Alec Ingold and senior Leon Jacobs — vying to replace Derek Watt, who is now blocking for Melvin Gordon with the San Diego Chargers.

Starting prediction:
TB – Corey Clement
FB – Alec Ingold

Clement and Ogunbowale will see a lot of time on the field, and don’t be surprised if they are on the field at the same time. Wisconsin didn’t use the fly-sweep very much a year ago, but it could make a big comeback this season.

Ramesh is probably the best blocker of the three fullbacks, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see the position get the ball more this year. If that’s the case, then it’s advantage Ingold, who had 131 yards and six touchdowns as the short-yardage back last season.

Wide receivers

Before going down with an injury against Illinois, Robert Wheelwright was becoming the No. 2 target Wisconsin needed. He had 25 catches and three touchdowns through seven games. But he missed the rest of the regular season with a leg injury, leading Alex Erickson to end up with more catches (77) than the rest of the group combined. But Erickson is gone now, and it’s time for Wheelwright to live up to the promise he’s shown since stepping on campus.

Helping him do that will be Jazz Peavy. The redshirt junior was really good at times last year, including grabbing what should have been the game-winning touchdown against Northwestern. Now, with a full offseason void of injury, the Kenosha product will play a big role this fall.

Behind those two are where the biggest questions remain. Can senior Reggie Love put it together in his last go-around? Will a visibly stronger and bigger George Rushing build off a strong spring game and give the Badgers a deep threat? Can wide receivers coach Ted Gilmore get sophomore Krenwick Sanders to play up to his ability?

If Wisconsin doesn’t get the answers they want on those questions, they could turn to the three true freshmen – Quintez Cephus, A.J. Taylor and Kendric Pryor — that arrived this summer. Gilmore has said he’s not afraid to play first-year guys if they’re ready.

Starting prediction: Rob Wheelwright, Jazz Peavy

The battle for the starting spots really isn’t a battle. If both guys are healthy – and that is a big if – they’ll be UW’s top two targets on the outside.

As for the third wide receiver spot, I think it goes to Rushing. He’s got the ability to get behind a defense, and it appeared things started to click for him at the end of spring, including grabbing a pair of touchdowns in the spring game.

After that, it’s easy to envision Love, Sanders, sophomore Ricky Finco, redshirt freshman Henry Houden and potentially Taylor battling for the rest of the reps.

Tomorrow: Offensive line, tight ends