Wisconsin at Iowa: Three keys

Wisconsin disappointed many last weekend when it lost a non-conference home game for the first time since 2003. The Badgers fell to BYU 24-21 despite closing as 21-to-22.5-point favorites, depending on the gambling service one prefers.

That loss may have surprised many, but it was in tune with how the Badgers have looked for the better part of the young season, which is underwhelming. Wisconsin was ranked No. 4 in the preseason AP Top 25 poll and has now fallen down to No. 18 after the loss to BYU.

Thing only get tougher from here on out for Wisconsin, and that begins on Saturday night in Iowa City. The Badgers are tasked with having to head into Kinnick Stadium – where national title dreams have gone to die in each of the past two seasons – and rebound from the early season loss.

Weather the early storm

As mentioned above, Kinnick Stadium has been a tough place to play for opponents the past few years. Last season, Ohio State traveled there ranked No. 3 in the country with a 7-1 record and clinging to hopes of making the playoffs. The Buckeyes left Iowa after a 55-24 shellacking at the hands of the Hawkeyes. In 2016 the Michigan Wolverines were ranked No. 2 in the country, 9-0 and trending towards a playoff appearance before a 14-13 loss under the lights at Kinnick.

This game has been circled on the schedule of Iowa all summer long. Like the Badgers, Iowa didn’t have a very difficult non-conference slate. Unlike the Badgers, Iowa was able to get through it unscathed.

This game being played at night makes things even tougher for Wisconsin. After a road schedule that didn’t have many tough environments last season, this will be the first true test for this program in a while, and one that many of the players haven’t seen.

No one on the roster has played at Iowa under the lights, but safety Scott Nelson was at the 2016 upset the Hawkeyes pulled over Michigan on an official visit. That’s as close as Wisconsin comes to having experience in this exact environment.

“It’s similar to here,” said Nelson of the atmosphere in Iowa City. “The hype around it builds up throughout the day. Everybody looks forward to it, their fans are crazy. It’s going to be loud, it’s going to be exciting, it’s going to be fun.”

Get the offense in gear

Yes, this team rushed for a Paul Chryst era high 417 yards against New Mexico two weeks ago. No, they haven’t been impressive in the least bit. Yes, those two things can absolutely co-exist.

With expectations as high as they were prior to the season, the best word to describe Wisconsin’s offense is underwhelming. This group was supposed to be able to light up the scoreboard and it hasn’t happened as expected. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook has been average, running back Jonathan Taylor has put up solid numbers, but his impact hasn’t felt as strong as it did last year, and the offensive line hasn’t lived up to expectations either.

The world expected more out of the Badgers’ offense this year. That group hasn’t been able to capture the magic that was on display in the 2017 Orange Bowl win over Miami despite bringing back 10 of 11 starters from that night. If there’s ever a night where this team needs to find that magic, this is probably it.

Attempt to replicate last year’s defensive effort

Mentioned above was the fact that Iowa dropped 55 points on then title contender Ohio State in 2017. What wasn’t mentioned is the fact that Wisconsin’s defense made life extremely difficult for the Hawkeyes seven days later.

Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley through for 226 yards and five touchdowns against the Buckeyes in that blowout victory. The very next week he finished 8-of-24 for 41 yards and an interception against the Badgers.

In Wisconsin’s 38-14 win, Iowa was held to just 66 yards of total offense on the day. The defense for the Badgers was absolutely suffocating, and that may be putting it lightly.

“I felt like we dominated the game as a defensive unit, honestly,” safety D’Cota Dixon said this week when asked to reflect on last year’s game. “Probably was our best showcase as a defensive performance, I think, that we’ve probably had here in a long time.”

It’s a stretch to think that effort will be replicated, but there can be some things learned from last year in an attempt to limit what Iowa can do offensively.

Jonathan Taylor takes home Big Ten honor

For the third time in his career Jonathan Taylor was named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week on Monday.

Against New Mexico the sophomore had a career day as he rushed for a new career-high 253 yards and three scores on 33 carries in Wisconsin’s 45-14 victory over the Lobos. Taylor became the first player for Wisconsin to rush for 250 yards or more since Melvin Gordon accomplished the feat back in the 2015 Outback Bowl against Auburn.

As a team Wisconsin ran for 417 yards, setting a new high for the Paul Chryst era.

Taylor topped the 100-yard mark for the 12th time in his 16-game career with the Badgers. It was the sixth time he’s crossed 150 yards and the fourth time he has gone over 200 yards in a single game. The lone downside to Taylor’s season thus far is he’s fumbled twice, losing both of them.

For the season Taylor has 398 yards rushing and five touchdowns on 51 carries. Wisconsin takes on BYU in Week 3 this Saturday at Camp Randall. Kick off is set for 2:30 p.m. CT.

Badgers run wild, impose will on New Mexico

MADISON – There’s no secret what Wisconsin’s offensive plan of attack is on a weekly basis. The Badgers want to establish the running game at all costs. Wisconsin wants to punish its opponents and make them wish the game was over before it actually is.

“On offense you feel it over the course of the game, you keep chunking away, keep chunking away runs,” offensive lineman Michael Deiter said after Wisconsin’s 45-14 win over New Mexico on Saturday afternoon. “You hope defenses don’t want to do that for four quarters and you feel it. They just don’t hit as hard as they used to, they don’t seem as bought it the more you keep hitting them with runs.”

The Badgers followed that philosophy on Saturday. There’s no hiding the fact that they weren’t great in the first half. Offensively, Wisconsin got off to a slow start, having to settle for a field goal, punt, and lost fumble – we’ll get to that – on the first three drives of the game.

“I think it’s kind of a slow, methodical flip,” Deiter said. “Obviously you want to do that from the start, but if you have to do it over four quarters there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Once the second half rolled around, the Badgers became more and more difficult to stop on the ground as time went on.

On the first drive of the half quarterback Alex Hornibrook was intercepted on a ball that seemed to slip out of his hand. After that, the remaining five drives of the game ended in touchdowns for Wisconsin.

The Badgers ran for a total of 417 yards on the day, the most since Paul Chryst took over the program. Of those 417 yards, 253 of them belonged to Heisman Trophy candidate Jonathan Taylor. That mark set a new career-high for the sophomore, but his day wasn’t without a blemish.

Taylor fumbled for the 10th time in his career in just 16 games. Just like last week, he lost it. The biggest hole in his game is the fact that he’s been prone to losing the ball. He’s lost eight of the 10 fumbles that he’s had in his career.

To this point, the Badgers haven’t been harmed too badly by this problem. On Saturday, New Mexico took over deep inside Wisconsin territory, but safety Scott Nelson had his first career interception just three plays later. Once again, the Badgers came away unscathed from one of Taylor’s miscues.

At some point, this is a problem that could come back to bite Wisconsin. There’s no telling when – unlikely it does against an inferior opponent like New Mexico — but it will cost the Badgers. If there were to happen against Iowa, Michigan, or Penn State it very well could cost Wisconsin a victory, and even a spot in the college football playoffs.

“Our whole offensive room, our whole running back room, we’re all tied into each other, trusting each other,” fullback Alec Ingold said. I really don’t have any worries about JT fixing anything. He’s going to get us done for us and we trust him back there. We don’t have any second thoughts handing him the rock.”

Fumbles are going to happen, but Taylor needs to do his best to be able to limit them more than he has.

Outside of the fumble, though, he was fantastic. There was no stopping Taylor by the Lobos defense. He finished the day with three touchdown runs, a pair of them coming in the second half. That’s a sure sign of the defense being worn down.

“It’s super satisfying,” Deiter said of wearing down New Mexico. “It’s fun. When you feel them not giving the same effort that you were getting the first quarter, second quarter, it’s what you take pride in. You feel yourself almost playing harder than you were.”

“How do you respond?” Taylor said of what the coaching staff asks of him after a fumble. “The game won’t go your way the entire game. You’re going to face adversity, but the No. 1 thing is how you respond. Your teammates are going to need you. Everyone leans on one another so we all have to respond back from adversity.”

Taylor responded well after the adversity, there’s no doubting. The Badgers just need to hope there is more of their will imposed, and less adversity faced.

Wisconsin vs. Western Kentucky: Three keys

The Wisconsin Badgers open up the 2018 season with a matchup against the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers at Camp Randall on Aug. 31. The Badgers enter the game as heavy favorites and should have no issue finding their way to a win over the mid-major opponent.

Here are three things to watch as the Badgers look to move to 1-0 on the season.

Depth at wide receiver

The wide receiver group looked like one of the strongest on the team during fall camp. Things certainly have changed since then as both Danny Davis and Quintez Cephus are currently suspended. Cephus is out indefinitely while Davis is sidelined for two games.

There’s still experience and talent that will be on the field, just not as much as there could have been.

A.J. Taylor and Kendric Pryor both have plenty of time on the field for the Badgers, although there isn’t much behind them in terms of experience. Jack Dunn and Adam Krumholz were listed as the third and fourth receivers behind Taylor and Pryor on Wisconsin’s two-deep that was released earlier this week. Those two both saw limited action in 2017, mostly on special teams for Wisconsin. Both are local products that came to Wisconsin as walk-ons in 2016.

After those two, the Badgers will likely be giving playing time to a pair of true freshmen in Aron Cruickshank and Taj Mustapha. Both Cruickshank and Mustapha were early enrollees that impressed in the spring, but limited knowledge of Wisconsin’s playbook could be as to why Dunn and Krumholz will see the field first.

New defensive starters standing out

It was no secret that Wisconsin had an elite defense last year. The Badgers finished among the top five in the country in several categories and were able to learn upon their defense in a couple of less than stellar offensive performances.

That may not be the case this season. Wisconsin is tasked with having to replace seven starters on the defensive side of the ball, including a majority of the secondary and defensive line. The Western Kentucky offense won’t be the most difficult challenge of the season for this group, but it won’t be a walk in the park for a group that hasn’t played much football yet, either.

The defensive line would have been in much better shape had Garrett Rand not suffered an offseason injury that has him out for the season. In addition to that Isaiahh Loudermilk will miss some time after undergoing an offseason surgery as well. Olive Sagapolu returns at the nose with freshman Bryson Williams backing him up.

The defensive end spot is where things can appear questionable for the Badgers. Walk-on Matt Henningsen is starting on one side, while Kayden Lyles, a converted offensive lineman, is starting on the other. That’s something that could prove worrisome for Wisconsin this year.

On the bright side, the depth at the inside linebacker position is sound. T.J. Edwards spurned the 2018 NFL Draft to come back to school, Ryan Connelly returns, as does Chris Orr. All three of those guys have quite a bit of experience to lead the way defensively.

In the defensive backfield the Badgers are tasked with replacing Derrick Tindal, Natrell Jamerson, and Nick Nelson. To make things a little bit tougher, Dontye Carriere-Williams announced that he had been granted his release on Wednesday night and is no longer with the program.

Carriere-Williams entered the spring as a starter at corner, and did make a handful of starts in 2017, but slipped to the second team due to lack of consistency. Caesar Williams and Faion Hicks are listed as the starters at corner as of now, with Madison Cone remaining on the two-deep. Deron Harrell will likely be the next man up at that spot. He had a strong camp after transitioning from the wide receiver position during the offseason and Donte Burton is a true freshman that will likely see the field as well.

The safety spots probably have the most clarity among the newcomers, as Scott Nelson is stepping into a starting role after a very strong camp and D’Cota Dixon returns for his final year of eligibility.

Protecting the football

The biggest flaw in quarterback Alex Hornibrook’s game last year was the fact that he tossed 15 interceptions, including at least one in every conference game. Wisconsin was able to overcome that with strong defense and an excellent running game. Good teams find ways to win no matter what the circumstances are, but Wisconsin may not have that type of luxury this season.

In the Orange Bowl Hornibrook was fantastic as he threw for 258 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions on his way to being named MVP. It’s unrealistic to expect Hornibrook to repeat that performance on a weekly basis. If he somehow did then he would be in New York raising the Heisman Trophy this coming December. But if he can consistently cut out the turnovers that plagued him last season then the Wisconsin offense will be in a much, much better place.

It’s far more likely that running back Jonathan Taylor finds himself at the Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York in December, but one thing that could be a hindrance to not only that campaign, but the Wisconsin offense is his propensity to put the ball on the ground.

In 2017 Taylor fumbled eight times and lost six of them. Again, in more than one of those instances he was bailed out by the terrific defense, but that may not happen now.

For Taylor to further his game and reach his potential at Wisconsin it’s imperative that he hangs on to the football on a regular basis.

Hornibrook and Taylor are two of the most important players on what should be an incredibly explosive offense for Wisconsin. Limiting the turnovers will make them that much better.

Pair of Badgers given preseason honors

CHICAGO — With the start of football season just around the corner and the 2018 Big Ten Football Media Days underway the conference announced the preseason All-Big Ten team on Monday morning.

The team of ten returning players features three returning All-Americans and nine former All-Big Ten selections. The Wisconsin Badgers were one of only two teams to feature two players. Running back Jonathan Taylor and linebacker T.J. Edwards were both honored as two of the five players from the Big Ten West to make the list.

Last season Taylor had a stellar freshman campaign finishing just shy of 2,000 yards. He totaled 299 carries for 1,977 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground. He broke the FBS record for most yards in a season by a freshman which was previously held by Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson and was named an All-American by numerous outlets (AP, FWAA, Sporting News, Walter Camp).

Edwards returns for his final season of eligibility after declining to enter his name into the 2018 NFL Draft following last season. In 2017 he started all 14 games for the Badgers totaling 73 tackles, including 11 for loss and a pair of sacks.

Ohio State was the other program that had two players honored, with running back J.K. Dobbins and defensive end Nick Bosa being named.

Offense rules the day at Wisconsin spring practice

Wisconsin was back on the practice field for the fifth time this spring on Tuesday morning.

Big day for the offense

In the locker room after the Orange Bowl, wide receiver A.J. Taylor was asked about how excited he was that his position group would have everyone back for 2018. And while he was certainly happy about it, him and fellow WR Danny Davis seemed particularly pumped about facing Wisconsin’s defense in spring ball.

“We already know,” Taylor said, “when we play the defense in the spring, it’s going to be a wrap for them.”

Whether it was because the offense had taken its lumps in recent years against a veteran defense or for some other reason, the tone of his voice made it seem like they were expecting to dominate a mostly new group of defensive backs. On Tuesday, that’s largely what happened.

Despite being without three of their top WRs, the offense was rolling. On the first play of team drills, quarterback Alex Hornibrook found Taylor for a 45-yard touchdown down the middle of the field. Later, in the same drill, backup Jack Coan hit WR Jack Dunn in stride for a 45-yard score of his own.

Taylor and Dunn weren’t finished. In red zone work, the duo caught four more touchdowns, including a pretty one-handed grab (see video below) by Dunn from Hornibrook in the back of the end zone.

https://twitter.com/BadgerFootball/status/976124742087438346

The WRs weren’t the only ones getting in on the action. Tight end Jake Ferguson had a pair of scores in the red zone, including one on a crossing route where he got drilled by safety Seth Currens but held onto the ball.

Casear Williams with a solid day

As a whole, the defense, as evidenced above, struggled on Tuesday. But redshirt sophomore cornerback Caesar Williams did flash for a second time in spring, coming up with a pretty interception. Williams got some time with the first-team defense during the red zone portion of practice.

Getting physical

It’s only day No. 5 of spring practice, but we’ve already seen a number of minor skirmishes, including a pair on Tuesday involving linebacker Chris Orr. The junior was apparently too physical for running back Taiwan Deal’s liking and took an open-handed punch to the face. That got broken up quickly. Later, Orr and TE Kyle Penniston got into it.

Working on all facets

Running back Jonathan Taylor ran for 1,977 yards and 13 touchdowns last year, but he sounds like a guy that thinks he can put up bigger numbers this fall.

“You always have to expect to get better. You don’t expect anything less,” Taylor said after practice. “You don’t want to stay the same and don’t want to be any less.”

Taylor is currently the favorite for the Heisman Trophy at 6/1, according to Bovada LV. After initially brushing off a question about being the favorite, Taylor said it really doesn’t matter.

“It definitely is pretty cool being favorited, but that’s one thing you [can’t] worry about,” he said. “You have to worry about being a favorite of your team. [You have to be] worried about knowing that your guys know that you’re going to go out and do your job every single play. [That] you’ve got their back and you’re going to get things rolling.”

Spending time out West

While everyone was on winter break after the Orange Bowl, Hornibrook was out in California spending time with self-labeled “quarterback engineer” George Whitfield. The junior did the same thing prior to last season and he went on to throw the second-most touchdowns (25) in a season in Wisconsin history.

“I think it’s good to just keep working out instead of going home and sitting on the couch or throwing to a couple buddies at home,” he said. “[Just] to actually get out there and start doing some drills, it’s good.”

Injury report:

OUT (practice)
CB Dontye Carriere-Williams
WR Danny Davis
WR Cade Green
OL David Edwards
DL Garrett Rand
WR Kendric Pryor
DL Bryson Williams
WR Emmett Perry

OUT (spring)
WR Quintez Cephus
OL Michael Deiter
OL Jon Dietzen
S D’Cota Dixon
RB Garrett Groshek
TE Zander Neuville
RB Bradrick Shaw
ILB Mason Stokke
WR Adam Krumholz

What’s next?

Wisconsin returns to the field for practice No. 6 of spring ball on Thursday.

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