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.

Wisconsin’s defense steps up in opener

MADISON – Ask around, the likeliest group to take a step back from the success of 2017 for Wisconsin certainly would be the defense, and it would be hard to make an argument otherwise.

Friday night at Camp Randall certainly didn’t look like Wisconsin has any plans of allowing that to be the case.

Wisconsin came into the season opener against Western Kentucky starting seven new players on defense, including four players seeing a collegiate field for the very first time. There have been question marks all offseason about how this group would fare when the season came around, and rightfully so.

They impressed.

Sure, the first test that this group had to face wasn’t the most difficult of the season, but there’s no doubting that Western Kentucky presented unique challenges for a unit featuring this much turnover. The fast pace offense featuring a great deal of pre-snap movement that Western Kentucky runs isn’t the easiest to handle.

Wisconsin has plenty of room to improve, no doubt, but this was a good start. It was a solid experience for guys getting their first taste of real game action like Faion Hicks, Caesar Williams, and Scott Nelson. Those three will be tested plenty this season as teams will attempt to gouge the Badgers through the air.

On Friday night Wisconsin was able to limit Western Kentucky to just 167 yards passing. Forty-eight of those yards came on a pass early in the second half that Nelson said was the result of a miscommunication that he took fault for as well.

Other than that play, it would be hard to find much fault with Nelson’s debut in a Wisconsin uniform. He flew around the field, leading the team in tackles with seven and breaking up two passes. Nelson probably should have intercepted one of the passes he broke up, and did narrowly miss out at an opportunity at a sack as well.

The missed opportunity to create a turnover for Nelson brought one of the more curious moments of the night. After the play was blown dead and the ball hit the ground Nelson kept running. He kept running and didn’t stop until he hit the end zone, which was approximately 40 yards away from where the play ended.

“I really don’t know, whenever I don’t make a play I just end up running,” Nelson said. “Hopefully you don’t see that too much more. A couple people asked me about that when I came off the field. When I’m out there, I don’t know what I’m thinking.”

Despite the unnecessary extra yardage on his legs, the young safety has plenty to be happy about.

“I think it was good. There’s definitely a lot that we can tighten up,” Nelson said. “Personally, there’s definitely a lot that I can tighten up. Lot of tackling, catching the ball, communication stuff. But it was good, we got our feet wet, we’re in, and we’ll only get better from here.”

Aside from Nelson’s impressive debut, Hicks added an interception in the red zone for the Badgers in his debut. Wisconsin’s secondary had a part in each of the Badgers’ two turnovers, as Eric Burrell was credited with a forced fumble – again in the red zone – that was recovered by linebacker Chris Orr.

The thing that most resembled the 2017 Wisconsin defense on Friday night was the ability to stand up in the red zone defensively. So many times last season the Badgers would be faced with a sudden-change situation leaving them in a difficult position.

They experienced one against Western Kentucky following a Jonathan Taylor fumble in the third quarter. Western Kentucky took over inside the red zone, gained four yards, and failed to convert on fourth down.

The names and faces may have changed, but the result looked just like last year for Wisconsin. Tougher tests lie ahead, and time will tell whether or not this defense will be quite as good, but Friday was a promising start.

Wisconsin adds a safety in the class of 2017

MADISON | Wisconsin has picked up its 16th commitment in the class of 2017.

Safety Scott Nelson from University of Detroit Jesuit (Detroit, MI) High School gave his verbal commitment to the Badgers on Monday, according to Steve Wiltfong of 247Sports.

A 3-star recruit, Nelson is ranked as the 59th best safety in the country and the No. 15 player in the state of Michigan. He chose the Badgers over offers from Iowa, Michigan State, Penn State and Northwestern among others.

Wisconsin’s class is ranked ninth in the Big Ten and No. 44 in the nation.