What the future holds: Inside linebacker

With the 2017 season in the books, it’s time to look ahead to 2018 for Wisconsin. Over the next few weeks 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 each player in terms of their class for 2018. If someone was a sophomore in 2017, they will be called a junior here.

Inside linebackers:

Returning: T.J. Edwards (SR), Ryan Connelly (SR), Chris Orr (JR), Arrington Farrar (SR), Griffin Grady (RS SO), Mike Maskalunas (RS SO), Nick Thomas (JR), Mason Stokke (RS SO)

Leaving: Jack Cichy

Arriving: Jack Sanborn (4-star)

Season grades

Biggest question: Can the unit be better than it was in 2017?

Wisconsin has an embarrassment of riches at inside linebacker whereT.J. Edwards returns for his fourth year as a starter after putting his NFL aspirations on hold. All he’s done so far is rack up 254 tackles, 26 tackles for loss, five sacks and seven interceptions. In 2017, the former high school quarterback was a first-team All-Big Ten selection and a finalist for the Butkus Award, which goes to the best linebacker in the country.

Next to Edwards for much of the season was Ryan Connelly. For a second straight year, the Badgers called on the senior help them overcome a rash of injuries. He would end up leading the team in tackles (88), finish second in tackles for loss (11), record three sacks and provided the final dagger in the Orange Bowl with a late interception. The former walk-on earned All-Big Ten honorable mention from the coaches and the media.

And then there is Chris Orr, who bounced back after a season-ending injury at the start of 2016. Playing in 12 games, he ended up with 36 tackles, three tackles for loss an a pair of sacks.

Those three helped Wisconsin’s defense be one of the best in the nation. That it came after losing Jack Cichy, who very well could have been the Badgers best defensive player if not for tearing his left ACL prior to the season, was remarkable. But how can they get better in 2018?

Let’s start with Edwards. His task is pretty simple. Improve on what the NFL told him to — his speed. Despite all his success, the NFL’s draft advisory committee still had concerns about his ability to run and it was the biggest factor in advising him to return to school.

As for Connelly and Orr, it’s about taking what they did in 2017 and making it more consistent, according to defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard.

“You need Chris Orr to continue to grow and develop,” Leonhard said in the days before the Orange Bowl last month. “He’s made big plays for us. He’s a communicator. He’s a leader for us. Just have to take the next step with him.

“Ryan Connelly, the same way. You saw from (2016) him having the ability to make plays and then (2017) just the consistency with which he’s made plays (was great). You hope he takes that to the next step and continues to gain confidence.”

Other notes:

It’s not a matter of if injuries hit the position but when. So it’ll be important for inside linebacker coach Bob Bostad and Leonhard to find a fourth and fifth guy they can count on.

The first option there is senior Arrington Farrar. He’s still learning the ropes to an extent after moving from safety to linebacker in the spring of 2017, but Leonhard liked what he saw in limited action.

The Badgers will get Griffin Grady back at full strength. After playing as a true freshman in 2016, Grady redshirted last year after an illness limited him in fall camp. He went on to be named the co-scout team player of the year on defense.

Redshirt sophomore Mike Maskalunas was a constant on special teams and will fight Farrar and Grady for playing time.

Incoming freshman Jack Sanborn is the highest rated recruit in Wisconsin’s 2018 class. There doesn’t appear to be a ton of playing time available, but he could always force his way onto the field like Grady did in his first year.

Predicted spring depth chart:

ILB: T.J. Edwards (SR), Chris Orr (JR)
ILB: Ryan Connelly (SR), Arrington Farrar (SR)

What the future holds:
Quarterback
Running back
Wide receiver
Tight end
Offensive line
Defensive line

Grades for Wisconsin at the quarter pole of the season

These types of articles are normally reserved for the middle of the season when you’ve likely got six or more games to judge a team on. But with Wisconsin’s bye coming after just three weeks — and no other break in the action until the first or second week of December — we decided to undertake an effort to grade what we’ve seen so far in a 3-0 start for the Badgers. Is it fair to do so with such a small sample size? Probably not. But here we go.

Quarterback: B+

Save for a rough outing late in the second quarter and most of the second half against Florida Atlantic, Alex Hornibrook has been fantastic in his second year as a starter. After throwing nine touchdowns all of last year, the sophomore has thrown eight already and is on pace to break Russell Wilson’s single-season school record of 33. And perhaps even more importantly, he’s got just one interception.

The competition will certainly pick up in Big Ten play, but Hornibrook looks like the quarterback many envisioned coming into the year.

Running back: A-

If we were grading this based on Jonathan Taylor alone, it would have easily been an A+. The New Jersey native has been terrific in averaging 146 yards per game — tops for any freshman in the country. He’s still learning and isn’t perfect, but his blend of power, speed and balance make him a terror for defenses.

The rest of the running back group has been up and down. Junior Chris James was anxious and struggled in his debut against Utah State, before bouncing back with a 100-yard outing in a win over Florida Atlantic. Sophomore Bradrick Shaw looked solid as the starter in the opener, but an injury kept him out in Week 2, and it seems unlikely he’ll get his job back this season considering what Taylor has done.

The freshman is the lead dog here and is the reason for such a high grade.

Wide receiver: B

All of the wide receivers have taken a significant leap from a year ago, especially Quintez Cephus. The sophomore already has three touchdowns and has become Wisconsin’s No. 1 option on the outside.

A.J. Taylor, Danny Davis and Jazz Peavy have all been involved and looked solid, but the overall grade suffers due to the drops in the first two weeks. Still, this group has the makings of being the deepest Wisconsin has had in recent memory. Their final grade figures to be much higher.

Tight ends: A-

Troy Fumagalli was outstanding in the first two games, gaining nearly 100 yards each week. He caught his third touchdown of the year against BYU in what was an otherwise quiet game for the preseason All-American. The senior has also been part of a strong rushing attack that is currently second in the Big Ten.

Outside of junior Zander Neuville’s impressive touchdown catch against Utah State, he and sophomore Kyle Penniston have not really been heavily involved in the passing game, combining for five catches through three games. They, like Fumagalli, still play a vital role in the run game.

LISTEN: The latest edition of our Wisconsin podcast ‘The Camp’

Offensive line: B

The numbers would suggest Wisconsin has been off the charts good along the line, as the Badgers rank 14th in the country in rushing at 275 yards per game and are giving up about one sack per game. But while they’ve been pretty good, in only one game — against BYU — were they the dominating unit many thought they would be. While the game was still in doubt, they opened huge running holes and allowed Hornibrook to have all day to pass. If they can get that kind of effort on a week-to-week basis, their end of the of season grade will jump significantly.

Defensive line: B+

Wisconsin’s defense isn’t designed for the linemen to have big numbers, and that has certainly played out for the group in the first three games as they’ve combined for just one tackle for loss. But they’ve played a role in helping the Badgers limit opponents to 90.6 yards per game on the ground, good enough for 15th in the nation.

They’ve done it largely without senior Chikwe Obasih (knee), who remains sidelined indefinitely . While it’s been a challenge without him, redshirt freshman Isaiahh Loudermilk has filled in nicely behind senior starters Alec James and Conor Sheehy.

Linebackers: A-

Teams have been able to run the ball early in games against Wisconsin, but that’s been more about scheme than anything physical. Once they’ve had a chance to digest what they’re seeing, it’s been lights out for opposing offenses.

At inside linebacker, sophomore Chris Orr leads the team in tackles coming off a missed season with a torn ACL, while junior T.J. Edwards has continued to evolve as a playmaker, coming up with three tackles for loss and two interceptions. Junior Ryan Connelly has been solid, too.

On the outside, senior Leon Jacobs leads Wisconsin with four tackles for loss, senior Garret Dooley has been solid on the edge, and junior Andrew Van Ginkel has proven to be the pass rusher the Badgers needed with his two sacks.

Secondary: B

Wisconsin has been up in its games, so the passing numbers for the opposition aren’t great indicators of how well the secondary is playing — and they are playing well. The only concern here is the issues they had in communication in the first two games, including on a play that resulted in a long touchdown for Florida Atlantic. But none of those things showed up against BYU, and it’s possible they just needed time to adjust with several new faces seeing the field for the first time.

Special teams: B+

The Badgers have been solid here, with kicker Rafael Gaglianone going 3 of 4 on field goals, while Anthony Lotti has dropped four of his 10 punts inside the 20-yard line. With kickoffs split between Zach Hintze and P.J. Rosowski, Wisconsin is allowing opponents to start — on average — at their own 22-yard line.

The return units with Nick Nelson and Taylor, especially the latter on kickoff, have been one or two blocks away from taking one back for a score.

Overall: A-

After an uneven first two weeks, Wisconsin showed against BYU what it can be and what many believe it will be. That’s reflected in the overall grade, as we add in the promise shown and the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately factor.

Assessing the inside linebackers in the wake of Jack Cichy’s season-ending injury

MADISON — Jack Cichy is done for the year after tearing the ACL in his right knee Tuesday night at practice. And for the second time in 10 months, Wisconsin players and coaches are having to field questions about where they go from here now that they don’t have their fiery and talented inside linebacker. The choices, like they were last October when Cichy tore his left pectoral muscle and missed the second half of the season, are far better than most teams in the country could hope for in a similar situation.

Here’s our look at who has a chance to roll with the first-team defense next to to three-year starter T.J. Edwards and attempt to fill the massive void left by Cichy

Junior Ryan Connelly (2016: 59 tackles, 7.0 tackles for loss, 1 interception)

Connelly started the final seven games of last season after Cichy went down and filled in admirably. A former walk-on just like Cichy, Connelly, according to PFF College Football, had the No. 1 run stop percentage among all returning inside linebackers in the country. He would likely be a heavy favorite to be Cichy’s replacement once again, but he’s currently dealing with a leg injury of his own that has kept him out of practice for the last week. Coach Paul Chryst said the injury isn’t season-ending, but he also gave no indication when the Minnesota native would be able to return.

Sophomore Chris Orr (2016: Torn ACL on first snap. 2015: 46 tackles, 2.0 tackles for loss, .5 sack)

Orr started five games as a true freshman in 2015 before tearing his left ACL on the first snap of 2016. He’s now fully recovered and was running with the first-team defense on Thursday morning. Orr is not the biggest guy, but being relentless and instinctive are two of his better traits. Depending on how long Connelly remains out, Orr very well could grab ahold of the job and not let go.

Sophomore Griffin Grady (2016: 12 games, 4 tackles)

One of just six true freshmen to see the field for Wisconsin in 2016, Grady was a fixture on special teams and looked solid in mop-up time at inside linebacker. Unfortunately for him and the Badgers, the Dublin, Ohio., product has missed most of fall camp with an illness, preventing him from getting vital reps.

Junior Arrington Farrar (2016: 7 tackles, 1 forced fumble)

A safety his first two years on campus, Farrar moved to inside linebacker during spring practice for Wisconsin. The change allowed him to bulk up as opposed to constantly worrying about keeping his weight down to play in the secondary. One of Wisconsin’s key guys on special teams, Farrar admitted in the spring that redshirting in 2017 was a possibility with all the talent in front of him. That might not be the case now that Cichy’s season is over.

Redshirt freshman Mike Maskalunas (2016: redshirt)

From Long Grove, Ill., Maskalunas has the chance to be the next walk-on to hit it big at linebacker, joining the likes of Joe Schobert, Marcus Trotter, Ethan Armstrong, Cichy and Connelly. Asked what young guy stood out to him during the summer, tight end Troy Fumagalli singled out Maskalunas.

“He’s a hard worker, puts his head down, does the right things,” Fumagalli said on ‘The Camp.’ “He’s got a bunch of talent in front of him. You might not see him right away. People might speculate [about his future]. But if he keeps on the same path of working hard and follows those guys in front of him, I think he’s going to be a really good player one day.”

Wisconsin LB Chris Orr receives medical redshirt

MADISON — Wisconsin is focused on the 2017 season, but the school got some good news for its future on Wednesday.

Team officials said linebacker Chris Orr, who was injured at the beginning of last season, got his medical redshirt approved by the NCAA. Though it was thought to be a foregone conclusion he would receive the year, the paperwork makes it official, and it leaves him a redshirt sophomore with three years of eligibility remaining.

Orr started six games a freshman in 2015 and was in the lineup at the beginning of 2016 against LSU when his knee buckled on the first defensive snap of the year. It proved to be a torn ACL and kept him out the rest of the season and all of spring practice. Orr returned to the field this week when the team opened fall camp and hasn’t been restricted at all outside of having to wear a knee brace.

The Texas native is currently playing with the second-team defense at inside linebacker behind senior Jack Cichy and junior T.J. Edwards.

Wisconsin opens the season Sept. 1 against Utah State at Camp Randall Stadium.

Expectations change but the message doesn’t, UW-ND at Lambeau, and a longer fall camp

CHICAGO — Some thought Wisconsin wouldn’t win more than six games in 2016. No way were the Badgers going to make it through an early season gauntlet that had them facing LSU, Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa and Nebraska all within the first eight games of the season. But they did more than just make it through. They vastly exceeded expectations, going 4-2 against those teams on their way to earning a Big Ten West title and a victory in the Cotton Bowl against Western Michigan.

With 15 starters back on a team likely to start the year in the top-15 in the country, the script of questions at the start of Big Ten Media Days this week in Chicago had gone in the complete opposite direction from where they were a year ago. They were still still about the schedule, but instead of which games can the Badgers win, the questions were more focused on which games — or perhaps game — could trip them up?

There is no Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State or SEC team on this year’s slate, and that’s led oddsmakers to put their over/under win total at 9.5 games. If they don’t win north of that number with what many are calling an easy schedule, some fans may lose their minds over what would surely be a disappointment in their eyes.

“That’s just an outsiders view,” junior linebacker T.J. Edwards said Monday on ‘The Camp’. “At the end of the day, every team we play is going to be a good team. If we don’t come out ready to play, they’re going to let us know [how good they are] by beating us.”

Coach Paul Chryst seemed adamant about not allowing his guys to think like outsiders do, especially after they so often had to answer the negative questions last summer.

“It’s the same talking points. It’s just flipped,” he said. “If you were going to buy into that last year, and agree you can’t worry about what’s said, now you can’t all of a sudden start reading and saying, ‘This is right.’ They know better. We’ve got to make sure they do.”

While the Badgers are the favorites to win the Big Ten West — 31 of 38 voters in a preseason media poll picked them — they aren’t expected to end up as conference champions. Most think that’ll be Ohio State or someone else from the East Division, which is thought to be much stronger than the one Wisconsin resides in and has won twice in the last three years. But Chryst is consistent in his thoughts about that outside noise.

“[I] certainly have a ton of respect for Ohio State and Coach [Urban] Meyer and the players they have,” Chryst said. “[But] that’s what is great about this season. You have to go play it. And all the talk doesn’t really matter.”

Finally going to happen

It’s looking like Wisconsin will be playing in more professional football stadiums in the near future.

The Chicago Tribune reported Monday morning that the Badgers and Notre Dame were in talks to play a game at Soldier Field. Then, at the team’s annual shareholders meeting later in the morning, Green Bay Packers team president Mark Murphy told reporters they were getting close to a deal that would have the teams play at Lambeau Field, too.

“We’ve been working on that for a while, and I would hope very soon we’d be able to announce something soon,” Murphy said, according to ESPN’s Rob Demovsky. “Obvious [that] a Notre Dame-Wisconsin would be pretty special.”

Until it is announced, we won’t know the exactly details, but it seems likely that it will look similar to the series the Badgers had with LSU, playing at NRG Stadium in Houston in 2014 and then at Lambeau Field in 2016.

Wisconsin and Notre Dame have long been mentioned as potential opponents, especially with former coach and current athletic director Barry Alvarez’s time there as an assistant before he came to the Badgers in 1990. Former coach Bret Bielema had also been pushing for a game with the Irish.

“It means we’d play Notre Dame,” Chryst said with a laugh when asked what it would mean to play Notre Dame. “It was neat for our players to play in Lambeau. That was a good experience.

“I don’t know where all those [conversations] are at, but I think it could be pretty cool.”

The two teams haven’t played each other since 1964, and Notre Dame leads the series 8-6-2 all-time.

No two-a-days

Wisconsin will report to fall camp on Friday, with their first practice coming on Saturday, which more than a week earlier than they started last year. Why? Well, a new rule put in place by the NCAA has made it so you can no longer hold two-a-days — a name for when there are two practices in a single day.

The Badgers started camp in 2016 on Aug. 8, 26 days before they opened the season. With things getting underway on Saturday, they will have 34 days before they play Utah State on Sept. 1.

“You try to come up with a good plan and be ready to adjust it if you need to,” Chryst said of tackling a more drawn out preseason. “In my mind, how do you take what used to be fall camp, which was kind of fun — it was a grind — and now make it more fall practice? How do you space it out?”

The idea behind the change was made with player safety in mind, though no one has anyway of knowing whether limiting the number of practices per day will also limit injuries, especially because there will be an additional week of practice thrown in. It was also thought that most players would be in favor of it, and maybe they are. But one Wisconsin player says he’s not a fan.

“I think if you can have camp shorter, but get the same amount of practices in, I think it benefits the team,” Edwards said Monday on ‘The Camp.’ “Once you get camp over you can really stretch out the time and get guys rest.”

Still, Edwards admitted he wasn’t sure what would really change.

“It’s not a huge deal. It’s still going to be camp,” said Edwards, who has missed much of the last two summers due to injury. “It is what it is. You’ve got to attack it no matter what.”

Wisconsin picked to win the B1G West

Writers that cover the Big Ten either really like Wisconsin or really have a low opinion of the Big Ten West. Either way, the Badgers are the overwhelming favorite to win their division for a third time in four years.

Cleveland.com polled 38 media members that cover the conference, and 31 picked Wisconsin to repeat in the West, while five had Northwestern and two chose Nebraska. In the East, Ohio State was also the pick of most, garnering 34 first-place votes, with defending Big Ten champion Penn State getting seven votes and Michigan getting one.

As for the title game, just four of the 31 writers that picked Wisconsin to make it there actually had them winning in Indianapolis. Three had the Badgers beating Ohio State and another had them over Penn State.

Overall, Ohio State was picked to win the Big Ten championship by 29 of the writers.

The poll also asked which teams would make the College Football Playoff, and Wisconsin got four votes as the only Big Ten team to make it, while one voter had Wisconsin and Ohio State both making it.

The writers also voted on offensive and defensive players of the year, with a first-place vote counting for three points, a second-place vote counting for two points and a third-place vote counting for one point.

Penn State running back Saquon Barkley was the runaway winner on offense, garnering 103 points and 30 first-place votes. Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook received two points and tight end Troy Fumagalli got one.

On defense, Ohio State defensive end Tyquan Lewis managed just beat out Iowa linebacker Josey Jewell – 61 points to 59 points. Wisconsin linebackers Jack Cichy (10 points, 1 first-place vote) and T.J. Edwards (7 points, 1 first-place vote) finished seventh and 10th respectively in the voting.

Full results via Cleveland.com:

BIG TEN EAST

1. Ohio State, 260 points (34 first-place votes)
2. Penn State, 231.5 (7)
3. Michigan, 192 (1)
4. Michigan State, 128
5. Indiana, 114
6. Maryland, 100.5
7. Rutgers, 38
(first-place votes equal more than 38 because of some ties for first)

BIG TEN WEST

1. Wisconsin, 259 points (31 first-place votes)
2. Northwestern, 219 (5)
3. Nebraska, 176.5 (2)
4. Iowa, 164.5
5. Minnesota, 131
6. Purdue, 57
6. Illinois, 57

Here were the predictions for the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis on Dec. 2.

Ohio State over Wisconsin (22)
Ohio State over Northwestern (5)
Ohio State over Nebraska (2)
Wisconsin over Ohio State (3)
Wisconsin over Penn State (1)
Penn State over Wisconsin (4)
Michigan over Wisconsin (1)

BIG TEN PRESEASON OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR

1. Saquon Barkley, Penn State RB, 103 points (30 first-place votes)
2. J.T. Barrett, Ohio State QB, 59 points (5)
3. Trace McSorley, Penn State QB, 30 points (2)
4. Justin Jackson, Northwestern RB, 25 points (1)
5. Mike Weber, Ohio State RB, 2 points
5. L.J. Scott, Michigan State RB, 2 points
5. Alex Hornibrook, Wisconsin QB, 2 points
5. Rodney Smith, Minnesota RB, 2 points
9. Troy Fumagalli, Wisconsin TE, 1 point
9. Simmie Cobbs, Indiana WR, 1 point
9. Jamarco Jones, Ohio State LT, 1 point

PRESEASON BIG TEN DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR

1. Tyquan Lewis, Ohio State DE, 61 points (11 first-place votes)
2. Josey Jewell, Iowa LB, 59 points (12)
3. Rashan Gary, Michigan DE, 23 points (3)
4. Tegray Scales, Indiana LB, 19 points (4)
5. Jerome Baker, Ohio State LB, 12 points (2)
6. Sam Hubbard, Ohio State DE, 11 points (2)
7. Jack Cichy, Wisconsin LB, 10 points (1)
8. Maurice Hurst, Michigan DT, 9 points (1)
9. Marcus Allen, Penn State S, 9 points
10. T.J. Edwards, Wisconsin LB, 7 points (1)
11. Nick Bosa, Ohio State, DE 4 points (1)
12. Godwin Igwebuike, Northwestern S, 2 points
13. Steven Richardson, Minnesota DT, 1 point
13. Blessuan Austin, Rutgers CB, 1 point

Cichy, Edwards named to Butkus Award watch list

MADISON — Wisconsin saw two more of its players named to an award watch list on Monday.

Inside linebackers Jack Cichy and T.J. Edwards were each featured on the Butkus Award watch list — an honor that goes to the best linebacker in the country.

This is the fourth preseason watch list Cichy has been on, joining the Bednarik Award and Nagurski Trophy (best defender), and the Lott IMPACT Trophy (best defensive player in character and performance). Cichy was leading the Badgers in tackles last fall when he suffered a torn left pectoral in the seventh game and missed the rest of the year.

Edwards, meanwhile, ended up leading Wisconsin in tackles for a second-straight year. He earned honorable mention All-Big Ten for his efforts, and ESPN’s Mel Kiper lists the junior as the second-best linebacker eligible for the 2018 NFL Draft.

Cichy and Edwards are two of Wisconsin’s representatives for Big Ten Media Days in Chicago on July 24th and 25th.

Big Ten announces attendees for media days

MADISON — Wisconsin is bringing three familiar faces to Big Ten Media Days later this month.

On Tuesday, the conference announced the 42 attendees for the annual event, and the featured Badgers will be linebackers Jack Cichy and T.J. Edwards, along with tight end Troy Fumagalli.

Edwards has led the Badgers in tackles in his first two years as a starter, earning All-Big Ten honorable each season, while Cichy, before getting injured midway through 2016, was having one of the best years of any linebacker in the conference and was also All-Big Ten honorable mention.

Fumagalli, meanwhile, is considered among the best tight ends in the conference and the country, with many believing he could end up as a first-team All-American in his final year. He caught 47 passes for 580 yards and two touchdowns last season, and earned second-team All-Big ten honors from the coaches.

The two-day event will take place July 24 and 25 at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place and Convention Center in Chicago.

The three players, along with coach Paul Chryst, will go through interviews and photo shoots on Monday with six other teams. The other seven teams in the conference will do the same on Tuesday.

Preview: Illinois at No. 7 Wisconsin

THE BASICS

The teams: The Illinois Fighting Illini (3-6, 2-4) vs the No. 7 Wisconsin Badgers (7-2, 4-2)

The time: 2:30 p.m. CDT, Saturday

The place: Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, Wis.

The TV coverage: ESPN2 with Allen Bestwick and Mike Bellotti in the booth and Kris Budden on the sideline.

The last time: Backup quarterback Bart Houston came on for an injured Joel Stave and threw a pair of touchdowns to help the Badgers get past Illinois 24-13 in Champaign last year.

The series: Wisconsin 39-36-7

The line: Wisconsin -26.5

The Badgers injury report:

QUESTIONABLE

FB Austin Ramesh (shoulder)

RT Jake Maxwell (shoulder)

OUT

NT Olive Sagapolu (arm)

THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH

1) Eyes on the prize

Wisconsin came through the toughest portion of its schedule at 7-2 and don’t need any help to get back to the Big Ten title game for a fourth time in six years. But potential rematches with Michigan or Ohio State are down the line, and the Badgers insist the only team they’re thinking about right now is Illinois.

“I think you acknowledge it,” linebacker T.J. Edwards said of controlling their own fate. (But) we’re playing Illinois this week, and that’s our biggest focus.”

2) Keeping it going

Through five games this season, the Wisconsin rushing attack had topped the 200-yard mark just once. But ever since they put up 236 against Ohio State in game No. 6, the power running game the Badgers have been known for over the last 25 years has sprung to life. Wisconsin is averaging 204 yards on the ground in their last four games, and will look to keep it going against an Illinois team that is giving up 191 yards per game.

“I would not say that we’ve arrived yet,” coach Paul Chryst said of his running game. “It’s not where we want it to be, but I think it’s been a big part of the last few games and given us a chance to do some things offensively.”

3) More work?

Several players could see more time on Saturday as they either get more comfortable in the offense or are feeling better physically.

Let’s start with the former. Running back Bradrick Shaw carried the ball 11 times against Northwestern, more than triple his total in the other five Big Ten games combined, and could in line for more carries this week. A bit of a change up from starter Corey Clement, Shaw has produced almost every time he’s touched the ball, averaging 5.8 yards per carry.

Meanwhile, we could see cornerback Natrell Jamerson on defense this week after playing just special teams against Northwestern — his first game back after missing six weeks with a leg injury. The junior was penciled in as the Badgers nickel back heading into the season, but the injury obviously put that on hold. Without him, sophomore Lubern Figaro has had his moments, and played perhaps his best game of the season against the Wildcats. Still, Jamerson has the higher upside and was really starting to come on before getting hurt.

4) Defense continues to dominate

Wisconsin led the country in points allowed a year ago at 13.7 per game, and have barely missed a beat this season giving up 13.8 against a much stiffer schedule to rank third in the nation. The lack of a fall off is a surprise to some considering how highly thought of former defensive coordinator Dave Aranda was. But his replacement, Justin Wilcox, has come in and done an outstanding job with a cupboard full of talented and experienced players.

“He’s meant the world to us,” safety Leo Musso said of Wilcox. “He’s one of the best at what he does. That shows each and every week.”

This week, Wilcox and company face an Illini offense that has struggled to put points on the board all year, averaging just 23.6 points per game — good enough to rank 102nd in the country.

5) Chryst and Smith reconnect

He was in Madison for just one season, but it will be a homecoming of sorts for Illinois coach Lovie Smith this week. One of Smith’s early stops in a 30-year coaching career came as the linebackers coach for Don Morton in 1987, which also happened to coincide with Paul Chryst’s junior season with the Badgers.

Though they didn’t have a lot interaction, Chryst says he’s got great respect for Smith, and believes that despite the Illini’s record, the first-year coach is making his mark.

“My guess is, in knowing Lovie, there’s a lot happening,” Chryst said. “Every time we’ve played against (Illinois) they’ve got a lot of talented players. And I’m seeing on film now the coaching and still a lot of talent. I’m sure he’s having a huge impact.

NUMBERS TO CONSIDER

— Corey Clement is averaging 4.2 yards per carry and on pace to go over 1,000 yards this season. If he does, that would be the lowest per carry average of any of the 16 Wisconsin players to top the 1,000-yard mark.

— The Badgers are averaging just 2.67 penalties per game, which would break the school record of 2.78 set in 1950.

— Wisconsin’s cornerback tandem of senior Sojourn Shelton (13) and junior Derrick Tindal (12) are currently tied for the most combined pass breakups (25) in the FBS by teammates this season.

— Under Paul Chryst, the Badgers are 7-0 when holding teams to 10 points or less, including 4-0 this season.

PREDICTIONS

Zach Heilprin’s prediction: Wisconsin 34, Illinois 13 (5-4 on the season)
Ebo’s prediction: Wisconsin 45, Illinois 17 (6-3 on the season)
Jake Zimmermann’s prediction: Wisconsin 31, Illinois 3 (7-2 on the season)
Joe Miller’s prediction: Wisconsin 42, Illinois 7 (6-3 on the season)
Eric Rogers’ prediction: Wisconsin 31, Illinois 10 (7-2 on the season)

 

(9) Wisconsin 23, Georgia State 17: 2-minute drill

Game Balls

Offense: Alex Hornibrook

Coach Paul Chryst said he wanted to give his offense a spark when he replaced starter Bart Houston with Hornibrook early in the third quarter, and that’s exactly what he got. The redshirt freshman came in and led a stagnant unit right down the field for a touchdown. After a drop led to an interception, and eventually Georgia State taking a 17-13 lead in the fourth quarter, Hornibrook once again drove the offense down the field and finished it off with the second touchdown pass of his young career. His fourth drive of the day resulted in a field goal, and his final one a first down to salt the game away.

For the day, the Pennsylvania native went 8 of 12 for 122 yards and the one touchdown. And now in two games, he’s 13 of 17 passing for 183 yards and two scores, giving him an efficiency rating of 194.0. For comparison, Houston, against admittedly superior competition by facing LSU in the season opener, has a rating of 128.0.

“I don’t know. I didn’t really compare myself at all,” Hornibrook told reporters when asked what he did better than Houston. “(The media) could probably tell me that better than I could. I was just trying to go in and drive our team down the field.”

Chryst said after the game that Houston is their starting quarterback, but he made no commitment to that being the case when Wisconsin goes to Michigan State next Saturday.

For Hornibrook, it’ll just be business as usual whether he’s with the first-team offense or not.

“It’s just the same as this week, same as the week before,” Hornibrook said about his expectations for the Big Ten opener. “If they tell me to go in, I’m ready to go. And if not, then I’m ready to sit on the sidelines and wait for that chance to go in.”

Defense: T.J. Edwards, Jack Cichy

The defense didn’t play to the level they had in recent weeks, but they did manage to stop Georgia State’s running game from doing anything, limiting the Panthers to just 33 yards and a 1.4-yard per carry average. That had a lot to do with their two starting inside linebackers, who combined for 19 tackles, including 11 by Edwards, who was making his first start of the season.

Special Teams: P.J. Rosowski

Could have gone with kicker Rafael Gaglianone here, but his missed 30-yard field goal at the end of the half loomed large in a tight game, so we’ll go with the kickoff specialist.

Rosowski had six kicks on Saturday and put five of them in the end zone, limiting Georgia State to just one return that ended up going for only 7 yards. For the season, Rosowski now has 13 touchbacks on 19 kickoffs.

Tweet of the Game

Video of the Game

Quote of the Day

“Just got done with the game. Like I said, Bart’s our starter right now. I’m proud of what Alex did and how he came in. I’m not planning anything right now other than appreciating this win.”

Chryst when asked whether Hornibrook or Houston would start against Michigan State

In Case You Missed It

— Wisconsin’s captains for the day were seniors Vince Biegel, Leon Jacobs and Dare Ogunbowale, with former Badgers Lamark Shackerford and Mike Thompson serving as honorary captains.

— Running back Corey Clement did not play in the game due to an ankle injury. He’s now missed 10 of Wisconsin’s last 16 games.

— Tight end Troy Fumagalli and backup running back Taiwan Deal each left the game in the first quarter with leg injuries and did not return.

— Kicker Rafael Gaglianone was limping after making his third and final field goal of the day. He was also seen limping when leaving the interview room.

Inside the Numbers

3-0 — That’s Wisconsin’s record so far this season, their first perfect mark through three games since 2011

9 — That’s the number of drives that Alex Hornibrook has led this year. Five resulted in touchdowns, one in a field goal, one in a turnover and two kneel downs.

8 — That’s the number of incompletions Bart Houston had on Saturday. A subjective look at the eight showed four were poor passes, three were dropped and one was broken up.

1 — That’s the number of touchdowns tight end Kyle Penniston has after catching his first career score in the fourth quarter.

0 — That’s the number of penalties Wisconsin had on Saturday — the first time since Nov. 2007 against Michigan that they didn’t have a penalty in a game.

What’s Next?

Wisconsin opens the Big Ten schedule with a trip to East Lansing to face Michigan State next Saturday.