First Look ’14: Wisconsin

It will be nearly impossible to find a college football “expert” who doesn’t have Wisconsin listed as at least a co-favorite to win the Big Ten West division in 2014.  Head coach Gary Andersen had the unenviable task of following Bret Bielema  where the program was enjoying its peak of this generation having gone to three straight Rose Bowls and winning at least a share of three straight Big Ten titles right before he arrived in Madison.  The Badgers 9-4 2013 season and a season-ending bowl loss to South Carolina weren’t up to recent vintage Badgers teams. That didn’t preclude Wisconsin from throttling Northwestern in one of the more thorough beatdowns we’ve had since, oh, the last time NU ventured to Madison for the nightmare 2010 game (Wisconsin hung 70 on us).

The Badgers are getting a large degree of program reputation bump for this season because they return the fewest starters in the entire conference and if you count eight (as opposed to Phil Steele’s nine) they are second only to Utah State (note obvious Gary Andersen coincidence here)  in the entire country in that category (Northwestern is tied for 6th most returning starters in DI with 18).   Today we gladly welcome back Mike Fiammetta, the managing editor of esteemed Badger blog, Bucky’s 5th Quarter to try and fill us in on the cast of characters that will comprise a very well known program, but a virtually unknown team – with one major exception.  The Badgers deserve every bit of program props despite so many glaring question marks – that’s what happens when you turn out a perennial power that is seemingly always in the hunt for the B1G title.

If you’re looking for a silver lining in this match-up, the home team has won the last seven games in the series. Considering we play the Badgers in our B1G home opener a week after going to our death valley (Penn State), there is a very good chance we’ll be 0-1 entering this contest and having to pull off what will be a presumed upset to avoid a really rough start to conference play.

One trend I feel pretty confident predicting as a precursor to success in this one (considering it is June) is the fact NU will have to try and stop the Badgers’ ground game, which will be one of the best in the nation in 2014 and features a legit preseason Heisman candidate in Melvin Gordon. Some question marks on our interior line make this a no-brainer strength vs weakness potential.

Wisconsin Quick Hits
2014 Game Day: Northwestern vs Wisconsin  (Ryan Field) – Oct. 4, 2014 – Time/TV TBD
Last Meeting: 2013 – Wisconsin 35 NU 6
Wisconsin 2013: 9-4 (6-2)
Fitz record vs Wisconsin: 1-3
NU record vs Wisconsin since 1995: Wisconsin 7-6
All-time series record: Wisconsin 57-33-5
LTP All-time Favorite Wisconsin player: Ron Dayne (Chris Borland #2)
Favorite Wisconsin game: 1996 – the Dayne fumble game. Close second is 2000 OT thriller. Third is 2005 shootout.

LTP: Wow. Talk about off-season exhaustion. Just prepping for this interview made my head hurt. The Badgers lost more starters than any other B1G program and have more position battles than NU had wins last year. The defensive front seven is almost completely gone as well as some guys on both sides of the ball that will be legends in coming years – RB James White, WR Jared Abbrederis and my personal nightmare LB Chris Borland. Help us make heads and tails of this team.

MF: The Badgers undeniably face a huge number of questions entering fall camp, but fans generally seem optimistic. That seems largely tied to the fact that the running game will be good as ever even with the departure of White, and that placement in the Big Ten’s new West Division — on paper, it’s so much weaker than the East — will help cushion any struggles in Gary Andersen’s second-year.

On offense, Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement might be the country’s best running back duo. That’s huge, because while the offensive line should be solid once again, there are giant gaps at quarterback and wide receiver. At the former, the top signal caller battle will come down to incumbent starter Joel Stave and junior Tanner McEvoy. At receiver, the Badgers lose Abbrederis and now turn to some combination of Jordan Fredrick, Kenzel Doe, Rob Wheelwright and Reggie Love. All are untested, though have five incoming freshmen who are enticing, including four-star prospect Dareian Watkins (ed note: uhh…yeah, we’re familiar with Dareian – he was an NU decommit).

On defense, the front seven will be very new, and it might take a while for a group of younger players to gel in the 3-4 defense Dave Aranda installed last year. Yet, there’s still skill in the front seven with ends Konrad Zagzebski and Chikwe Obasih, plus very likely the next great Wisconsin nose guard in Warren Herring. At linebacker, you mentioned Borland — losing one of the top UW fan favorites in recent memory certainly stings. Inside linebackers Derek Landisch and Marcus Trotter have some experience and should be adequate replacements, though the outside ‘backers remain unproven. The secondary, which was insanely young and untested last year, fared alright and should be even better this year.

LTP: Wisconsin will be a consensus Top 20 team as the preseason rags start to roll-out and a favorite, along with Iowa to contend for the B1G West. I’m jealous b/c you have developed a program that despite constant assistant coaching changes and player turnover just simply churns out stellar line play in the trenches. In year two of the Gary Andersen era, what significant (if any) style of play changes and approach to personnel should we expect?

MF: The big changes, if there are any, will probably come on offense. It’s widely known that Andersen and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig favor a system built around a mobile quarterback, and that’s exactly what McEvoy is and Stave is not. That said, McEvoy was given a chance to win the starting job after transferring to UW last season, and he couldn’t even win the No. 2 job. The staff seems to trust Stave, who’s been solid but mistake-prone over the last two-years. Expect the quarterback battle to persist throughout much of fall camp, and don’t be surprised if both Stave and McEvoy get reps throughout the early portion of the season.

Joel Stave's mobility brings in to question whether he'll be a fit in year two of the Andersen regime.
Joel Stave’s mobility brings in to question whether he’ll be a fit in year two of the Andersen regime.

LTP: Let’s talk rivalry. NU has a burgeoning one with Nebraska (aka UNL) based on three ridiculous games to start the series. Up until recently, the NU-Wisconsin match-up had been pretty even over a 20-year stretch, but you have simply owned us the last two times we faced you in Madtown. What’s your take on the division shuffle (which many say benefit Wisky more than any other school) and the potential for a UW-NU mini-rivalry in the coming years?

MF: As I said above, the division split certainly benefits Wisconsin to a great degree. I also wouldn’t rule out any mini-rivalries in the West over the next few years considering the uneven yet undeniable promise its teams hold. Aside from UW, Iowa could be a strong dark horse candidate; Northwestern has the talent, Pat Fitzgerald and I don’t think the union stuff will be a distraction; and Nebraska cannot be counted out. Wisconsin will always be main rivals with Minnesota, but I’d expect several close divisional games over the next several years.

LTP: Top three unproven players that you’re betting will be a major factor when we face you in October.

MF: I’ll go with wide receiver Kenzel Doe, tight end Sam Arneson and cornerback Sojourn Shelton. Doe was an easy pick considering he’s probably Wisconsin’s most explosive receiver, yet he’s never really been a significant contributor aside from a few big (albeit timely) special teams plays. Arneson gets a nod here because he’s expected to be UW’s next great tight end, and while those expectations are certainly warranted, the offense will be in trouble if something goes awry and the senior isn’t a significant factor in the passing game. Shelton might not be unproven, but he’s only a sophomore and a major leap forward would do wonders for Wisconsin’s defense.

LTP: The offense. Obviously you’ve got a Heisman candidate returning in the “we simply reload” RB rotation with Melvin Gordon and likely three other bowling ball backs to spell him. You’ve got some less experienced players at WR and have mastered the TE position most of this century. Do you anticipate more downfield passing and an increase in play mix with QB Joel Stave vs last year when you were in a word – ridiculous – at RB? Talk to us about your expectations on “O”.

MF: I’d be happy to revisit this question come the fall, when we know (or at least have a better idea of) who will start at quarterback. If it’s Stave, the offense will likely look very similar to the 2013 version. If it’s McEvoy, all bets are off and things could get wild. Regardless, expect Gordon and Clement to be the focal point.

LTP: Speaking of expectations, Bret Bielema left a pretty unfair W-L bar for Andersen. How did the 9-3 (6-2) season and Cap One Bowl loss go over with the 5th Quarter crowd? Disappointing? Acceptable? With the annual Rose Bowl runs of late, just how high is the bar in Madtown?

MF: I think last season was acceptable with a hint of disappointment. Wisconsin’s been incredibly unlucky (perhaps “inept” is the more objective term) in close games the last year or two, and that stretch continued into last year. That said, the bowl game was hardly UW’s best effort, and that magnified the sense of disappointment that came with seeing the Rose Bowl streak snapped.

This year, the low bar is winning the West Division and returning to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game. The high bar is returning to a BCS bowl and/or drawing a College Football Playoff berth. The highest, of course, is actually picking up a win on that big stage. Painful as it is for Badgers fans to hear the ribbing that comes from continued failure in the biggest games, it’s all warranted. With the team still on the precipice of breaking through, this could be the year where it happens.

LTP: Schedule time. Well, kudos for opening with LSU, but then..damn. It’s pillow fight time for a couple of months. You’ve got to be salivating at your schedule (including NU until we prove ourselves) in 2014. How is this playing in to fan expectations. What’s the bar of acceptability for Andersen in 2014?

MF: Fans recognize the weak schedule, but I think most are somewhat disappointed by it. As I said above, the CFP is the largest goal. With selection in the hands of the committee, a strong schedule would obviously be more preferable. UW fans are definitely pumped for neutral-site games vs. LSU and Alabama, but the fact that some budding Big Ten rivalries (namely Michigan State and Ohio State) are being put on the back burner definitely stings.

LTP: Let’s assume NU returns to its more traditional spread attack in 2014. How do you see this match-up playing out?

MF: Wisconsin fans still largely view Northwestern as a pesky conference opponent, and the trip to Evanston will elevate that concern. That said, I don’t see Wisconsin losing this one. I can see a 10-point victory for UW, and possibly a greater margin of victory if the QB situation settles nicely.

LTP: Mike, thanks for educating us on Wisconsin for 2014 and we look forward to digging in closer to the season!

Other First Look ’14 Profiles:

  • cebpd

    Unless NU gets a DT that wont get bullied around, NU’s D is going to struggle against Wisconsin.

    Good news is, UW lost Borland, Beau Allen, a couple other guys on D. I expect a shootout.

    • Purple Haze

      I agree with cebpd, you don’t beat UW unless you have talented interior defensive lineman who are NFL level or slightly below that level. See Sutton of ASU (drafted by Bears), Bennett of OSU (soon to be first round pick) and South Carolina’s defensive linemen – Clowney and company. That has been UW’s method of success for the past 20 plus year. Get huge offensive linemen to wear the defensive line down and in the fourth quarter the defenses will wilt.

      • David

        I guess ASU beat UW….technically.

  • PBRCat

    So much fun to see the Ron Dayne fumble again. “Who are these guys?”
    Northwestern has not had a speedy deep ball threat equal to Dwayne Bates in so many years. Steve Schnur was a much undervalued quarterback. Not flashy, but he always seemed to get it done in a workmanlike manner.

  • wildcat6

    We’ll have to come out with our “A” game and build a lead like we did in 2009 – a 33-31 NU victory. That will take some sting out of the Badger running game. And please, no special teams breakdowns this time.

    • cats77

      yeah. going up by double digits in the 4th quarter pretty much guarantees an NU victory #saidnooneever

      • LTP

        Boy, if nothing else, it sure would be great if 2014 can end that NU trend.

  • This will be a big game for Northwestern. Early in the B1G season, against a young and somewhat inexperienced team. Big chance for the Cats to make a statement early and announce they are contenders for the division title.
    Of course, Wisconsin is also a pretty bad matchup for Northwestern’s defense with that power running game. Offense will need to pick up first downs to keep the D off the field more this year.

  • PurpleHayes

    The two best things about this year’s matchup–getting Wisconsin at home, and getting them early. A team that graduated 14 starters is one you want to play as soon as possible. J Wood astutely points out we’ll need to move the chains to keep the defense off the field, which I think we can do. I’m cautiously optimistic about this one. (No blowout at least–please!)

    • Lake The Posts

      Agreed. However, you just know the WI line will be superior on both sides of ball. Tough to beat teams that beat us on line.