IT’S TROPHY WEEK, PART 3. This time, Bucky comes to town to take on your Iowa Hawkeyes following two consecutive losses to Top-5 teams. Needless to say, they’re going to desperately want to get back on the horse to preserve any chances they still have to earn a trip to Indianapolis at season’s end. How good is Wisconsin really, though? Well, I solicited the help of author Jake Kocorowski from Bucky’s 5th Quarter, who also wrote the book on Wisconsin’s walk-on tradition, to find out. Without further ado, here are his answers.
Max: Oh man, Wisconsin looks so good this year! After losing two straight winnable games to the #3 and #2 teams in the country, they look like they truly belong. What's the biggest difference this season from last, and after dropping two conference games already, do they still have a chance at the West?
JK: I'm not sure if there's a huge difference between this season from last, though the program continues to grow under the consistent approach under head coach Paul Chryst. The offense is continuing to make strides in Chryst's pro-style system, though injuries on the offensive line and at running back have hampered expectations there. The defense hasn't skipped a beat, despite losing three starters in the secondary last season and All-American linebacker Joe Schobert, then also losing defensive coordinator Dave Aranda to LSU and defensive backs coach Daronte Jones to the NFL. Justin Wilcox has come in and done a spectacular job of keeping the scheme very similar to last year and game planning to his players' strengths. Bringing back All-American walk-on and 10-year vet Jim Leonhard as secondary coach may have been the wild card here -- as that position group is playing with a lot of confidence, and the results have showed.
There are only 13 seniors on this team this season, but there's a maturity shown each week that continues to stand out. After their win against LSU, I asked wide receiver Robert Wheelwright how long he'll celebrate. He told me after that night, it'd be on to Akron on Sunday. They have that one game at a time approach, but they have to win out to have a shot to get to Indianapolis.
Which leads me to your next question -- they definitely do still have a chance in the West, though they need help with Nebraska and Iowa losing. This team went toe-to-toe with the No. 2 and No. 3 teams in the nation, and they deserve that top 10 ranking despite the offense not being completely coalesced together. They had the Buckeyes and Wolverines up against the ropes -- now they just have to find that knockout punch. The big question is -- will both Iowa (one game in front in the loss column) and Nebraska (two games ahead of UW in loss column but still plays the Badgers in Madison and Buckeyes in Columbus) suffer the necessary losses to propel UW to the Big Ten title game.
Max: The numbers on the offensive side of the ball don't look all too great on paper. What is the identity of this Badgers offense, and how will they attack an inconsistent Iowa defense?
JK: It all starts with Wisconsin's rushing attack, which has been inconsistent and stagnant at times due to injuries with the offensive line and at running back. Chryst has repeatedly said he likes his line's approach week in and week out, but notes they can still do so much more. Part of that is building back up that smash-mouth, physical Wisconsin lines seen under Chryst's time as OC from 2005-11 -- as some differences in philosophy during Gary Andersen's regime may have left something to be desired in the weight room. Injuries at that position group have made younger players jump in. In the past year alone, Wisconsin's lost the likes of All-American candidate Dan Voltz, along with Hayden Biegel, Walker Williams, and George Panos. They're currently shifting lines during the game, as seen last week, when Michael Deiter played both center and left guard, while Brett Connors started at center and Micah Kapoi would be rotate in at left guard on certain series.
Senior running back Corey Clement himself dealt with ankle issues earlier this season as well. Against Ohio State, he gained 164 yards on 25 carries -- a nice return to form both he and the offensive line hope to build upon.
Wisconsin was able to run the ball efficiently for about three quarters last week, but still suffered during a third quarter where they gained a total of 11 yards, which allowed Ohio State to get back into the game. Expect the Badgers to get the ball rolling once again, or at least attempt to, against Iowa. When they've run the ball decently (against LSU, Akron and Ohio State), the offense looks more complete and has allowed the passing game to open up further.
Max: He's just a freshman, but Alex Hornibrook's numbers look really similar to former starting quarterback Joel Stave's numbers from 2015. Is he the real deal, and who are the guys that he likes throwing the ball to?
JK: He's the real deal for now. The southpaw and senior Bart Houston didn't really create separation for themselves during fall camp. Both had the tendency to make some mistakes, but would rebound immediately thereafter. He's a redshirt freshman, despite all the poise and maturity shown so far. He has the ability to throw a deep ball with accuracy and enough air for the receiver to get under it to make a play. He replaced Houston because of his ability to convert on third downs as well, but he doesn't have the arm that the California native has. Chryst and the coaching staff didn't pull him after struggling against Michigan, so that's a sign they trust him to continue progressing and be the quarterback for years to come.
There are three major targets for the Badgers' offense in the passing game -- all have over 20 catches. Tight end Troy Fumagalli leads the team with 23 receptions and has the chance to be the next great player at that position group in Chryst's offense. Jazz Peavy and Robert Wheelwright have become a reliable duo on the field, catching 21 and 20 balls, respectively. It's the first true even distribution in production between starting receivers in quite some time (think 2011 offense with Nick Toon and Jared Abbrederis). Wheelwright was listed as questionable this week with a right leg injury, however. His status is up in the air, and if he's not ready to go, you'll be looking at either true freshman Quintez Cephus (seen a lot on Saturday out of 22 personnel) or possibly junior George Rushing.
Max: What should Iowa fans expect from the Badgers' ground game? Is a finally healthy Corey Clement living up to the lofty expectations you guys had for him after Melvin Gordon's departure, or does the supporting cast carry a heavy load for the Badgers too?
JK: Noted earlier -- it's hard to actually know what to expect from the rushing attack. If they can get their offensive linemen healthy (Jon Dietzen may be their best option at left guard, and he's been questionable for weeks with a right leg injury), there are high expectations for a return to form from year's past. This week, I think it'll be a slugfest between two physical teams. Speaking with a couple of players yesterday, that's what they instantly went to when describing Iowa's front seven.
Clement, with his injury, maybe hasn't lived up to those lofty expectations, but he's putting together a solid season -- and his performance on Saturday night could be a springboard for a productive end to the 2016 season and Wisconsin career. Behind him, redshirt senior Dare Ogunbowale is a team captain, former walk-on and versatile back that is known for making plays receiving out of the backfield. Taiwan Deal's been banged up recently and has been questionable on the injury report. Redshirt freshman Bradrick Shaw had a nice carry against Ohio State on Saturday night, but I feel he's one year away from really stepping up.
Max: On the other side of the ball, the Wisconsin defense is what looks downright frightening, ranked 12th in the nation in total defense. Who are the stars of this defense and what are the Hawkeyes going to have to do in order to move the ball against them?
JK: It all starts with the linebackers as the "stars." Redshirt juniors T.J. Watt (outside -- youngest brother of J.J. and Derek) and Jack Cichy (inside -- also a former walk-on) have stepped up to have huge seasons so far. Watt leads the team in sacks (5.5) and tackles for loss (eight). Cichy leads the team in tackles (50) and is second in tackles for loss (seven). There's a chance outside linebacker Vince Biegel returns this week after foot surgery almost three weeks ago, which will only help bolster this defense further (though replacements Garret Dooley and Zack Baun have played more than admirably this year).
The true heroes may be that defensive line, as ends Conor Sheehy, Alec James and Chikwe Obasih -- along with 340-pound nose guard Olive Sagapolu -- have eaten up the gaps to allow the linebackers to make plays all year. James has been particularly impressive this season, as the redshirt junior is second on the team in sacks (three) and has played exceptionally well. Sagapolu is listed as questionable this week with a right arm injury, and that's something to watch, as true freshman Garrett Rand has played some last year, but is maybe 280-290. He has the strength to hold up, but Sagapolu's been a revelation at that nose tackle spot.
The secondary was supposed to be the question mark of this squad, but they've stepped up under the direction of Leonhard. I would still say Iowa will have to establish some form of running game against the Badgers to have a chance -- which is easier said than done but definitely feasible if Sagapolu can't go on Saturday. There will have to be a few plays through the air that the Hawkeyes will have to capitalize on.
Max: After Iowa beat Bucky in an ugly 10-6 slugfest last season, what's the perception of this rivalry? I know people in Iowa City are super excited for this one, but after winning four of five against Iowa, do the people in Madison still feel enthusiastic about this game?
There's an enthusiasm for this game, especially from the players. There's an empty trophy case where that Heartland Trophy should be, and they're not pleased. The fans and players both want to win their rivalry games.
I've always thought this way, but I feel Iowa and Wisconsin are mirror images of each other with that physical style of football. Both sides want to dominate the line of scrimmage. Most importantly, both fan base hate Minnesota. Always a fun recipe.
Max: Prediction time. Make your pick.
I think Wisconsin goes into Kinnick Stadium and wins, not suffering a hangover from back-to-back losses to top-five teams. The only question is by how much. If Sagapolu is out, I'm guessing a 24-10 or 24-17 game just because of that rivalry feel -- that, and the road team's won the past five contests. Otherwise, I just get this feeling that Wisconsin's working with a really special team -- and it's nothing against Iowa and its current crop of talented players -- but the defense has been flat out amazing this season. I expect them to carry the team to a W to get back on track and stay afloat in the Big Ten West race.
Thanks to Jake for his time and insight! Of course, I hope the Hawkeyes throw nine hundred points on your team. For more on Wisconsin football, check out Bucky’s 5th Quarter and follow them on Twitter at @B5Q, as well as Jake at @JakeKocoB5Q . And as always, go Hawks.