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Early Preview: BYU vs. Wisconsin

26 August 2013 Brett Richins
BYU faces Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium on Nov. 9, 2013.

BYU faces the Wisconsin Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium on Nov. 9, 2013. 

BYU faces a Wisconsin program this season that is looking for its fourth consecutive Big Ten championship and trip to the Rose Bowl.

Last season, the Badgers actually finished the regular season at 7-5 and in third place in the Big Ten Leaders Division behind Ohio State and Penn State.

However, NCAA sanctions kept both the Buckeyes and Nittany Lions out of post-season consideration.

Wisconsin took advantage of the situation by spanking Nebraska 70-31 in the Big Ten Championship before dropping a 20-14 decision to No. 6 Stanford in the Rose Bowl. The loss to the Cardinals dropped UW’s record to 8-6 for the year.

BYU is 1-0 against Wisconsin all-time, defeating the Badgers 28-3 in 1980 when Jim McMahon threw for 337 yards and three touchdowns at Camp Randall Stadium.

When the Cougars arrive in Madison this time around, they’ll see a familiar face staring at them from the opposing sideline. Former Utah State head coach Gary Andersen took over the Wisconsin program after Bret Bielema left to take the head coaching job at Arkansas.

Andersen resurrected the Aggie program after making a name for himself as the defensive coordinator at Utah. His challenge at Wisconsin is quite a bit different that the one he faced in Logan. Wisconsin has been a regular contender in the Big Ten ever since Barry Alvarez arrived as head coach back in the early 1990’s.

Andersen is tasked with trying to keep the Badgers producing at a high level and will have the unenviable job of trying to compete year-in and year-out with Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes. Most prognosticators are picking Andersen’s team to finished second in the Leaders Division this season behind Ohio State.

A major task for BYU going into this game will be dealing with the atmosphere at Camp Randall Stadium, a place that is legendary for its intimidating environment. With a seating capacity over 80,000, Camp Randall becomes the fifth largest “city” in the state on game days, and the Badgers have enjoyed a 54-6 home record there over the past nine seasons.

Wisconsin enters 2013 with question marks that will sound somewhat familiar to BYU fans. The Badgers are thin at cornerback and along the offensive line, and have some things to to prove at quarterback and in the kicking game.

Battle for the Starting QB Job

Sophomore Joel Stave (6-5, 225 So.) reportedly has a slight edge over Curt Phillips (6-3, 217 Sr.) at quarterback as the Badgers prepare for their first game against FCS opponent UMass this Saturday; however, both players are listed as co-starters on the current depth chart.

Stave started six games as a redshirt freshman in 2012 before going down with a broken collarbone in late October. He completed 59 percent of his passes for 1104 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions.

Phillips is a sixth-year senior who has battled through a number of knee injuries during his career. He started the final five games after Stave went down last year, but averaged just 16 pass attempts per game, completing 46 0f 81 throws for just 540 yards, five touchdowns and two picks. He was known for his running ability prior to his knee issues.

JUCO transfer and former South Carolina quarterback Tanner McEvoy (6-6, 223 So) joined the team for fall camp but isn’t quite ready for prime time just yet. However, offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig has indicated that the towering McEvoy could see some action at wide receiver during the first few games in order to give him an opportunity to make an early-season contribution on offense.

Except for Russell Wilson, the current Seattle Seahawk QB, Wisconsin quarterbacks have traditionally been asked to be game managers in a run-heavy offensive attack. With no clear standout at the position this season, that’s likely to be the approach once again in year one of the Andersen era.

O-Line is Big, but Thin

The key to the Wisconsin attack over the years has been the big uglies on the offensive line. The Badgers have some huge people up front once again, including mammoth offensive tackle Rob Havenstein (6-8, 327 Jr.). The primary guys expected to be in the rotation this year look like your typical Wisconsin offensive linemen, averaging 6-5 and 320 pounds.

However, the O-line may be a little thinner in numbers than in years past, only going about seven or eight men deep. Throw in the fact that injuries in fall camp have limited a couple of the key road graders on the interior of the line and it’s easy to see why there are some concerns about this group.

Left tackle Ryan Groy (6-5, 320 Sr.), a preseason Lombardi Award and Outland Trophy candidate, has moved inside to right guard for the time being while his backup Tyler Marz (6-5, 321 So.) is currently manning the left tackle spot.

Andersen may plan to feature a smash-mouth style of play this season, but that will be predicated on the offensive line staying healthy.

White to Fill the Shoes of Ball

At running back, Wisconsin has to replace last year’s Doak Walker Award winner Montee Ball, who set the all-time NCAA career touchdown record and was drafted by the Denver Broncos last April. The good news for the program is that James White (5-10, 195 Sr.) returns after rushing for 2,571 yards and 32 touchdowns during his career. In fact, his career rushing yardage total is second-best among returning players in the NCAA this season.

White is listed on the preseason watch lists for the Doak Walker and Maxwell Awards. He was also tabbed as the consensus Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2010 after rushing for 1,052 yards and 14 touchdowns. He’s also averaged 6.1 yards per carry in his first three seasons as a Badger.

The senior is expected to be teamed with Melvin Gordon (6-1, 207 So.) this season to create a very good one-two punch in the backfield. Gordon is also a Doak Walker Award candidate and rushed for 216 yards against the Cornhuskers in last year’s Big Ten title game.

Throw in young and promising players like Vonte Jackson (6-1, 199 Fr.) and Corey Clement (5-11, 210 Fr.), and the Badgers look like they are set at running back despite the departure of Ball to the NFL.

Abbrederis a Major Weapon

Wide receiver Jared Abbrederis (6-2, 190 Sr.) is a star on the offense and was named a first-team All-Big Ten player in 2012. The former walk-on quarterback has racked up over 2,000 career receiving yards and 16 touchdowns.

His career average of 16.6 yards per catch is tops in the nation among returning receivers. He also holds the school record, averaging 25.8 yards per kickoff return and is third all-time at Wisconsin in punt returns averaging 11.2 yards per return.

While Abbrederis provides the deep threat, local product Jordan Fredrick (6-4, 210 So.) is expected to play a key role as a big-bodied possession receiver who will help keep the chains moving. Kenzell Doe (5-8, 170 Jr.) adds some dash and flash to the receiving corps and is likely to return some kicks this year alongside Abbrederis.

The Badgers also have one of the top tight ends in the Big Ten in Jacob Pedersen (6-5, 240 Jr.). The senior had 27 receptions for 355 yards and four touchdowns in 2012, and has been working to improve his blocking–an important skill for any tight end at Wisconsin. Pedersen starts the season on the Mackey Award watch list for the second straight year.

Borland Leads the Badger Defense

The heart and soul of the Wisconsin defense is inside linebacker Chris Borland (5-11, 246 Sr.), who has been among the top middle linebackers in the country throughout his stellar career. His name appears on no fewer that five different preseason awards lists for 2013.

Borland has amassed 308 career tackles, 41.5 tackles for loss and 13 sacks. Some of his assignments may change just a bit in Andersen’s 3-4 defense, but his productivity and leadership will not change.

He will be teamed with Ethan Armstrong (6-2, 225 Sr.), who returns to man his outside linebacker spot where he started all 14 games last season. He has missed a good amount of fall camp with a knee injury but is expected to be ready for the opener this Saturday.

Andersen is conducting an interesting experiment by moving starting defensive end Brendan Kelly (6-6, 250 Sr.) to the other outside linebacker position opposite Armstrong.

Kelly is a specimen who should be able to bring the heat on opposing quarterbacks this year from his new position, but it remains to be seen how well he can cover in space and defend against the pass. Kelly does give Wisconsin the option to seamlessly move into a four-man front without making any substitutions.

Another interesting player for BYU fans to watch will be outside linebacker Vince Biegel (6-4, 233 So.), the son of former Cougar Rocky Biegel. Vince was heavily recruited by BYU, but the Cougars lost out to the Badgers for his services. He missed most of his freshman season due to injury, but is back and has cracked the two-deep, playing behind Kelly.

A Senior-Laden Defensive Front

The defensive line should be one of the strengths of the team with three returning starters, all of whom are seniors.

Defensive end Ethan Hemer (6-6, 285 Sr.) has started 20 straight games for Wisconsin, while his counterpart at DE, Pat Muldoon, started six games last season. Muldoon is being pushed for the starting job, however, by another senior in Tyler Dippel (6-4, 270 Sr.), who started three games in 2012.

A key to the success of the defensive line is how well Beau Allen (6-3, 325 Sr.) transitions from defensive tackle to a two-gap nose guard. He has been recognized as a preseason All-Big Ten performer by multiple media outlets, and new defensive coordinator Dave Aranda has expressed his confidence in Allen, who has the reputation of being a very strong and aggressive player.

Pass Defense a Concern

The Badgers were 18th in the country in pass defense last season, but must replace a good deal of talent in the secondary. Last season’s starting cornerbacks Devin Smith and Marcus Cromartie are both trying to make rosters in the NFL, and strong safety Dezmen Southward (6-2, 210 Sr.) is the lone returning starter in the defensive backfield. Andersen is expected to line up Southward in multiple spots, including the nickle back position on passing downs.

Meanwhile, Peniel Jean (5-11, 187 Jr.) and Darius Hillary (5-11, 187 So.) will try to fill the shoes of Smith and Cromartie. Neither player has started a game in their time in Madison and they have had their challenges coming up to speed in the new defense.

Jean performed well at the nickle as a freshman, but broke his foot leading up to last season and saw limited action in the last few games of the year. Meanwhile, Hillary saw action as a freshman reserve in 2012, recording 16 tackles and breaking up two passes.

Andersen and Aranda want to be able to have their corners play man-to-man, thereby providing more opportunity for the defense to bring pressure against opposing quarterbacks. How well their young corners play will go a long way towards determining how successful the defense will be in defending the pass.

Improvement Needed in the Kicking Game

Kyle French and Jack Russell combined to make just 10 of 18 field goals in 2012, and have been locked in a battle leading up to the start of the 2013 season. Russell has been dealing with knee issues in fall camp, so French may get the chance to create some distance between himself and his competition when the season gets underway.

Punting last year was handled by freshman Drew Meyer who averaged a decent, but not great, 41.5 yards per attempt. He did place 36 of his 80 punts inside the 20 yard line, however.

The Bottom Line

BYU won’t take a back seat to Wisconsin when it comes to athleticism in this game. In fact, the Cougars may have better overall team speed than the Badgers, especially on defense. They key is how well the BYU defensive front holds up against the relentless power running game over the span of four quarters. Odds are that BYU will wear down if it is not able to establish a solid lead early in the game and force Wisconsin out of what it likes to do offensively.

The Wisconsin will look to create long, ball-controlled drives against the BYU defense and then try to get their hits on the Cougar quarterback when BYU has the ball. The Badgers are also likely to be tough to run against with Borland patrolling the middle of the field.

Don’t underestimate the success that the Badgers have had at home either. As mentioned above, Camp Randall is a very tough venue for visitors and BYU players and fans are likely to have their eyes opened just a bit at one of the top party schools in the country. The fans at Wisconsin are passionate and they know how to bring it.

On the coaching end of things, Gary Andersen knows his friend Bronco Mendenhall very well and will have his team well-prepared despite the fact that this game comes in the middle of Big Ten conference play. He’s very familiar with both Bronco’s tendencies and BYU’s personnel.

This is an intriguing match-up on many levels and there will be a number of interesting story lines leading up to this game. With their current issues at cornerback, it’s difficult to pick the Cougars to put together a double-digit win season against such a tough schedule. Playing what could be a physical Badgers team on the road late in the season could be BYU’s most difficult test of 2013. The Cougars keep it close but fade at the end.

Early Prediction: Wisconsin 28  BYU  24

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