1. Wisconsin is coming off a great 2016 campaign and two comfortable wins to start 2017. What is the feeling around the program as the Badgers prepare to hit the road for the first time?
Heading into this season as a whole, it felt like momentum was there to have Wisconsin be a dark horse candidate for the College Football Playoff. This despite losing All-Americans Ryan Ramczyk and T.J. Watt, along with a slew of other senior contributors that led to an 11-3 season and a New Year's Six Bowl win. There's still that feeling at the moment even with the loss of former walk-on and team captain Jack Cichy to an ACL tear during fall camp.
Yet, the first two wins of 2017 have not been all that smooth. They've been comfortable, yes, but the players and coaching staff have admitted there has been a lot left out on that field. Miscommunication on the defense has yielded some gains by the likes of Utah State and Florida Atlantic, which includes the 63-yard touchdown pass by the Owls last week. The offense has coughed up the ball twice deep in its own territory, with the defense not stopping the momentum.
The good thing for the program is that the players see this and have the mentality to continue to strive to improve despite that.
2. Seems like Wisconsin has had a decent amount of injuries. Which ones are the most notable?
Reporters received the updated injury report on Thursday morning, but the most noteworthy game-wise besides Cichy's and Zack Baun's season-ending ailments are the starting guards. Left guard Jon Dietzen is now listed as out for Saturday's game, with right guard Beau Benzschawel still listed as questionable with right leg injuries. Both are part of a unit that are the best five offensive linemen for this offense and their absences could alter Wisconsin's effectiveness in the running game. Offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph mentioned Benzschawel received snaps on Tuesday, but Dietzen--who has battled many injuries during his time at UW--did not, and now he is not expected to play. Expect either Micah Kapoi and Jason Erdmann, who both received first-team reps in fall camp during practices open to the media when Dietzen was banged up, to fill the void by one or both if the starters cannot go.
3. What are Wisconsin's best units on each side of the ball?
Offensively, running backs are deep with talent with Shaw, Taylor and Pitt transfer Chris James, each providing their own strengths to complement each other. I'll have to say tight ends on this side of the ball, however. Wisconsin boasts three game-ready players in All-American candidate (and former walk-on) Troy Fumagalli, who leads the team in receptions and yards (13 receptions, 197 yards, two touchdowns), but Zander Neuville and Kyle Penniston are also above-average players who can give defenses fits out of 13 personnel. It's a position group that prides itself on improving every game, and they impact both the rushing and passing attacks for the Badgers.
Defensively, I may just have to say the front seven altogether. The outside/inside linebackers have played very well, as the three-man rotation of T.J. Edwards/Chris Orr/Ryan Connelly have played very well in replacing Cichy's production at inside linebacker while Garret Dooley and Leon Jacobs (the latter an athletic freak who bench presses over 400 pounds and squats 655) have taken up the task of replacing Watt and Vince Biegel's production so far through the first two games. Honestly though, the defensive line may be the best unit with the fact that they're the no-nonsense, lunch pail, no-rah-rah group that just gets the work done to open up the gaps for the backers to make the necessary plays. Though Chikwe Obasih (left leg) is out again this week, there is exceptional depth on the line. Senior ends Alec James and Conor Sheehy are experienced, and work very well with junior nose tackle Olive Sagapolu, a 348-pound anchor who's nimble enough to do the splits (seriously). UW is legitimately two-deep with capable players on the defensive line. I didn't even get a chance to talk about redshirt freshman Isaiahh Loudermilk, a 6'7, 306-pound budding star who will rotate in.
4. What are Wisconsin's biggest areas of concern on each side of the ball?
Offensively, I think it's the turnovers and dropped passes overall. Two of the four have turned directly into touchdowns with short field and kept their opponents in the game. On the road against BYU, Wisconsin cannot afford to give up takeaways to a stout defense and give a struggling Cougars offense--no matter who the quarterback is or how inept it may be--any spark to swing the game in their direction.
Defensively, and despite the stat sheet showing a very good unit (which it absolutely is, and could be great), it goes back to the communication. Safety D'Cota Dixon spoke about it after the first win against Utah State, and the words communicate and communication were used thoroughly by players after the win against Florida Atlantic in how they dominated the final two quarters against the Owls.That and trying to turn the tide after a turnover deep in Wisconsin territory. Orr mentioned after the game that there may need to be a hint more energy on their part coming back onto the field in those situations. They can't allow touchdowns on the road in that instance, no matter what offense they're facing.
This defense has top five-potential under defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard. Just a few minor tweaks, and this squad could be up there among the best units the program's seen in recent memory.
5. How do you see this game playing out?
I think with the offensive linemen injuries for Wisconsin, it could be interesting. If Benzschawel goes, I think the offense eventually grinds and wears down the BYU defense, and mixing in some play action to Fumagalli and wide receiver Jazz Peavy, could keep the Cougars honest and yield big plays.
Wisconsin has shown it can adapt and adjust during the games, and with BYU's offense struggling, they should control the line of scrimmage.
I'm expecting a closer game through the first quarter to quarter-and-a-half due to being at Provo, with the Badgers starting to pull away again for a road win heading into their only bye week. Wisconsin 27, BYU 13.