Holiday Bowl Preview

Longtime Buckaround contributor Rex Sheild gives his Holiday Bowl thoughts and a prediction - will the Badgers win this thing?

The 2015 Wisconsin football season has been an odd one, to say the least. Yes, the Badgers won nine games, are in their 14th-consecutive bowl game, and are on the verge of a 10-win season - an accomplishment that should never be taken for granted. Mind you, the team spent the better portion of the season without their star running back, the offensive line played one helluva game of musical chairs, and the quarterback play was, well, a bit inconsistent. Wisconsin did not beat a team with a record over .500, which is shorthand for “its schedule was a complete joke” (the notable exception be No. 2 Alabama, a loss). The Badgers’ two toughest conference games – Iowa and Northwestern – which were also at home, were both losses. So just what was the team’s best win, strictly based on how it played? Rutgers? Illinois? Purdue? Minnesota? I’m hard-pressed to find a game where UW turned in a solid performance from start to finish.

However, if Corey Clement plays against Iowa (insert this statement for, practically, every game that Clement did not play) and the Big Ten officials do not botch the Jazz Peavy touchdown against Northwestern, then head coach Paul Chryst is 11-1 in his first regular season at the helm, with his only loss against mighty Alabama in the season opener. Hindsight is always 20/20.

Southern California, at #25 in the final College Football Playoff standings, seems finally past the NCAA sanctions that crippled the program over the last several years. Yet, the head coaching hires and decisions made by athletic director Pat Haden still, in my eyes, holds the program back in its quest to legitimately get back into the national title conversation. Will this bowl game against the Badgers tell one way or another whether newly named head coach Clay Helton can bring the Trojans back to the promised land? Maybe, but it surely won't yield a high amount of confidence if USC loses to UW and closes out a season that began with it ranked in the top 10 by losing three out of four games.  Not to mention, similar to what happened with Auburn last year just prior to the Outback Bowl, USC will be without its regular season defensive coordinator, Justin Wilcox (who was among several defensive assistants Helton canned when the regular season ended).

At any rate, the Trojans were a pretty good football team in 2015, so let’s take a look at how senior quarterback Cody Kessler and his teammates match up against the Badgers and who has the edge at some key positions.  

USC QB: Cody Kessler

    USC QB Cody Kessler could have a big day against UW

 

USC QB Cody Kessler could have a big day against UW

The senior gunslinger may not leave USC as one of the most polished NFL-ready quarterbacks in program history, but Kessler still deserves plenty of attention. During this past season, Kessler threw for 3,315 yards, as well as 28 touchdowns and six interceptions. Over 13 games, his 273.5 passing yards per game was good for 31st in the country, which is in stark contrast to his 33.1 pass attempts that ranks 57th.  He also completed 67.6 percent of his passes this season and, as it stands today, will finish 2nd and 17th on the Pac-12 and NCAA career pass completion percentage list, respectively. Impressive, eh? Of course, but there was that game  against Washington – 16/29 for 156 yards, 0 touchdowns, 2 interceptions, 9.4 QBR.

While Kessler sprained his thumb against Stanford in the conference championship game, head coach Helton made you feel like the dumbest person alive for thinking, even for a second, that Kessler wouldn’t play against UW.  "You could probably cut his right wrist off and he would still play," Helton said, via the Los Angeles Times.

Wisconsin QB: Joel Stave

I’m not a Joel Stave believer anymore.  Yes, he started out the year in a way that had many, including me, excited after seeing the Wisconsin native, for years, throw ball at wide receivers’ feet. Through the first three games, Stave completed 67% of his passes and threw for 666 yards, to go along with six touchdowns and two interceptions. This stood as a dramatic improvement to his first three games of the 2014 season: 50% pass completion, 342 passing yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions. He then promptly crapped the bed against Iowa in UW's Big Ten opener - and when I say he crapped the bed, I mean that he recorded a 9.7 QBR, threw two interceptions, and fumbled two more times, including on Iowa’s two-yard line in the fourth quarter.

    Our man Joel Stave

 

Our man Joel Stave

Altogether this season so far, Stave ended up with more interceptions (11) than touchdowns (10). To give him some credit, he stood out against Purdue with a 76.9% (30/39) completion rate, his highest of the season, and slightly edging out his performance against Troy (13/17, 76.5). Moreover, while I do not have the greatest confidence in Stave, Chryst certainly does - Stave threw the ball an average of 32.5 times per game (61st nationally). Stave also seems to respond to the coach's play calls as his 229.2 yards/game average is good for 55th in the country. That is, he is probably better than people give him credit for.

The engineering major wins football games and there’s no denying that, but he’s a game manager and nothing more, folks. In this match-up, he easily takes a back seat to Kessler.

Edge: USC

Wisconsin RBs: Corey Clement, Dare Ogunbowale, Taiwan Deal

What in the heck happened to the Wisconsin running game this season? My goodness. To put the brutal year into perspective, the Badgers’ 148.1 ypg rushing, which ranked 90th (!!) in the country, was the worst average since the 2003 season by a large margin; the next lowest was 164 ypg in 2004-05, which still ranked 46th nationally. Obviously it did not help that Clement was far from a consistent fixture, and that you could never figure out who was going to be playing along the offensive line, but count me as one who was surprised all year.

With Clement presumably back in the backfield against USC, Wisconsin does finally have some solid depth at the position. I’m not quite as big of a Dare fan as Rich is, but he is an excellent change-of-pace back and is quite good in pass protection. The Milwaukee native leads the team in rushing attempts (181), yards (769) and touchdowns (7), is second in receptions (34) and third in receiving yards (278), which is impressive considering he started last season at cornerback. Deal’s physical presence is intimidating by itself, and it certainly showed against the Gophers in the regular season finale. Again, assuming that Clement is the starting running back against the Trojans, I’d imagine seeing a heavy dose of the three-headed backfield, which will be put to the test against the Trojans’ run defense.

USC RBs: Ronald Jones II, Justin Davis

 According to USCFootball.com reporter Keely Eure, senior Tre Madden will not suit up against the Badgers, and will undergo knee surgery. This may not be a massive loss for USC, but Madden was still tied for second on the team with five rushing touchdowns, and also added 17 receptions for 133 yards and one touchdown. Alternatively, junior Davis led the team in carries (157) and also added five touchdowns on the ground. Finally, freshman Jones led the team in rushing yards (940), rushing average (6.5 yards/carry) and touchdowns (8). As a collective unit, the USC tailbacks are not the most spectacular in the country, but there’s no denying their element of speed. As to who may replace Madden, your guess is as good as mine – Dominic Davis only had 14 total carries in 2015, Aca’Cedric Ware only had 12 total carries, and Adoree’ Jackson only had six total carries. However, I would expect Jackson, a hybrid athlete who also plays on defense and special teams, to be a bigger part of the offensive game plan for the Trojans. 

Edge: USC

Wisconsin WRs/TEs:

Alex Erickson, Rob Wheelwright, Jazz Peavy, Tanner McEvoy

Troy Fumagalli, Austin Traylor

Erickson has turned into a pretty good, maybe great, wide receiver for the Wisconsin Badgers. The former walk-on registered 72 receptions for 924 yards with three touchdowns this season. To put Erickson's value to this offense into perspective, the next best WR in terms of yards is Wheelwright with 369. Speaking of Wheelwright, it’ll be nice to have him back, as he leads the team in receiving touchdowns with four. This game could also serve as a nice springboard for Mr. Peavy, as his role and needed contributions will only continue to escalate next season. I’ve been waiting for McEvoy to actually assert himself offensively, or to at least see the play callers to utilize the former quarterback more effectively. Will Wednesday, his last day on the field as a Badger, finally be the day? I sure hope so, because the senior has way too much athleticism to only register 10 receptions for 109 yards over 13 games.

It is disappointing that Traylor (three touchdowns) broke his arm earlier in the year because this unit could have been substantially better than what the numbers show. Still, Fumagalli filled in nicely as the starting tight end, which should be valuable experience going forward for the sophomore. Nonetheless, I’m still waiting for a tight end screen to be utilized, preferably in the middle of the field on third down. Oddly specific, I know.

USC WRs/TEs:

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Adoree’ Jackson, Steven Mitchell Jr., Darreus Rogers

Tyler Petite, Taylor McNamara

    USC stud wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster

 

USC stud wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster

It’s pretty much the JuJu Show for the USC receiving corps because the young man can ball, as the kids like to say. The sophomore wideout registered a whopping 85 receptions for 1,389 yards and 10 touchdowns. Mitchell is second on the team with 35 receptions, and Jackson is second on the team with 382 yards. Point being, there’s a wide gap between Smith-Schuster and the rest of his teammates. However, the Long Beach, CA, native has not registered a touchdown since November 13 against Colorado (3 receptions/66 yards/1 TD) and has not put up over 100 yards since November 7 against Arizona (8/138/1). Through his first nine games, Smith-Schuster averaged right around 122 yards/game. Through his last four? Right around 74 yards/game. Thus, Smith-Schuster will either continue his downward trend or revert back to the way he was playing to start the season.

As for the tight end position, well, there’s not much to see, here. Petite leads the unit in receptions (13) and receiving yards (119). However, and oddly enough, McNamara leads the unit in touchdowns with four, but only has 10 receptions for 62 yards. Ah, red zone targets will always do the trick: he had one catch for two yards and a touchdown against Arkansas State, one catch for four yards and a touchdown against Notre Dame, one catch for two yards and a touchdown against Colorado, and two catches (!) for 14 yards (!!) and a touchdown against UCLA.

Edge: USC

Wisconsin Defense:

Let us never forget the 2015 Wisconsin Badgers defense. Let us never forget defensive coordinator Dave Aranda! The End. In all seriousness though, this unit was a lot of fun to watch on each and every snap. Across the board, you could make a strong argument that this unit is the best one in the country – 1st in points/game (13.1), 1st in yards/game (267.1), 3rd in rushing yards/game (98.2), and 5th in passing yards/game (168.9). One of the lone knocks is that they do not get after the passer very often, as they only sack the quarterback 2.2 times/game, good for 57th. However, USC allows 2.7 sacks/game, which stands as 100th in the country (i.e., not good), so something has to give at Qualcomm Stadium.

I also really like the emergence of outside linebacker T.J. Watt, who's been a force off the edge throughout the last few weeks. With Joe Schobert, the conference linebacker of the year and All-American honoree, and Vince Biegel, an all-around animal, I would think that the front seven could provide some disruption and force Kessler to make some ill-advised throws. Schobert and Biegel have combined for 17.5 sacks and 32.5 tackles for loss. Although UW hasn't not played a quarterback of Kessler's caliber the entire season, if the Badgers can force the Trojans into obvious passing downs and call up some creative blitzes, Wisconsin may have some success. USC’s third down conversion percentage (39.43%) is 65th in the country - there is hope.

    Cornerback Sojourn Shelton will be on the spot

 

Cornerback Sojourn Shelton will be on the spot

Cornerback Sojourn Shelton has played much better than he did a season ago (six pass breakups, one interception in 2015), but he is going to have a difficult time against Smith-Schuster. I would expect Aranda to throw several different looks at the star wide receiver, most likely bump-and-run coverage and consistently shading a safety over to help - straight single coverage will be rare because Smith-Schuster's just too good. I also wonder how much time Darius Hillary (six pass breakups) or Derrick Tindal (five pass breakups) will spend on containing the star WR. Still, Tanner McEvoy’s play-making ability at safety (six interceptions & six pass breakups) and Michael Caputo’s toughness and solid tackling should be strong enough to keep Kessler from looking like Carson Palmer 2.0.

USC Defense

The Trojans’ defense has featured many highs and lows over the course of the 2015 season. As to the latter, the unit allowed 25.9 points/game (51st), 400.9 yards/game (67th), and 253.8 passing yards/game (94th). As to the former, the unit sacked the quarterback roughly three times/game (13th) and held running backs to 147 rush yards/game (36th), as well as 4.0 yards/rush attempt (40th).

To no one's surprise, USC has plenty of athletes on the defensive side of the ball and enough to potentially make for a long afternoon for offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph. Among the front seven, senior defensive tackle Delvon Simmons and junior linebacker Su’a Cravens, who recently announced his intentions to enter into the NFL Draft, were both 1st-team All-Pac 12 selections. Simmons was second on the team in sacks (4) and tackles for loss (8.5), while Cravens tied for first in tackles (78), and first in tackles for loss (14.5) and sacks (5.5). Cornerback Adoree’ Jackson was another 1st-team All-Pac 12 selection, who registered six pass breakups and one interception.

While USC’s defensive unit is not lights-out by any means, it very well could be for years to come, thanks to the play of two freshmen this season. Linebacker Cameron Smith is tied for first in interceptions (3), while also accounting for the highest percentage of team tackles (8.4%), according to SB Nation. Freshman Iman Marshall leads the team in pass breakups (7) and is tied for first in interceptions (3).

All in all, USC’s defense is not better than Dave Aranda’s bunch (not many are), but it should be able to impose its will against a pretty mediocre Wisconsin offense for long stretches.

Edge: Wisconsin

Prediction:

In terms of national recognition, a bowl victory for Wisconsin against one of the few traditionally elite programs would be a huge step in the right direction. Not to mention, it would give the fan base some confidence that Paul Chryst can win big games. However, that huge step is going to have to wait.

I believe that the offensive line will not be able to handle USC's speed upfront and, honestly, who knows how healthy Corey Clement actually is. Plus, Stave could very well have another clunker of a game, and that simply will not cut it against the Trojans. USC wins the Holiday Bowl for the second-straight year, 24-16.

P.S. Next year is going to be brutal; the schedule features LSU (at Lambeau Field), Ohio State, at Michigan State, at Michigan, and at Iowa, so start looking ahead to 2017?

2015 Preview - Defense

BuckAround contributor Neal Olson (@olewr7) previews the Badgers defense - should be pretty salty, as in recent times.  Should stay that way as long as Dave Aranda is running it.

Four schools have finished in the top 20 the past three seasons in points allowed per game. Alabama and Michigan State are almost a given; both programs have built a national reputation as defensive powers. Wisconsin's presence on that list may surprise some, but the defense has kept some pretty impressive company since 2012.

Lost in the shuffle of the Gary Andersen era of botched post-game song choices and QB mismanagement, coordinator Dave Aranda has created an emerging defensive juggernaut. Since 2013, Wisconsin has allowed 18.6 points per game. Keep in mind that includes the 59 points scored by the Buckeyes in the Game that Shall Not be Named.

Aranda and Wisconsin’s best performance may have been in the Outback Bowl against Auburn. Fresh off the nightmarish Big Ten Title game, and facing an Auburn offense that had hung 44 points against the vaunted Alabama defense the last time it played, the Badgers held Auburn held to just 31 points, including overtime.  The defensive stand in said overtime was an ultimate final touch.

As much as the re-vamped, aggressive defense can be attributed to Aranda, it takes the players on the field to execute. In that respect, Aranda found two staples to lead the attack in linebackers Joe Schobert and Vince Biegel. Both players wreak havoc in the offensive backfield. Biegel lead the team with 16.5 tackles for loss last season while Schobert was third with 13.5.

Schobert is yet another chapter in the long line of walk-on success stories at Wisconsin and Aranda should be credited with recognizing Schobert’s versatility against spread offenses.  Schobert earned a start against Arizona State’s spread as a sophomore and has never relinquished his role on the field. His ability to play both the run and pass with equal comfort has given the Badger’s defense a dimension it has lacked in the past.

Contrasting with Schobert's versatile, even-keeled approach, Biegel’s wild, aggressive on-field play even carries over to his choice in haircuts. The similarities to crazy-man legend Brian Bosworth are uncanny - going forward, let’s all agree to refer to Biegel as simply “The Biegs”. His speed and power as an edge rusher puts a ton of pressure on opposing quarterbacks and offensive backfields. Forming maybe one of top LB duos maybe the country, the Biegs' and Schobert's differing styles complement each other nicely.

   The resemblance is uncanny . . .

 

The resemblance is uncanny . . .

While Schobert and The Biegs are entrenched on the outside, both inside linebacker spots are somewhat up for grabs. The presumed starters Leon Jacobs and TJ Edwards both missed time in fall camp but are expected to be ready for the season opener. Jacobs has played special teams and filled in for Marcus Trotter effectively against Illinois last season (12 tackles); Edwards, an RS frosh and converted quarterback has no game experience. Fifth-year grad transfer Kellen Jones and RS sophomore Keelon Brookins, as well as true freshman Nick Thomas, Chris Orr and Ryan Connelly, have all rotated time with the first unit and flashed playmaking ability.  Walk-on Connelly was recently given a scholarship and some have Orr penciled as the fourth ILB. 

Aranda will likely use a multitude of linebackers to keep legs fresh and defenses guessing. Missed practice by already inexperienced players is not ideal, but it has allowed several younger players to gain valuable first team reps. The stable of linebackers is talented and will continue to lead the charge in Aranda’s defense.

Speaking of deep and talented position groups, the secondary is returning plenty of experience led by safety Michael Caputo. Caputo is a legitimate first team All American candidate and one of the reasons Athlon Sports named the Wisconsin secondary as a top ten defensive backfield in the country. Similar to Schobert, Caputo’s strength is in versatility. His comfort in a hybrid linebacker/safety role allows Aranda to unpredictably mix coverages and blitzes, probably the most critical key to success in Aranda's system.

Another major reason for the high expectations in the Badgers secondary is Darius Hillary. Hillary was sort of lost in the shuffle after Sojourn Shelton’s impressive freshman campaign of 2013. But with Shelton struggling through most of last season, Hillary turned into a true lock-down corner. To be fair, the Big Ten has lacked dynamic passing offenses the past few years, but Hillary's consistency and ability have been such that teams have rarely challenged him.

So rare in fact, that Hillary’s improvement probably contributed to a lot more targets of Shelton's mark. The increased volume definitely increased the pressure to perform for Shelton. He brings that South Florida football swagger to Wisconsin, and relies heavily on instincts and confidence. It was clear he lost that for much of last year. However, starting in spring practice and continuing into fall camp, he seems to have regained that edge.

As noted in the offensive preview, Tanner McEvoy’s presence at wide receiver is a pretty clear indication that the staff trusts Leo Musso, Lubern Figaro, or even the rejuvenated and hard-hitting D’Cota Dixon at the other safety spot. Knowing they have a back-up plan with McEvoy should the game call for it, it’s likely those three will see a vast majority of playing time in the remaining secondary spot.

While linebacker and secondary groups are solid and filled with talented players, the defensive line will need some players to step up in order for the playmakers behind them to shine. Despite the unheralded nature of the position, guys like Warren Herring and Konrad Zagzebski where stalwarts of the defense last year. Their ability, when they were on the field, to absorb space and blockers was a big reason guys like The Biegs, Schobert, and Caputo were able to make all those tackles for loss or after very short gains.

Fortunately, most of the players expected to be battling in the trenches have some game experience. However, going from a handful of plays a game, to consistent output will be the challenge. RS sophomores Chikwe Obasih and Alec James will likely see a bulk of the snaps at the end spots, and sophomore Connor Sheehy will feature prominently on the nose. All three are talented enough to make an impact but need to show they can be dependable down after down.

At end and nose, swing lineman Arthur Goldberg has started games in the past (at both end and nose); the primary depth at nose will be large-sized RS freshmen Jeremy Patterson, who's been limited by a leg injury after the first week of fall camp. Zander Neuville, a former walk on put on scholarship recently with Ryan Connelly, will figure into the d-line rotation, along with veteran Jake Keefer, who's been sidelined with injury and may not be ready when the season starts.

By and large, the success of the defense will hinge on whether the big bodies up front can take up blockers and allow the players behind them to make tackles. The success of the 3-4 is predicated on the linemen commanding double teams. The line group will be challenged right off the bat against Alabama's very good offensive line and running backs and may have some growing pains through the season.  Fortunately, the non-conference shouldn't be too challenging, and no opponent on the B1G schedule brings an offense that will strike too much fear into this unit.

Still, considering the uncertainty along the offensive line and the potential impact that will have on moving and scoring the ball, Aranda and the defense will be counted on to keep games close this season. Luckily, Wisconsin has the playmakers capable of taking over games on defense, especially if they can force more turnovers than in the recent past.

Taking the longer view, Wisconsin's defense has established itself nationally during Aranda's tenure, so much so that he may not be long for UW.  He interviewed for an assistant position with the Green Bay Packers during the off-season and will be a hot name for any college head coach (or another, potentially more lucrative, coordinator) opening the next few seasons.  As long as the Aranda Express stays in Madison though, opponents can expect to face a top tier defense in every game against the Badgers.

A Pre-Big Ten, Post-Non Conference State of the Union

With Big Ten Conference play just around the corner, Andy Schaaf take a look at where the Badgers stand after four games.

Week 7 - Northwestern: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Breaking down the Badgers 35-6 blowout of the Wildcats

Week 5 - Ohio State: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

The Badgers come up short in a night matchup in Columbus.  

Week 4 - Purdue: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Breaking down the Badgers' 41-10 victory over Purdue

Week 4 Preview: Purdue

An in-depth look at the Badgers and Boilermakers in Week 4

Week 1 - UMASS: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Takeaways from the Badger Debut against the UMass Minutemen