Know thy Opponent 2009: Wisconsin Badgers

This could be the year I finally correct a grave oversight. It has long been my goal to see Purdue play at every single stadium in the Big Ten. I have added one new stadium each year since the 2001 season (save 2004). Indiana (2001), Illinois (2002), Ohio State (2003), Minnesota (2005), Northwestern (2006), Michigan (2007) and Michigan State (2008), have been crossed off my list, but I have missed out what is supposed to be the best campus experience in the Big Ten. I had a chance to go to the 2003 Wisconsin game with some friends, but turned it down because, well, I am an idiot.

The Minnesota trip is too far to add TCF Bank Stadium this year, especially since I am going to Oregon, so Wisconsin will have to be the new Big Ten venue I add. I am about 50/50 on going, but if I do go I should see a pretty good game. Strangely enough, the result of this game could be determined by the kickoff time. Purdue has performed very well in day games at Wisconsin, but has struggled in night games. That is why I am praying for a good old noon kickoff for what is another critical swing game.

2008 Record: 7-6 (3-5 Big Ten)

Bowl Result: Lost to Florida State 42-13 in Champs Sports Bowl

Blog Representation: Bucky's 5th Quarter

Series with Purdue: Wisconsin leads 39-29-8

Last Purdue win: 10/18/2003 at Wisconsin 26-23

Last Wisconsin win: 10/21/2006 at Purdue 24-3

Last Season for the Badgers:

Like Illinois, I haven't paid a ton of attention to Wisconsin for the past two seasons. Our last two games with them were easy wins for Wisconsin. Then you have THAT GAME in 2004 that still makes my stomach queasy. I prefer to think of happier times, such as 2003 in what was our last really good road victory on Ben Jones' last second field goal. It was the last time we defeated a ranked opponent away from Ross-Ade Stadium.

Wisconsin was mediocre at best last year. After nearly beating Ohio State in a nationally televised night game they struggled mightily. That was preceded by an agonizing loss at Michigan and followed by blowouts against Penn State and Wisconsin. Once a top ten team, they needed three missed extra points to defeat 1-AA Cal Poly in overtime to finish the regular season. That is not exactly the mark of a team on a roll. The best win of the year was a 13-10 victory at Fresno State.

In addition to numerous Big Ten opponents, we get to judge Wisconsin against an additional common opponent this year. They open the season at home against a feisty Northern Illinois team that we play two weeks later. Fresno State, Wofford, and a trip to Hawaii round out the non-conference schedule. The Badgers did not elect to schedule the 13th game that going to Hawaii allows.

Wisconsin offense:

I do have a bit of a special insight on Wisconsin's offense because of starting quarterback Dustin Sherer. The fifth year senior, like most Badger quarterbacks, has patiently waited for his time in Madison. From 2002-2004, however, He was the starting quarterback at Hamilton Heights high in Cicero, Indiana. As it happens, I was covering a ton of games for the Kokomo Tribune during that time. Hamilton Heights is in the same conference as 7 of the 12 teams the Tribune covers. As the dominant team in that conference (the small school Mid-Indiana Conference) I ended up covering several Hamilton Heights games. He was 33-7 as the starter for those three years, but only two of those losses came within the conference. That is not a surprise though. The conference was very top heavy at the time, with Hamilton Heights, Lewis Cass, and Western being far and away better than everyone else. Many of his stats came in blowouts of inferior teams.

Sherer_medium

My last image of Dustin Sherer is a little hazy since it was five years ago.

It has been a long time since I have seen Dustin play while he waited his turn in Madison. He got his first start midway through the season and does have a record of 4-3 as a starter. Like many Wisconsin quarterbacks, you know what you are getting. He is a solid game manager that won't go apeshit for 500 yards and 5 TD's, but he won't make many mistakes, either. He finished the year with 1,389 yards and six TD's against five picks. The completion percentage of 55% could be better, but Wisconsin is a running team anyway. Also of note, we will see his younger brother, Chad, later in the season as a linebacker for Indiana. His other younger brother, Tyler, is the current Hamilton Heights quarterback.

One of the most difficult things about Wisconsin is that you know what you are going to get, yet they are still very difficult to stop. That has been Wisconsin's style since before the days of Ron Dayne. They are a power running team, everyone knows it, yet they still put up good numbers even though other teams know what they are facing beforehand. John Clay and Zach Brown are the latest backs in a very long line. Clay ran for 884 yards and nine scores, while Brown (305-3) was a solid reserve. Considering who we have to face before this game, it will be a relief to not have to worry about a running quarterback. Sherer is about as immobile as they come with 19 yards rushing on 49 carries and a score last year. If you take out the fact he had one 30 yard scamper, he is even less of a threat to run. This offense still ran for 2700 yards last year, making run defense a major priority. If the run defense that played at Notre Dame shows up, expect a long day. 

Wisconsin's best teams have been the ones that have had a legitimate deep threat in the passing game. It was something the Badgers lacked a season ago as they didn't have a single pass longer than 50 yards. Garrett Graham (40-540-5) is the top returning receiver, and he was a tight end. That is a good thing considering that Wisconsin does not mind long, plodding drives that eat up the clock. If anything, their offensive attack goes away from our strength (pass defense) and attacks a weakness (run defense) we have had for years. Nick Toon, son of NFL great Al Toon (17-257-1), gives Wisconsin a bit of a deep threat. David Gilreath (31-520-3) also provides a speed element. Gilreath defines the term all-purpose player. He had a season long 90-yard rush for a score and he excels as a return man. We simply cannot allow him to have the ball in space.

Wisconsin's offensive line is always big and ready to pave the way for the running game. Each projected starter stands taller than 6'4" and is well over 310 pounds. They only move where they want to move. They gave up 29 sacks a year ago, so protection was a problem. Center John Moffitt, left tackle Gabe Carimi, and right tackle Josh Oglesby all have starting experience at their respective positions. Oglesby is a star recruit who has struggled with a knee injury, while Carimi is essentially a fixture at the left tackle position with 19 starts. They are very good on the ends, but guards Bill Nagy and Jake Bscherer are relatively unproven. There is not a ton of developed depth, so the pass protection could struggle if there are injuries by the Purdue game.

Wisconsin defense:

The best word to describe the Badger defense is, "meh". Nothing really stands out, which is what you expect from a 7-6 team. The defense folded late when it needed a stop against Ohio State, and then took the next two weeks off against Penn State and Iowa. The most telling statistic was being unable to stop Cal Poly's running game in the final game of the season. I'm sorry, but there is absolutely no excuse for a Big Ten team to ever struggle with a Division 1-AA running game. Cal Poly ran wild on them and should have won in Madison.

It is hard to think the defense will be better with only one starter returning on the defensive line. O'Brien Schofield had 40 tackles and five sacks a year ago, making him a solid piece to build around. He'll start on one end with J.J. Watt on the other. We've seen Watt before, too. Since all things Purdue football seem to involve Central Michigan, Watt returns as a transfer from the Chips. Watt is more of a run-oriented d-end. Jeff Stehle and Dan Moore are projected to start at tackle, but Jeff Butrym should play as well. None of them had outstanding stats in reserve action. This is not an overwhelming line, so we should be able to generate a ground game of some sort.

Cal_poly_medium

Jayce Taylor, Dan Dierking, Al-Terek McBurse, and Ralph Bolden need to know: Cal Poly ran on these guys. So can you.

There really isn't an overwhelming presence at linebacker, either. Jaevery McFadden, Culmer St. Jean, and Blake Sorenson are about as middle of the road as they come in the Big Ten. All three of them are first-time starters at their respective positions. McFadden has the most experience, but it will be his first time in the middle. His 84 tackles led Wisconsin in 2008.

As far as the secondary goes, as long as we don't throw to Niles Brinkley we are fine. Brinkley had four interceptions to lead Wisconsin last year, and he wasn't even a #1 corner. Aaron Henry will man the other corner position, but he did not play at all last year after an ACL tear. Jay Valai is another player returning after surgery at one of the safety positions. He had 56 tackles last year, but may be a bit undersized at 5'9" 200. Chris Maragos will likely man the other safety position and he is a convert from wide receiver.

Honestly, there isn't one player on the Wisconsin defense that truly scares me. Most guys are recovering from injury, are first time starters, or are converted from another position. They could be good, but essentially everything has to fall into place for this defensive unit to be great.

Wisconsin Special Teams:

Wisconsin relied heavily on its kicking game last year and Phillip Welch was able to deliver. He hit on 20 of 24 field goals with a long of 52 at Michigan. He is just a sophomore and should give Wisconsin points any time they are inside the 30. Brad Nortman is also a sophomore as the punter and averaged nearly 42 yards per kick. He is an expert already at pinning teams deep. He should develop into an all-Big Ten level of punter, if not a Ray Guy award winner.

As mentioned before Gilreath is an excellent returner even if his numbers didn't show it last year. He will handle both punts and kickoffs, making him a dangerous player when he gets the ball in space. Last year Wisconsin was the worst team in the nation at kickoff returns, but Gilreath is expected to drastically improve that.

Intangibles:

This is where I would trumpet home field advantage, but we have proven that we can go up to Wisconsin and play a damn good football game if we want to. Since we lack a road win at Ohio State or Michigan in the last 20 years, I would argue that Wisconsin is our best road victory in that time. We don't play with much fear up there, and this year's Badger team is not one that is overwhelming. In our last trip to Madison we handed the game away by starting a freshman (Curtis Painter) in his first career start when offense was not the problem. To me, this looks like a winnable road game, maybe even more so than Minnesota.

The general consensus has Bret Bielema on the hot seat, but I have a hard time believing that. He was handpicked by current athletic director Barry Alvarez, and Alvarez is pretty much the savior of Wisconsin football. It would take an awful season for Bielema to get fired. Neither team has a ton of high expectations on them at this point. Wisconsin's are higher, especially given the relatively easy schedule.

Game Outlook:

It should be simple. If we stop the run we stop Wisconsin. Unfortunately, very few teams do that. We haven't exactly been the best run defense lately either. With its running game Wisconsin can control the clock and win game simply by keeping the other team off the field. Should our offense struggle in the slightest it will be an easy formula for a Badger win.

There is also the factor that is Halloween in Madison. Adam Hoge of Bucky's Fifth Quarter seemed a little wary of going to the game because of that fact, and he is a Wisconsin fan! It will likely be the most hostile road environment we will face all year since Minnesota is an unknown, Michigan isn't particularly loud, Oregon is a one-time deal even though it will be tough, and Indiana is, well, Indiana.

Prediction:

The Halloween in Madison scares me a little. That, and Purdue always struggles when I see them play on the road in a new Big Ten venue. Their record in the seven games mentioned in the opening paragraph is 1-6 with four of them agonizing losses. That happens again here. Wisconsin 24, Purdue 20

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