For all intents and purposes the Leaders Division will be decided on Saturday. If Purdue loses the Boilers would have to win six straight games while Wisconsin would need to lose twice. If Wisconsin loses they also must be virtually perfect against a very difficult slate that includes Michigan State, Ohio State, and Penn State while having, in essence, a two-game deficit in the Division. Since it is clear that Indiana and Illinois are not going to be factors the winner of this game has an excellent chance of going to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game barring a complete collapse.
Ironically, neither group of fans is that confident heading into Saturday. As you can see with my discussion here with Mike Fiametta of Bucky's Fifth Quarter, the Badgers are hardly the unstoppable machine they were last season:
T-Mill: Wisconsin's line is predictably huge, but they aren't playing at Wisconsin levels. What gives?
Mike: The o-line is not at all playing at Wisconsin levels, and I think the only rational answer (boy, have there been many irrational ones) is the combination of several new starters and the firing of first-year offensive line coach Mike Markuson after the Week 2 loss at Oregon State is a whole heck of a lot of turnover to deal with. The whole coaching staff has been through a lot -- namely a six-coach turnover -- and the offense seems to have received the brunt of that blow. The talent is still there -- I'd say left tackle Ricky Wagner, left guard Ryan Groy and center Travis Frederick are good enough to anchor any line in the country -- but the combination of a lack of execution and new coaching philosophies have proven very problematic. Even Bret Bielema said so this week -- the line has been through so much this year, beginning with Markuson's new blocking philosophy and then transitioning back to the more traditional Bart Miller, who has taken over as the offensive line coach.
T-Mill: Joel Stave of Danny O'Brien, who is the better option?
Mike: For the sake of continuity, I will say Stave is a better option. Their numbers are similar -- Stave has completed 59.2 percent of his passes with four touchdowns and two interceptions while O’Brien has completed 62.7 percent with three touchdowns and one interception. The biggest difference between the two has been yards-per-attempt, in which Stave’s 9.76 far outpaces O’Brien’s 6.39 -- despite Stave having thrown four fewer passes. Much of that may be due to the return of wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin’s only legitimate receiving threat.
The situation is tough, though, considering the quarterback group is deep -- don’t forget about Curt Phillips, who saw game action for the first time since 2009 on Saturday -- it doesn’t have a bona fide starter. Stave, impressive as he’s been for a redshirt freshman, is still a redshirt freshman prone to the vulnerabilities he’d expect. Wisconsin’s passing game is anything but consistent, and while Stave has a strong arm, it’s about the only thing he’s shown to be reliable.
T-Mill: Given Indiana and Illinois' struggles is this still a winner-take-all game for the division or does the loser have hope?
Mike: Heck, in this division, I’d say everyone has some form of twisted hope. But for rational purposes, I will say that the Badgers better win this game if they’re still sticking to hopes of a Big Ten Championship and eventual Rose Bowl berth.
T-Mill: Defensively you have to be excited with how Michigan shut us down. What is your outsider's take on Robert Marve vs. Caleb TerBush?
Mike: My outsider’s take is a very outsider-y one, though it is nice to be facing a team that is also dealing with quarterback problems. Wisconsin’s secondary has been stout but the pass rush hasn’t really been strong, so I guess Badgers fans will take the QB that has been more mistake-prone. Looking at the numbers, I guess that’s been TerBush.
T-Mill: Finally, has Wisconsin started to put things together or are you still concerned for Saturday?
Mike: Wisconsin has indeed started to put things together, though I don’t think many Badgers fans are at all comfortable heading on the road this weekend. As we discussed on B5Q this morning the offense looked good in the fourth quarter against Illinois last week, but that was about it. The defense has been fair but largely unspectacular, in my opinion. One bright spot does seem to be that the team is getting healthier as Big Ten season warms up, which you’d think bodes well.
Simply put, predictions for this Wisconsin team are no fun at all. That said, I could see a 10-14-point win on Saturday, and I think most Badgers fans would be happy with that.