This week is Wisconsin week, and the red on their uniforms covers the blood of Purdue from another beatdown. The Badgers are heavily favored on Saturday, but that has not stopped us from conducting our guest Q&A. This week we have Jake Kocorowski of Bucky's 5th Quarter. My answers to his questions went up on Tuesday, but here is what he had to say about the Badgers:
T-Mill: Wisconsin has long dominated Purdue on the ground. Even with Corey Clement out, do you expect more of the same?
Jake: The Badgers could be starting its fifth starting combination of offensive linemen this season already on Saturday, as junior center Dan Voltz suffered a left arm injury at the end of the Nebraska game -- so even if Purdue's defense gives up 215 yards per game on the ground while Wisconsin rushes for 164 yards per contest -- a dominant run performance this week may be a stretch. Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst noted on Monday they'll see how Voltz progresses through the week, and media reports noted how he was limited on Tuesday. If not, expect redshirt freshman left guard Michael Dieter to slide over at center, then have a combination of Micah Kapoi and Walker Williams at the guard spots.
Even if Voltz goes, the offensive line would still have three redshirt freshmen starting. The Badgers had to replace three starters from last year, including two All-Americans in Kyle Costigan and Rob Havenstein (the latter now the starting right tackle for the St. Louis Rams). The numerous injuries Wisconsin's faced at that position group -- which now with Voltz, includes Hayden Biegel, Beau Benzschawel, Williams, Ray Ball and Jon Dietzen at some point being in the infirmary -- have stunted the chemistry and growth of the line.
Also without Clement, who was slated to have a breakout year before the sports hernia injury, there's not that gamebreaker in the backfield Wisconsin's normally had. Redshirt freshman Taiwan Deal is a battering ram who's flashed in short yardage situations, but he's battling an ankle injury that could keep him out on Saturday (then insert Alec Ingold -- a 230-plus pound true freshman who was an inside linebacker last month). Former walk-on and converted cornerback Dare Ogunbowale has shown some flashes this year with a couple runs of 30-plus runs this year and being a threat in the passing game out of the backfield, but there's no one that flashes the combination of power and speed to the second level of an opposing defense like Clement.
T-Mill: What is different about this Wisconsin team and why do they seem to be struggling just a little more offensively?
Jake: The lack of game breakers and a stagnant run game have hurt the offensive production this year. Last year, the Badgers didn't need the balance behind that offensive line and one Melvin Gordon -- as that run game produced over 68 percent of the offensive yardage last season and Gordon found his way to being a Heisman finalist after blazing a trail across various stadiums to the tune of 2,587 yards. The shuffling of an inexperienced offensive line amidst inconsistency and injuries that was mentioned earlier hasn't helped reload a normally stout and reliable position group.
Without the injured Clement and the departed Gordon, plus the rebuilding line, Wisconsin's had to rely on a regenerated passing game that's still gaining its footing. Redshirt senior Joel Stave's had a decent year outside of the Iowa game, where he's thrown for 1,386 yards and eight touchdown passes -- with only four interceptions.
He's completed only a shade over 59 percent of his passes, but he's throwing with anticipation of where his receivers will be rather than at them. He's made some nice progressions -- though he won't be near the efficiency seen by former quarterbacks Scott Tolzien or one Russell Wilson. Wisconsin's receivers have improved from last year, with former walk-on Alex Erickson and Robert Wheelwright providing a potent duo -- but they're also missing redshirt senior tight end Austin Traylor, who's out out another 3-7 weeks with an arm injury. Traylor became one of Stave's favorite targets before his injury.
Many thought converted quarterback, now wide receiver-safety hybrid Tanner McEvoy could contribute more to the offense and be that deep threat, playmaking threat the Badgers so desperate need, he actually has more carries than catches so far in 2015, and hasn't been reliable catching the ball from fall camp on. Against Nebraska, the receivers didn't help Stave at all, dropping at least a handful of passes.
T-Mill: This Wisconsin defense seems stronger than usual, and that is saying something. Who should Purdue fear on Saturday?
Jake: The "odd couple" duo of senior Joe Schobert and redshirt junior Vince Biegel at outside linebacker have put up quite the numbers so far in 2015. They've combined for 21 tackles for loss this season -- which his the most of any pair of linebacker teammates in the nation, while their 12 sacks tie them for tops in the FBS as well. Schobert, another former walk-on, has really stepped up this season. He leads the nation in tackles for loss (13.5) and is tied for second in sacks (9). Biegel has registered three sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss and is the more energetic of the two, though he's cut the mullet from last year and sports more of a mohawk. Both are superb pass rushers who can play in space and also cover ground when needed.
The secondary, and defense as a whole, is led by redshirt senior safety Michael Caputo. He led the team in tackles a year ago with 106 and is currently fifth on the team this year with 27. Secondary coach Daronte Jones said during the summer that Caputo -- one of the team captains -- not only helps his fellow defensive backs find their spots, but also directs other position groups as to their assignments. He's a tough-nosed, run-stuffing safety who's tough in the box and has improved defending the pass. Another redshirt senior, cornerback Darius Hillary, doesn't get enough credit as he should. He's played well the past two years and continues to grow -- especially with Jones as his position coach.
The starting defensive line is solid with defensive ends Chikwe Obasih and Arthur Goldberg, with sophomore Conor Sheehy at nose guard. Two young playmakers at inside linebacker -- redshirt freshman T.J. Edwards and true freshman Chris Orr -- are continuing to learn but show great promise. How dominant have Wisconsin's linebackers been? The starters are the top four tacklers on the team with a combined 145 stops.
T-Mill: Is there any weakness that you can see Purdue exploiting on either side of the ball.
Jake: On offense, it's the offensive line. Stop the running game for Wisconsin, and you force Joel Stave to beat you. Nebraska pressured Stave greatly last week, forcing him to make an odd throw here and there that could lead to turnovers. He's shown he can carry the offense when needed, but there have been times where he's played poorly (see: Iowa in 2015, Ohio State in the 2014 Big Ten Championship game). If the running game for Wisconsin gets on track -- like it did in the fourth quarter against Nebraska last week -- head coach Paul Chryst's pro-style offense really takes off. Four of Wisconsin's last five drives in that game translated to points -- and the running game excelled during that last frame.
Defensively, the unit is solid -- but they've been prone to give up some big plays and miss tackles. Against Alabama, the defense missed 17 tackles, and last week against Nebraska, a missed tackle led to a 55-yard touchdown run by Huskers fullback Andy Janovich and a near-loss for Wisconsin that would have knocked the Badgers out of the running for the Big Ten West Division title.
T-Mill: Finally, do you have a prediction?
Jake: Wisconsin wins comfortably but, with the injuries and inexperience up front, still doesn't look complete. The defense lives up to its hype, and the offense churns with long drives to wear out the Purdue defense. Wisconsin 31, Purdue 10.