It’s Wisconsin week, so that means another great interview with a guest blogger. This week it is Jake Kocorowski from the always excellent Bucky’s 5th Quarter. I answered his questions earlier in the week over there, but here are his responses to mine:
T-Mill: Wisconsin was a preseason top 5 team, but now will probably finish the season unranked. Was it just losing Hornibrook or what else has gone wrong?
Jake: It’s definitely not just losing Hornibrook for essentially 2.5 games, though his absence has made the offense very one-dimensional. This could be a 4.000-word longform that we’ll probably tackle in the offseason, but essentially the offense never lived up to the high expectations many (especially us media) set for it while the defense became very human after losing seven starters and two contributors from a Top-5 unit a year ago.
Wisconsin is one of the best running the ball, currently sixth in the nation yet is 115th passing. Jonathan Taylor has hit a decent amount of chunk plays this year and overall has been more consistent while leading the nation in rushing yards per game, but this offense still hasn’t had many explosive plays through the air--and teams are stacking up against the run and forcing the Badgers to beat them through the air. In the four losses, you can also look at the third down conversions, maybe the biggest indicator of the offense not being as efficient (14-of-51 in those four games, including 4-of-15 against Penn State last week). Last year, they moved the chains 49 percent of the time on that down; this season, they only convert around 42 percent. It makes a huge difference when you have the type of offense Wisconsin utilizes, where getting in a rhythm and flow of the game is key--especially for its quarterbacks.
Defensively, the unit has actually played a lot better in recent weeks after rough games against BYU, Iowa, Nebraska and even Michigan (though the latter I look at the offense for being so stagnant at the Big House that it kept the defense on the field longer than it should have). Right now, Wisconsin has a defense that has utilized over a handful of freshmen (both true and redshirt) at times, and despite senior leadership at key positions, injuries have also hurt the team. Many thought it could just be a “reload” situation for Wisconsin, that the program has achieved that type of status after three-to-four years of success in the 3-4 scheme. This season, that has not been the case.
T-Mill: Speaking of Hornibrook, what is his status this week? Wisconsin’s offense has not been great without him.
Jake: We’ll know more on Thursday morning when the updated injury report is given, but right now he is currently questionable with a head injury. It appears, according to those that spoke with offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph on Tuesday, that Hornibrook worked some in practice on Tuesday. If he cannot go, Jack Coan would get his third start of the season.
T-Mill: The Badgers have won 12 in a row over Purdue, more than any other opponent ever, and haven’t given up more than 20 points in that time. Can Purdue score more than 20 on this defense?
Jake: Yes it can. The unit, as I stated earlier, has gotten better as the season has wore on. However, it still is giving up some big plays here and there, as it did in the ground game against Penn State last week and in week’s prior (80-yard plus run by Shea Patterson at Michigan, Reggie Corbin’s 80-yard run in a home win against Illinois). It has become very “bend but don’t break”-ish the past few games. The secondary, even with redshirt senior safety D’Cota Dixon back from injury, is young but improving each game.
I cannot praise redshirt senior inside linebackers Ryan Connelly and T.J. Edwards enough for their effort and play this year, as they have flown around to the ball and continued to make plays despite the rough season. The outside linebackers, Andrew Van Ginkel and Zack Baun, are now finally getting to the point where they’re putting consistent rush on together. The former was battling an injury earlier this year suffered against BYU, while the latter was out all of last year with a foot injury. We’ll see what they can do this week.
T-Mill: Jonathan Taylor may have to win this by himself. Is he capable of that?
Jake: He ran for 185 yards on over nine yards per carry last week against Penn State, and Wisconsin still lost by 12 (which felt like 24). I would say no, unless he can rush for 250-300 yards this week in West Lafayette. Redshirt senior Taiwan Deal, having a resurgence after battling injuries for a good chunk of his Wisconsin career, is a great complement to Taylor but is questionable this week after suffering a right leg injury at Happy Valley.
Long story short though, Wisconsin needs to get its passing game on track to not have eight to nine guys in the box to defend the run.
T-Mill: What is your biggest concern in facing Purdue?
Jake: I think it’s with the offense not getting on track. Everyone knew going into this year that unit would need to carry the defense to an extent based on turnover/attrition. I’ll be watching the third down conversions to see if Wisconsin can get either Hornibrook or Coan into a rhythm and keep the Purdue offense off the field.
For the defense, it is containing not just Rondale Moore in the passing game but also the Purdue rushing attack. I think the secondary could hold up relatively well, but stopping the run game is paramount for any defense.
T-Mill: Finally, what do you see happening on Saturday?
Right now, I see Purdue breaking the losing streak. Wisconsin is on the road with an inconsistent, one-dimensional offense. The defense has improved, but the gadget plays Purdue employs could shift defenders’ eyes from where they should be.
I also think the Louisville situation could be a distraction for Purdue, and based off of their up and down season, they may not show their full potential like they did against Ohio State.
I’ll say Purdue 23, Wisconsin 21. If Hornibrook plays and gets into a rhythm to help alleviate the run game, then it’s a different story.