Once again we’re skipping ahead as I wait for responses to questions on Iowa and Minnesota. That means we can take a look at the final home game of the season. no one is winning the Big Ten West without taking out Wisconsin, and hte Badgers have the longest winning streak of any opponent ever one Purdue. I talked with Jake Kocorowski of Bucky’s 5th Quarter about what it would take to end the streak:
T-Mill: Wisconsin is once again the heavy favorite in the B1G West. Do you see anyone seriously challenging them?
Jake: It’s a question I’ve received often, and not trying to sound homer-ish, but I wonder who will actually step up to challenge Wisconsin this year. I have questions for each squad that need to be answered to overthrow the Badgers. That’s not to say there aren’t teams that could/will give UW some fits during games, especially with a tougher 2018 schedule with road contests at Iowa, Michigan, Northwestern, Penn State and Purdue.
Honestly, and I’ve said this before in another Q&A, but I really like Purdue and what Jeff Brohm is doing down there in West Lafeyette. I’m intrigued to see what they can do in year two and how much they can continue the positive momentum from last year. I think that’ll be a fun November match-up, and it’s one that Wisconsin will be coming off of a “circle this date on your calendar” road contest at Penn State.
T-Mill: Last season Purdue gave the Badgers quite a game in Madison, but it ended like so many others have. What went wrong for Wisconsin that day?
Jake: Covering that game up in the press box for B5Q, Wisconsin dominated the stat sheets (494 total yards to 221), got out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter and only technically punted TWICE (NOT SO B1G!).
However, they gave up three turnovers--including two interceptions by quarterback Alex Hornibrook. Both picks came in Purdue territory with big returns thereafter, and then Jonathan Taylor fumbled inside the Boilermakers’ five-yard line to start the fourth quarter--which would have put the game away.
Despite not a lot of yardage throughout the game, Purdue drove to Wisconsin’s 10-yard line in the fourth quarter where it took a Leon Jacobs interception to fend off the possibility of a tie game. It was an ugly win, but still a win.
T-Mill: Is Alex Hornibrook basically “Typical Wisconsin QB int he Jim Sorgi mold”, or does he stand out for other reasons.
Jake: Kudos, Travis, for the Jim Sorgi reference (luckiest back-up quarterback in NFL history, amirite?).
Hornibrook is definitely primed to be better than Sorgi, as he already has a better career completion percentage (60.9 to 55.5) and more touchdown passes (34 to 33) than one of the predecessors of Wisconsin quarterbacking lore. I would say he has the opportunity to be up there among the best signal callers in school history (more Scott Tolzien than Russell Wilson, however). He has the work ethic, training in the offseason like he has, but he showed last year that he can make big throws (see: Michigan game and the Orange Bowl victory against Miami) and also the ability to rebound from mistakes in a stoic-like manner.
However, the big thing for him is reducing those interceptions. If he contains those turnovers this season, with the weapons around him in both the rushing and passing attacks, the offense could be among the most potent seen since the 2011 Wilson-led unit.
T-Mill: Which Wisconsin running back will be running for over 1,500 yards behind several very large men clearing his way this year?
Jake: It all starts with Taylor, who will return after a superb freshman campaign where he was just 23 yards away from breaking 2,000 for the season. During the spring, us media saw him working on his route running with head coach Paul Chryst exclusively, wanting to add more skillsets to his arsenal. The sophomore is mature both on the field with his strength, patience, and speed but also off of it, knowing he has to improve in all facets of his game.
Like Hornibrook, Taylor needs to reduce his turnover problem (see: fumbles, not interceptions of course--though if he started throwing touchdown passes that’d be insane). If he does that and avoids injuries, there is no reason he won’t be Heisman-worthy come the end of the year with his tools and a returning offensive line that features three All-Americans.
Behind him, Chris James was originally thought to be the man in the backfield with Bradrick Shaw as a duo before Taylor emergence, but both fought injuries. Walk-on Garrett Groshek is a nice change of pace back who found time during injuries. Redshirt senior Taiwan Deal, if he stays healthy, is a big power back, but be on the lookout for Nakia Watson--a 231-pound true freshman who, by measurements’ standards, may already look the part in contributing early.
Honestly though, it’s all about Taylor. If he stays healthy, I don’t see a sophomore slump at all.
T-Mill: Are there any significant defensive changes from last year?
Jake: This will be the unit to watch this year in terms of development. Gone are seven starters and two key contributors. The main area of concern for me is along the defensive line, where the Badgers lose not just three departing ends with 156 combined games of experience but also junior Garrett Rand. Rand was supposed to start at end opposite Isaiahh Loudermilk but reportedly suffered an Achilles injury, ending his season. Loudermilk himself was reported to have had surgery in that same, putting his timetable for return in question (even Chryst doesn’t know per the media in attendance at Big Ten Media Days). Senior Olive Sagapolu is the anchor of the group at nose tackle, but there will be some new faces hoping to plug up gaps at the end positions this season.
There are also questions as to who will start in three of the four defensive back positions. Returning is multi-watch list nominee D’Cota Dixon at safety, and though Wisconsin loses its starters at cornerback in Nick Nelson and Derrick Tindal, redshirt sophomore Dontye Carriere-Williams played many snaps as the team’s third cornerback in nickel subpackages.
Along with Sagapolu and Dixon, returning to Jim Leonhard’s unit are inside linebacker T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly--the former an All-American who came back for his final year. A former walk-on, Connelly is an underrated linebacker who is extremely athletic and flies to the ball. Outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel turned into a playmaker at the end of last year and is primed for a huge 2018. We’ll see who complements him on the opposite side of the edge.
T-Mill: With one more win Wisconsin makes it 13 straight, the longest win streak anyone has ever had over Purdue. What will it take to end this run?
Jake: Wisconsin’s offense should have its most potent, balanced attack since 2011. Opposing defenses probably will have trouble trying to pick its poison between stopping a rushing game with high expectations and an aerial attack that has its deepest and most talented group of receivers in some time. However, if the turnover problem doesn’t solve itself, as that’s the way Purdue stayed in the game last year, I figure it’d be the same for this season.
The biggest concern in my opinion is how they’re going to fill in the pieces from last year’s defense. That dominant defense was one of the best in the nation. They will have to find players to step up on the defensive line in particular, but also outside backer opposite Van Ginkel and finding the right players at cornerback. I’m less worried about safety after seeing what Scott Nelson and Patrick Johnson could do in the defensive backfield with Dixon out for spring ball.
When the two teams play, Wisconsin should have some answers and game experience with its defense, and never count out defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard in optimizing his players to the best of their abilities. This defense will be better than the 2011 edition that cost the team two wins that could have propelled them into BCS title talk. I would say though, for Purdue to come out on top, win that turnover battle and get the defense uncomfortable with some of Brohm’s magic.