Hate week will soon reach its culmination at TCF Bank Statdium on Saturday afternoon. In order to prepare for another titanic clash to see who claims Paul Bunyan's Axe, I asked Jake Kocorowski, one of the editing managers at Bucky's 5th Quarter, a few questions about the Badgers and our upcoming showdown. Here is what transpired.
1. Minnesota has had some tough losses this year but I don't think anything compares to what the Badgers experienced last Saturday. Do you think there will be any sort of hang over from that game or is the Axe enough of a motivator for Wisconsin to just put last week behind them and focus at the task at hand?
Bucky's 5th Quarter: The team, at least from what's been said publicly, has worked to move on from the loss -- especially with what this rivalry means to both programs. It may have been one-sided for the past 11 seasons, but the players know what keeping the Axe in Wisconsin means. Many players are in-state kids that have watched the battles between the two programs since they were young. Those that are from outside the Badger state learn and understand the tradition.
The catch (well incompletion) itself is still a hot button issue, with differing opinions even amongst those that cover the Badgers (obviously, it's the referee and the Big Ten conference making the final decisions and sticking with it, as seen earlier this week). Redshirt sophomore Jazz Peavy, who was the wide receiver who was the player in question that made, then officially didn't make, that catch tweeted out a couple days later he still believes it's a touchdown.
They may have been one play call away from beating Northwestern, but the bigger worry is correcting the fact the Badgers coughed up the ball five times against the Wildcats. and finding some way to establish a running game to complement its passing game -- which has carried the offense but hasn't been enough, especially against Iowa and Northwestern.
The loss last week could be a kick in the butt of sorts in terms of motivation for the Badgers' offense heading into TCF Stadium, but we'll see if it's because of last week's game or just because of the rivalry game itself.
2. The 2015 season has been a peculiar one for the Badgers. At first glance, a chance at 9 wins seems like a reasonably successful season. However, we know expectations are usually higher in Madison and the fact that the Badgers have lost to the only three teams on their schedule with any kind of a pulse has definitely dampened the mood. How are most people feeling about Chryst's first year at the helm of the program?
BFQ: Fans are still optimistic about the program underneath head coach Paul Chryst. The offense hasn't put up the Chryst-like numbers seen in 2010 and 2011, where Wisconsin averaged over 40 points per game, but when their star running back in Corey Clement has been hampered for most of the season with a sports hernia injury -- along with a young and inexperienced offensive line that he and offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Joe Rudolph inherited from Gary Andersen -- it's tempered expectations, at least offensively. Redshirt senior quarterback Joel Stave and the passing game has really carried the offense, very uncharacteristic of your stereotypical Wisconsin offenses, and that's been a pleasant surprise given it's his first year actually getting snaps in Chryst's system (he was a redshirt freshman when Chryst was Wisconsin's offensive coordinator in 2011). Stave's still a polarizing figure in Wisconsin, to say the least, but Chryst has stuck with him as he sees him as the best quarterback currently in Madison.
The defense for Wisconsin is amongst the best in the nation and still keeps fans enthusiastic as well in the fact they've kept them in every single game outside of the season opener at Alabama. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda's squad leads the nation in scoring defense at 12.4 points per game, and fans know this is one of the more elite defenses they've seen in the history of the program.
There's also recruiting, where many fans -- at least in our commenters at B5Q -- who were worried about the recruiting aspect to Chryst. If the current commits stay with their verbal pledge, you're probably looking at a Top 25, Top 30 type of class. That's more than what many expected in his first season, but he's assembled a staff of great assistant coaches who can sell recruits on the football program and university.
3. Wisconsin's offense has struggled against its more physically opponents so far this season. There has been a lot of attrition on the offensive line and Corey Clement being injured certainly hasn't helped matters. If you could point to one thing as the reason for the Badgers' struggles against quality defenses this season, what would it be?
BFQ: You hit the nail on the head with what you mentioned above. The Badgers offensive line has had plenty of injuries, including starting center Dan Voltz, to the point of starting around a handful of different combinations so far this season. Only redshirt senior left tackle Tyler Marz has started all the games this season on the front five at the same position, while redshirt freshman Michael Dieter's played at both left guard and center. It's forced younger players to step up sooner than expected and will be great for down the road in the coming years, but there have been growing pains. Couple that with losing three starters from the year prior, including two All-Americans in Rob Havenstein and Kyle Costigan, and many felt this would be a position of concern heading into 2015 -- and despite many making considerable gains in both the weight room and on the field, it's come to fruition this season.
Without that physical running game, the Badgers have become at times one-dimensional in the passing game. Stave has been able to carry the offense this season through the passing game, but he's prone to mistakes (10 interceptions this season compared to 10 touchdown passes, and has had fumbles in critical situations -- see Iowa for latter).
4. How do you see the offense that has at times appeared to have lost its run-first identity attacking a Gopher defense that will be without its two starting defensive tackles and has seen better days this season?
BFQ: For Wisconsin to have success against Minnesota, they'll have to find some way to run the ball. Minnesota gives up close to 164 yards per game on the ground. If the offensive line and the running backs -- which may or may not be with Clement due to lingering effects of the injury -- can get 170 yards on the ground, Wisconsin will win. They may need to find some imaginative ways to make that happen, in terms of utilizing fly/jet sweeps with wide receiver Alex Erickson or using former quarterback-turned wide receiver/safety hybrid Tanner McEvoy in a wildcat (lovingly referred to as the #TannerCat) formation. In their basic zone runs, if they can get push off the ball and get offensive lineman to the second level of the defense, there'd be holes for those backs to make a play through. Not overly optimistic based on their performances this season.
Passing-wise, they have to continue establishing a secondary target to Erickson, who's 12 receptions away from breaking the single-season school record for catches. Peavy's come on late for an injured Robert Wheelwright, who was turning heads in his junior campaign before a leg injury's sidelined him since the Illinois game. That, and ensure their two big tight end targets in redshirt senior Austin Traylor and Troy Fumagalli find the holes in the Gophers' pass defense. When used in the passing game, redshirt senior fullback Derek Watt's been effective. He hasn't been used as much as I thought he'd be as an outlet for Stave, but if they need to move the pocket on rollouts Saturday, I'd expect him and the tight ends to have big games.
5. What has allowed Wisconsin to have so much success on the defensive side of the ball this season? Who are the main reasons for this success?
BFQ: It's a combination of things, mostly with their pressure but also playing sound gap-fundamental football. Their pressure schemes will rush four players, but you don't know where they're coming from or how many. Wisconsin's linebackers -- particularly their outside linebackers in Joe Schobert and Vince Biegel -- have contributed to 30.5 tackles for loss combined. Schobert, a former walk-on like Erickson and Stave, has had a breakthrough season for UW, being amongst the nation's leaders in tackles for loss (18.5) and sacks (9.5). Biegel has more name recognition and is what I would say the emotional leader of the defense, and is second on the team in sacks with seven.
They also stop the run. The Badgers have held opponents to 102 rushing yards per game, sixth-best in the FBS. Out of Wisconsin's top six tacklers on the season, five are linebackers. Credit the defensive line as well for plugging holes in Aranda's 3-4 defense, which appears to be more of a one-gap 3-4 scheme than the two-gap seen in 2013's squad, as well as the players for knowing their assignments.
The secondary has played quite well, tied for fifth in the nation with only giving up 164.3 yards per game through the air. Three seniors in cornerback Darius Hillary and safeties Michael Caputo and McEvoy have really evolved into quite the veteran unit. McEvoy leads the team in interceptions and provides a huge obstacle for opposing quarterbacks. Literally, he's 6'6 and a safety.
6. What are your predictions for Saturday?
BFQ: First one to 20 points wins, in my opinion. Wisconsin's offensive struggles could limit them again in Minneapolis, but that aggressive defense Aranda deploys has been up to the task all season. I don't see that changing. It'll be a gritty battle with tons of emotion on each side, but I think Wisconsin pulls out a 17-14 victory based on that defense and the Badgers rekindling a bit of fire in that offense due to last week's game. However, I would not be surprised if Minnesota takes home the Axe for the first time in 12 years, especially at home and with former head coach Jerry Kill in the building.
Thanks Jake and here's to a good game on Saturday and a Gopher win!!!