A pair of 6-2 teams that can pound the rock with the best of them will square off at Camp Randall Stadium when the Wisconsin Badgers host the BYU Cougars in an oddly timed, yet pivotal nonconference matchup.
The only previous meeting between these two schools came in 1980, when BYU knocked off Wisconsin, 28-3 in Madison, Wis.
Just as the Badgers had an extra week to prepare for Iowa in Week 10 after handing their Big Ten rivals a 28-9 defeat, BYU will be coming off a bye as it gets set for perhaps its biggest test of the season.
The Wisconsin offense didn't get going until the second half against the Hawkeyes last Saturday, but James White—not Melvin Gordon—came forward and helped break open the game in the fourth quarter. Recently becoming an Independent after leaving the Mountain West, the Cougars have impressive victories over Texas, Georgia Tech, Houston and most recently Boise State.
While it's never easy traveling to Madison and bringing home a victory, BYU has already challenged itself this season and shouldn't be intimidated. But the Badgers have only allowed one touchdown in four home games this season, so points may be hard to come by for the Cougars.
Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen is plenty familiar with the Cougars, as he faced them annually while with Utah State. Let's see if he is up to the challenge once again, this time while wearing red, as we preview Saturday afternoon's showdown between the Badgers and Cougars.
Day, Time: Saturday at 2:30 p.m. CT
Place: Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, Wis.
Spread: Wisconsin (-7.5), via Odds Shark
Spy Taysom Hill
So much will come down to how the Badgers defense can limit BYU dual-threat quarterback Taysom Hill, who leads the Cougars in rushing through eight games. He will run into his biggest challenge yet this season, however, as Wisconsin features the No. 5 rushing defense in the nation.
Hill isn't nearly as effective through the air as he is on his feet, which benefits a Badgers secondary that has improved but isn't quite where it needs to be.
In order to keep an eye on Hill, it might be in Wisconsin's best interest to spy the sophomore quarterback, perhaps even with linebacker Chris Borland. The only issue is that Borland hasn't practiced or played since injuring his hamstring against Illinois on Oct. 19, so a lot hinges on Borland's health when it comes to how well the Badgers can contain Hill.
Get Melvin Gordon going again
Against two tough rushing defenses—Ohio State and Iowa—this season, sophomore tailback Melvin Gordon has failed to crack the 80-yard plateau or even five yards per carry. Then again, Gordon's biggest game of the season came against Arizona State, a team with the No. 21 run defense in the FBS.
Following his first lackluster performance of the season against the Buckeyes, Gordon bounced back for 172 yards and a touchdown against Northwestern. Certainly, the Cougars present more resistance than the Wildcats, but they allow 145.3 rushing yards per game, good for No. 42 in the country.
Gordon has yet to rush for fewer than 140 yards at home in 2013, and he will be on a mission—no pun intended—to reach that mark again after only putting up 62 yards in Iowa City. If Gordon can do so, the Badgers should be well on their way to victory.
Make defense respect Hill's throwing ability
Being just a sophomore, Taysom Hill is beginning to turn into a special player for a school that once deemed itself "Quarterback U." He is the second-leading rusher among quarterbacks with 841 yards on the ground, and he has also rushed for eight touchdowns to go along with his 5.9 yards-per-carry average.
Wisconsin has been fairly successful at containing scrambling quarterbacks this season, but that won't stop Hill from calling his own number early and often.
While a lot has been made of Hill's ability to take off running, it's been his arm doing a lot of the talking lately. Over his last five games—each of which BYU has won—Hill has completed 65.4 percent of his passes for 1,455 yards and 11 TDs.
Those improved passing numbers make Hill No. 6 in college football in total offense, and if he is able to continue slinging the ball well, the Wisconsin defense could be in for a long day.
Key in on ground game
The Cougars rank No. 74 in passing defense in the FBS, but they can't afford to drop more men back in coverage, because the Badgers have one of the best running games in the country.
Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave can hurt you with his arm from time to time, but the Badgers do most of their damage on the ground, so BYU must zone in on Melvin Gordon and James White. Forcing Wisconsin to move the football through the air has been the best plan of attack for opposing defenses this season—if they succeed in doing so.
The Badgers' No. 1 receiver, Jared Abbrederis, also suffered a chest injury against Iowa, and while he is still expected to play, that injury may work to the Cougars' advantage, considering their porous pass defense.
Borland is a risky selection, as he could be watching from the sidelines against BYU. But he brings so many intangibles to this Wisconsin defense, and the senior linebacker plans on returning Week 11 to face the Cougars.
Then again, the Badgers were fairly certain Borland would be a go against the Hawkeyes, and pregame warm-ups didn't go according to plan. Being able to escape Iowa with a victory sans Borland, Wisconsin's leading tackler, is one thing, but BYU features a dual-threat quarterback, and Borland's nose for the football makes him doubly important against such an opponent.
With fellow linebacker Conor O'Neill also battling injury, Wisconsin can't afford to be shorthanded in the front seven against the Cougars. If Borland is able to suit up, he greatly increases the likelihood of a Wisconsin victory.
The Cougars are a team that likes to try to outscore you, but the Badgers like to win whether it requires smashing you in the mouth or shutting you down on defense. BYU doesn't feature the stingiest of defenses, and that's just fine with running back Melvin Gordon.
Gordon was happy to defer to senior James White against the Hawkeyes, who is a formidable back in his own right. But Gordon isn't one for back-to-back lackluster performances.
Returning home for the first time in nearly a month to go up against a team that doesn't crack the top 50 in total defense should give Gordon an extra hop in his step. If he is able to break a few big plays early, it could demoralize the BYU defense and propel Wisconsin to an easy victory.
We've talked enough about quarterback Taysom Hill, so what about his biggest threat in the passing game, Cody Hoffman?
The Badgers have a 6'4" threat at receiver, but the Cougars have one of their own in Hoffman, who has caught 29 passes for 524 yards and three touchdowns this season. As Hill has improved his passing game, Hoffman has become a more prevalent part of the offense, and he should be licking his chops going up against a secondary that has had some issues this season.
Hoffman needs just 14 passing yards to surpass Austin Collie as the school's all-time leading receiver in receiving yards. Barring injury or incredible coverage, that record should be Hoffman's on Saturday.
Kyle Van Noy
Both Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda remember going up against linebacker Kyle Van Noy while at Utah State, but the man who might not be all that excited to see Van Noy is offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig.
Last season, Ludwig held the same position at San Diego State, the team that happened to be the Cougars' opponent in their bowl game. Van Noy had an incredible performance, recording 3.5 tackles for a loss and two defensive touchdowns en route to a 23-6 BYU victory.
The senior linebacker is back at it again in 2013—he is the second-leading tackler on the team and paces the Cougars with four sacks.
Like Hoffman, Van Noy was invited to play in the Senior Bowl in January, and Van Noy was also named as a semifinalist for the Butkus Award. Now, both players have a chance to make a name for themselves on a national stage.
At his weekly press conference, Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen joked about having to play BYU even after leaving Utah State, via Benjamin Worgull of BadgerNation.com:
Having BYU on the schedule was probably one of the most shocking things that I looked at when I took this job. It's amazing. They follow me all the way here.
GA on BYU's tempo: 'We can't get into a momentum game of ups and downs. We have to be steady-Eddie just like we were last week.'— Benjamin Worgull (@TheBadgerNation) November 4, 2013
The relationship between Andersen and BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall is very strong, as evidenced by the following quote from the Wisconsin head honcho:
"Bronco actually gave me a coaching job when I was in high school. ... I was at Park City high school coaching and Bronco called me out of the blue. ... Our friendship has grown through that [Utah State and BYU rivalry]."
Mendenhall had strong words for Andersen in return, via Jeff Call of Deseret News:
"He did a really nice job with Utah State, and did a nice job at Utah as the coordinator,” Mendenhall said. "He deserved (the head coaching position at Wisconsin), and he's done a nice job with it already. It doesn't surprise me."
BYU has two potent running threats in Taysom Hill and Jamaal Williams, as does Wisconsin with James White and Melvin Gordon. It could come down to who throws the football better between Hill and Joel Stave, or perhaps even Wisconsin's home-field advantage.
Between the teams' combined four losses, neither has lost by more than a touchdown, and each let opportunities slip through its fingertips earlier this season. Now, the Cougars are riding a five-game winning streak and have their own ideas about entering the BCS picture, just like the Badgers.
It's safe to say this will be a BCS elimination game.
The Cougars are not a team to be taken lightly, and it's odd to have to prepare for a nonconference opponent in November. But Gary Andersen is familiar with BYU, just as Bronco Mendenhall knows the tendencies of Andersen from his days at Utah State.
When it comes down to it, Wisconsin puts up more and allows fewer points than BYU. The Cougars' uptempo offense led by a dual-threat quarterback adds a wrinkle, but it's nothing the Badgers haven't seen before.
The Badgers defense is strong where BYU struggles—on third down and in the red zone. Melvin Gordon will return to his dominant self, Wisconsin's front seven will win the battle against Hill and Williams, and the Badgers will protect home field in their return to Madison.
Prediction: Wisconsin 28, BYU 17