The Wisconsin Badgers may be ranked 24th in the BCS, but that doesn’t mean that the BYU Cougars won’t present a challenge for them when they visit Camp Randall Stadium.
In fact, both teams currently sit at 6-2 on the season, and each need a big win to jump-start their seasons.
The Badgers are trying to keep pace with the Ohio State Buckeyes, while Bronco Mendenhall’s squad is trying to prove that their impressive record is no fluke.
True to form, Wisconsin is a physical, defensive team once more, and the Badgers will have to contend with the Cougars’ equally imposing defense to avoid falling even further behind in the Big Ten.
Most analysts favor the Badgers, but the following keys to the game will truly determine which team walks away victorious.
Camp Randall Dominance
There’s little doubt that Camp Randall Stadium is an intimidating venue for road teams. The stadium seats 80,000 fans, and the Badgers have historically been superb when playing non-conference games at home.
Their record playing out-of-conference games at Camp Randall is even one of the more impressive marks in the whole country, as KSL’s Jeremiah Jensen explains.
Wisconsin is 20-5 in the month of November since 2006. They have won 28 straight non-conference home games, 2nd longest streak in FBS #BYU— Jeremiah Jensen (@JJSportsBeat) November 7, 2013
However, the Cougars have proved that they can perform at a high level on the road. BYU earned a thrilling 47-46 win over the Houston Cougars as the away team and thrashed the Utah State Aggies 31-14 on the road.
Camp Randall will be unlike anything this Cougars team has seen this season, and it could undoubtedly affect their nerves during the game.
But a bigger factor may be their short-yardage efficiency.
Bearing Down When it Matters
A matchup between a pair of defensive teams often comes down to third down conversions and red-zone efficiency, so this matchup should hinge on both of those factors.
Mendenhall’s bunch is only converting 34.2 percent of its third downs, and is 80th in the nation in red-zone efficiency.
Accordingly the Cougars will have to try and reverse those trends against the Badgers, as the Salt Lake Tribune’s Jay Drew observes.
Mendenhall and Hill both said the same things when asked what the Cougars need to do to spring the upset: convert on third down on offense and keep the Badgers from doing the same when BYU’s defense is on the field. And, BYU must be able to score touchdowns in the red zone, which it couldn’t do against Utah.
But Wisconsin won’t make it easy on them. Not only are the Badgers sixth in the nation at stopping opposing offenses on third down, but they’re also excellent in the red zone.
The Badgers are 24th in the nation in red-zone defense, and have been intimidating there all season long, as Tom Mulhern of the Wisconsin State Journal explains:
"UW’s defense has allowed opponents inside the Badgers’ 20-yard line just 21 times this season. Of those drives, only eight have resulted in touchdowns."
However, if BYU’s quarterback performs at an elite level, those types of conversions will be much easier to come by.
On Hill’s Shoulders
BYU isn’t accustomed to starting a dynamic athlete at quarterback, but that’s exactly what they have in Taysom Hill.
The sophomore is throwing for 252 yards per game and running for 105 more, tallying 20 total touchdowns so far.
He’s played his best in the team’s biggest games, as these stellar plays against Houston demonstrate.
Wisconsin presents a unique challenge for Hill, however, as the Badgers only yield 195 yards through the air per game.
If he can find even some semblance of his normal success through the air, it will take a lot of pressure off the Cougars’ 14th-ranked running game.
The last time the Badgers faced a mobile quarterback, they let the Buckeyes’ Braxton Miller throw for four scores and run for 83 yards. Clearly, there’s a chance for Hill to make some noise here.
If Hill excels and helps the offense overcome the Badgers’ dominant defense, the imposing road atmosphere shouldn’t matter.
However, it’s hard to argue with history. The Badgers are dominant at home, and Wisconsin will be the toughest test for these Cougars this season by far.
Regardless, it will undoubtedly be a compelling out-of-conference matchup that will indelibly shape the rest of the season for both squads.