Wisconsin Badgers vs. LSU Tigers Complete Game Preview
Capping off a terrific opening-day slate, the Wisconsin Badgers take on the LSU Tigers in Houston, Texas, at NRG Stadium. Both teams have a lot of turnover on both sides of the ball and question marks at the quarterback position.
These schools faced off twice in the 1970s, with LSU taking both games—though they haven't met since 1972 when the Tigers won 27-7 in Baton Rouge.
In light of the new College Football Playoff, high-caliber nonconference games will be played more frequently in the opening weeks of the season. This game is no exception, and neutral-and-neutral series will become a bigger piece of the early-season schedule with television contracts being what they are.
When the two teams face off at 9 p.m. ET, all eyes will be watching (except for those watching Florida State and Oklahoma State) as both teams look to get a leg up on their playoff bid and maybe even a spot in the Top 10.
Wisconsin Keys to Victory
Run the Ball—Then Run Some More
Whether it's Tanner McEvoy or Joel Stave under center on any given play, the game plan has to be to run the ball down LSU's throat. With running backs Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement being as fresh as they will be all season, look for both ball-carriers to see upward of 20 carries.
The question really becomes how to maximize McEvoy's athleticism to soften up the stacked boxes the Badgers will be facing all night. The read-option has not been a part of the Badgers' playbook in the past, but with McEvoy, they now have the ability to run that branch of plays.
The fly sweep will still be a big part of the Badgers' attack and run by any number of players, including Gordon, Clement, wideout Kenzel Doe and speedy freshman wide receiver Natrell Jamerson.
Pressure the Quarterback
The Badgers' not-so-new 3-4 defense is designed to pressure the quarterback. Last season, the Badgers tried to get after the passer more, but last year, they still finished in the middle of the pack in sacks.
Their 26 sacks as a team were tied for 60th in the FBS (Stanford was No. 1 with 44). That number will need to increase dramatically, though they have more pieces in place to get after the quarterback, including defensive linemen Warren Herring, Chikwe Obasih and Alec James.
If the Badgers can slow down the Tigers' rushing attack while getting to the quarterback for a few sacks and hurries, they will be in good shape to win the game.
LSU Keys to Victory
Sustain Rushing Attack
Last season, LSU had tremendous balance on offense, with a 3,000-yard passer to go along with a 1,000-yard rusher. This season, both Zach Mettenberger (the 3,000-yard passer) and Jeremy Hill (the 1,000-yard rusher) are gone, but LSU should see a continuation of its strong rushing attack.
The Tigers return Terrence Magee, who rushed for 626 yards last season on only 86 carries, as well as Kenny Hilliard, who rushed for 310 yards and seven touchdowns last season.
Adding to their stable of backs is Leonard Fournette, a freshman who has all the makings to be the next Adrian Peterson. Fournette was a 5-star recruit and the No. 1 overall player, according to 247 Sports, and if he is as good as advertised, then the Tigers' rushing attack shouldn't take a step back from last year's rate of 202.3 yards per game (30th in the nation).
Force Badgers to Throw
Though signs point to McEvoy being the starting quarterback, whether it's McEvoy or Stave, neither has shown an ability to carry a team with their arm. Last season, when Stave was called upon to throw the ball 30 or more times, the team went 1-3.
If LSU can bottle up the Badgers' rushing attack well enough to force McEvoy and Stave to combine for 30 or more passing attempts, there's a good chance the Tigers will walk out of Houston with a W.
Wisconsin Players to Watch
Tanner McEvoy, Quarterback
All eyes will be on McEvoy, who was named the starter, according to Jeff Potrykus of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Last season, McEvoy didn't see a single snap at quarterback but did play in 11 games at safety, starting three and recording 27 total tackles to go along with an interception.
McEvoy's athleticism will likely be on display as the Badgers trot out a variety of new packages to keep the LSU defense on its toes. If he can complete some passes and get in a rhythm early, it will help calm everyone's nerves and open up some rushing lanes for Gordon and Clement.
Derek Landisch, Linebacker
If he plays, which has been called into question due to a hamstring injury sustained in camp, Landisch will have to fill the enormous shoes left by the graduation of linebacker Chris Borland. Though Landisch is not trying to be Borland, as he told Jesse Temple of Fox Sports Wisconsin, someone is going to have to pick up the slack.
Borland totaled 111 total tackles last year to Landisch's 33. If Marcus Trotter and Landisch can bottle up the Tigers running backs and even make some plays in the backfield, then the Badgers will be well on their way to victory.
LSU Players to Watch
Leonard Fournette, Running Back
All eyes are on Gordon for his Heisman candidacy. However, few freshmen running backs have struck as much fear in opponents' hearts before ever stepping onto a college field as Fournette.
Fournette was unbelievable in high school with stats barely seen even in a video game. He had 7,619 rushing yards and 88 touchdowns on the ground while at St. Augustine in New Orleans, according to his LSU team bio. All signs point to the 6'1", 230-pound Fournette being able to continue his superb play, and this is the nation's first chance to see him play against those who match him physically.
He has a lot of competition on the depth chart in front of him (Hilliard, Magee), but I wouldn't be surprised to see him still touch the ball 15 times this game.
D.J. Welter, Linebacker
D.J. Welter is hardly a fan favorite, but he's also the most experienced linebacker on a team that is turning over much of its defense. He recorded 80 tackles (four for a loss) last season—two of which were sacks.
Welter will need to perform extremely well for the Tigers as they hope to be better than last year. While it's not to say their defense was bad in 2013, they struggled at rushing the passer, and much of their defense has since left.
If Welter can be a steadying force, then the Tigers defense will be in better shape early on than many expect. If he struggles, then Tigers fans should watch out as the Badgers' talented offensive line and stable of running backs will run right through them.
What They’re Saying
The coaching staff has played its quarterback competition close to the vest—even after Potrykus' report stating McEvoy would be named the starter. But Gordon may have further confirmed Potrykus' news, saying, "Even though Tanner was named the starter, I think Joel will continue to work and wait for his chance," per Temple.
At his weekly press conference, head coach Gary Andersen commented on McEvoy, saying:
But the biggest thing for Tanner is the growth within the offense. This is an offense where there's a lot of checks and a lot of verbiage, and it's a pro-style offense that a smart kid has to get back there to understand the offense and get it moving in the right direction. To be in the one and two and be fighting it out for as long as they've been fighting it out, Joel (Stave) and Tanner are both obviously very capable, or Andy (Ludwig) wouldn't be using reps up on them.
Tigers coach Les Miles is also in the same position as the Badgers coaching staff in terms of his quarterback competition between freshman Brandon Harris and sophomore Anthony Jennings: He knows who it is but isn't sharing.
Here's what Miles had to say about it at his press conference:
Well, we are going to play the best player that gives us the best chance at victory ever when that is. ...
So if at some point in time it's one guy; if at some point in time it's almost a full game of one guy. I think our team understands that we have talented quarterbacks and we have guys that can play. But right now they have not separated themselves, and we are not certain. If we were certain, then I promise you, we would play the one guy that would give us all the advantage.
But, if two guys can give us greater advantage than one guy, then let's certainly play two.
This is a real toss-up. Both teams are heavy on talent and light on experience, with the edge going to LSU in terms of its success in recruiting stars. Under normal circumstances, I'd say the Badgers have an offensive line the likes of which LSU has never seen before, but the Tigers play Alabama and Texas A&M.
Even with a loss, there's a lot the Badgers can take away from this game. In fact, this matchup is being used more as a measuring stick for the Big Ten on the whole than it is for a young Badgers team.
This contest will likely be a low-scoring affair, but while Gordon will break off one big run, the Tigers will walk out of Houston victorious by a hair.
Final Score: LSU 21, Wisconsin 17