The No. 11-ranked Wisconsin Badgers have completed their out-of-conference schedule with a 4-0 record and are ready to kick off Big Ten play with a road game at No. 24-ranked Michigan State. Ready for viewership in the afternoon slot on ABC this Saturday, the game will be huge for both teams.
For the Badgers, it could be their ticket into the top 10. For the Spartans, a win could vault them past conference-contenders Iowa, Michigan, and Penn State.
With six Big Ten teams in the AP top-25 rankings, the Big Ten conference schedule is a springboard from which Wisconsin, or any other Big Ten team for that matter, could launch themselves into best-in-the-nation discussions. However, no other team in the Big Ten has a better chance of dominating the conference like the Wisconsin Badgers.
Though Wisconsin had a close call against Arizona State, needing a blocked PAT on the game’s final score to leave victorious, they bounced back in a big way against Austin Peay, converting their first nine drives of the game into touchdowns and gaining 618 yards in the process.
The Badgers have won despite missing their top two wide receivers, Nick Toon and David Gilreath, both of whom will be back in action for the Big Ten season opener. As potent as the Badger offense can be with these two playmakers, their absence has opened the door for other emerging stars on offense.
Lance Kendricks has become senior quarterback Scott Tolzien’s go-to guy with Toon out of the lineup. Wisconsin has torched the opposition countless times with play-action passes to Kendricks to one side of the field off run fakes to the opposite side of the field.
The play design has Kendricks releasing from his block and running wide open for gains of 20-plus yards consistently. The predictability of Wisconsin’s potent run offense allows for the incredible production in the passing game off play-action, but Kendricks’ ability to seal the edge in the run game keeps teams guessing when he’ll slip that block.
Kendricks is very athletic (he was originally recruited as a wide receiver and simply grew out of the position) and can be split out wide where he is especially effective in the red zone. He runs crisp routes, understands body positioning, has reliable hands, has speed to burn, and is an accountable player, having played in the last 17 games for the Badgers, starting 13 of them. He is an ascending player and a matchup nightmare.
Aside from Kendricks, what is a running team to do with its top two receivers inactive? Run the ball more? Yes, of course. And with John Clay being eased back into shape after offseason surgery on both ankles, someone else in the backfield was going to get more carries. That someone was James White.
White was playing the role of change-of-pace back and is built in the complete opposite mold of Clay, standing 5’10” and under 200 lbs to Clay’s 6’1” and 250-plus lbs. In his first three games this season as a true freshman, White picked up good gains on minimal carries. He then exploded onto the scene in Wisconsin’s contest against Austin Peay last Saturday.
White amassed 145 yards and four touchdowns running the ball a mere 11 times, including a 66-yard gallop down the left sideline for a score. The Badgers now know they have a back in White that can wear a defense out and a back in Clay that can wear a defense down.
Now that the Big Ten season has commenced, Wisconsin is ready to give Clay the full workload after averaging less than 20 carries a game so far in 2010. Even with the limited carries, or at least limited to what he’s used to getting, Clay also carries the nation’s longest current streak of consecutive games with at least 100 yards rushing and one touchdown, a streak of 10 games.
He’s a bruising runner and receives an enormous advantage gaining yards after contact as defenders concede in tackling his feet, allowing Clay to fall forward for another 2-3 yards every time he’s tackled. He also has some decent wiggle and breakaway speed (at least against defensive linemen) for his size, as well as great vision and decision-making in the hole.
The Wisconsin offense is built to run from start to finish with the play-action passing from the deadly accurate and effective Tolzien (15-of-17 for 217 yards and three touchdowns passing last week against Austin Peay) sprinkled in throughout the game.
The kicking game (Philip Welch 6-of-7 in FGs, 19-of-19 in PATs this season; Brad Nortman 42.2 career punting average) is reliable and the special teams coverage units have recovered after a terrible outing against Arizona State in which they allowed two 90-plus-yard kickoff returns in the same half.
The Wisconsin defense received a tough blow with the loss of Chris Borland to a season-ending shoulder injury, but they have recovered, assisted by elevated play from their defensive leaders.
J.J. Watt has been dominant. He has been stout at the line versus the run and effective using a speed or bull rush to get to the passer. He’s simply been a constant disruption in the backfield of opposing offenses.
On the other side of him, Louis Nzegwu has been doing a good job imitating Watt’s performance, having notched two sacks on the year while playing the run effectively.
Behind them, Mike Taylor is starting to emerge as an emotional leader in the linebacking group. His non-stop motor, high-energy play and his nose for the ball are helping him lead the Badgers with seven tackles, including 1.5 for loss, last week versus Austin Peay.
And behind Taylor, the tandem of Jay Valai and Aaron Henry strikes fear into the hearts of their opponents, aided by their fierce hitting ability and big-time plays.
Valai already has a reputation for being a big hitter, but with Henry’s move from corner to safety, he has jumped on the scene with jaw-jarring hits like the one he had last week against, again, Austin Peay (sorry to the Governors for noting so many Badger highlights against your squad).
Henry provided Wisconsin with a score on defense in the season opener against UNLV while Valai blocked the would-be game-tying PAT attempt by Arizona State at the end of that contest.
Aside from the players, the fans at Camp Randall Stadium give the Badgers a home-field advantage like no other. The stadium is always full, the crowd is always loud, and the traditional Jump Around at the conclusion of the third quarter shakes the very ground the opposition stands on, giving the away team a very real feeling of insignificance and hopelessness.
All-in-all, Wisconsin fields a competitive football team that no one in the Big Ten is looking forward to facing. The Badgers pound the rock behind an enormous offensive line using a big, bruising back. Their offense is opportunistic with the play-action pass on the arm of an accurate and seasoned veteran, and they protect their lead with sound defense and special teams play. Wisconsin football is back and ready to return the conference crown to Madison.