Wisconsin Badgers vs. Rutgers Scarlet Knights Complete Game Preview
Coming on the heels of the most complete performance of the season by Wisconsin, Rutgers' homecoming game in Piscataway, New Jersey features the Wisconsin Badgers vs. Rutgers Scarlet Knights in a matchup of teams trending in opposite directions.
The Badgers are riding high after a 52-7 win against the upstart Maryland Terrapins, which saw them successfully throw the ball for the first time all season against an FBS opponent. Furthermore, the Badgers had yet another great game on the ground.
Even more impressively, the Badgers shut down the high-octane passing offense of the Terrapins, conceding their only points of the game in the final minute of the fourth quarter, already up by 52 at that point. To that point, Maryland quarterback C.J. Brown went 13-of-29 passing for 129 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions.
For Rutgers, after starting 5-1 and 1-0 in the Big Ten and storming the field after defeating the Michigan Wolverines, things have gone south.
After traveling to Ohio State for its first Big Ten road game and losing 56-17, Rutgers went back on the road to face the Nebraska Cornhuskers last weekend. Things went poorly there for the Knights, conceding 341 all-purpose yards to Nebraska standout Ameer Abdullah en route to a 42-24 defeat.
Rutgers returns back home, where it is 3-1, with the one loss coming to Penn State. The loss came in gut-wrenching fashion for the home fans, who were desperate for a win in the closest thing Rutgers has to a geographic rival in the conference.
Let's take a look at both team's keys to victory, players to watch and what the coaches are saying, along with a prediction for this midseason cross-divisional tilt.
Wisconsin Keys to Victory
Run the Ball
Sound familiar? It should. As much as the Badgers need Joel Stave to open up defenses with the passing game, for them to win, they need production out of their two stud running backs.
Melvin Gordon kept up his Heisman pace against Maryland, toting the ball 22 times for 122 yards (5.5 yards per carry) to go along with three touchdowns, all of which came in the first half. He also chipped in two receptions for 12 yards, showing his versatility in the passing game and further selling the play-action pass.
Corey Clement had another great game, too, carrying the ball 17 times for 90 yards (5.3 yards per carry) with a touchdown.
If these two can contribute 200 yards on the ground as a tandem, then the Badgers will be in good shape to win this game. If they can't, then the team will be in trouble unless Joel Stave has a day the likes of which Badgers fans have yet to see in his three seasons in Madison.
Pressure the Quarterback
The Badgers only had two sacks and one quarterback hit against Maryland but were able to consistently apply pressure without sending the house on a blitz.
While the Badgers were exposed by a Maryland screen pass for a big gain after bringing pressure early on, the Badgers were able to rush four or five and still get after the quarterback after that. While it didn't lead to a ton of sacks, it was still a positive sign for a rapidly improving defense.
A big piece of that improvement has to do with the return of Warren Herring. Coming into the season, Herring was one of the biggest keys to a young defense as he provided a bevy of experience on a youthful front seven. When he went down against LSU, the defense collapsed. With him back in the lineup, the defense looks stronger then ever.
This season, the Badgers have 21 sacks and 21 quarterback hits, including four sacks from inside linebacker Derek Landisch and 2.5 sacks from both outside linebackers Joe Schobert and Vince Biegel. The pass-rushing ability of those three linebackers has been instrumental in implementing defensive coordinator Dave Aranda's game plan.
If the Badgers can get to whomever the Rutgers quarterback is (more on that in a moment) three or more times, then they should be in great shape to win this game. While there are other measures to determine the success of the defense, this will be a good indicator as to whether the Badgers will be playing their backups late in the fourth quarter.
Rutgers Keys to Victory
Run the Ball
With the status of quarterback Gary Nova up in the air, it's up to the two remaining Rutgers running backs to shoulder the offensive load. Running backs Desmon Peoples and Justin Goodwin are going to be called upon to keep the chains moving for whomever the Rutgers quarterback may be.
When running back Paul James went down for the year with a torn ACL, Peoples and Goodwin knew they would need to be bigger pieces of the offense. So far, neither have really excelled, though both were quite good in the blowout loss to Ohio State.
Peoples put up 83 yards on 15 carries with two scores against the Buckeyes, while Goodwin notched 11 carries for 64 yards and chipped in 28 yards on four receptions in the passing game.
Last week against a stout front seven for Nebraska, both had trouble getting anything going, with Peoples toting the ball 12 times for 32 yards and a score while Goodwin had 13 carries for 31 yards.
If Rutgers wants to beat the Badgers, the two of them will need to muster up close to 150 yards on the ground together, which will keep the Badgers offense on the sideline and tire out the Badgers front seven. If they are stuck in the mud like they were against Nebraska, it could be a long day for the Scarlet Knights.
Sell Out Against the Run
Rutgers had its hands full with Ameer Abdullah and the rest of the Nebraska rushing attack, giving up 292 yards on 41 carries (7.1 yards per carry). Gordon is a different back than Abdullah is, but giving up that many yards to Nebraska spells trouble against the Badgers.
The Badgers come into the game third in the country with 338.4 rushing yards per game while the Scarlet Knights are giving up 166.7 rushing yards per game against FBS foes. That number is aided by giving up just six yards to Washington State—a team that has more pass attempts (519) than rushing yards (367) this season.
If Joel Stave beats you, then so be it. The Scarlet Knights should commit at least eight men in the box until Stave gives them a reason to put their nickel corner in. Gordon will still get yards, even against stacked boxes, but you can limit the damage he does by committing extra defenders in the box.
Wisconsin Players to Watch
Joel Stave, Quarterback
I've resisted putting Stave as a player to watch thus far, but when the game is on the line, Stave needs to step up. This season, playing the second half on the road against Northwestern, Stave went 8-of-19 for 114 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions.
In his next two games, Stave improved significantly as he shook off the cobwebs from his lengthy layoff. In those two games, he was 16-of-29 for 229 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Furthermore, he hit Alex Erickson on a pair of deep throws against Maryland and just generally looked more comfortable in the pocket.
If Stave can connect on one or two deep throws early on, Rutgers will be on its heels the entire game. His ability to connect with both Erickson and Sam Arneson will be important, but Stave also needs to check down to the open man.
If Stave completes more than 60 percent of his passes and throws one interception or fewer while connecting on a couple of deep passes, the Badgers should glide to victory.
If he turns the ball over multiple times and struggles to hit 50 percent of his passes, the Badgers better hope Gordon has an unbelievable day for them to take this game on the road.
Warren Herring, Nose Guard/Defensive End
Boy was Warren Herring missed. While Arthur Goldberg filled in more than admirably for Herring while he was injured, Herring is far more dynamic as both a run-stopper and as a pass-rusher.
Herring's impact this season hasn't necessarily shown up on the stat sheet—the difference is more clear when we look at how teams have run the ball when he's in the lineup versus when he's been out of the lineup.
On the season, teams are averaging 3.1 yards per rush, with or without Herring in the lineup. That alone is an impressive statistic. When Herring has been healthy, teams are averaging an anemic 1.44 yards per carry.
With Herring in the lineup, the Badgers are significantly better on defense, and his pass-rushing ability allows them to only bring four or five instead of needing to bring six to generate pressure. There is no measurable with Herring in the lineup to signify success but the more snaps he plays, the better off they are.
Rutgers Players to Watch
Leonte Carroo, Wide Receiver
When you think of big time receivers in the Big Ten, Kenny Bell, Devin Funchess and Stefon Diggs may come to mind. But at Rutgers, Leonte Carroo is quietly putting together one of the best seasons at receiver in the conference.
Second in receiving yards in the conference with 775—behind just Michigan State's Tony Lippett—Carroo has been excellent against top competition. He has four 100-yard games this season including in three of his last four contests, which includes matchups with Ohio State and Nebraska.
Carroo will probably be matched up against either Sojourn Shelton or Darius Hillary, neither of whom have shown an ability to shut down top receivers, though they did an excellent job against Diggs last week. Carroo is in line for a big day, as long as Rutgers has someone capable of slinging the ball out to him.
Kemoko Turay, Defensive End
Though Turay may not be a name on the tips of even the most ardent college football fans tongues, he will be soon. A redshirt freshman from Newark, New Jersey by way of Guinea has measurables that are off the charts. And now, he has the production to match his athleticism.
With 5.5 sacks this season—a number that puts him among established defensive stalwarts such as Randy Gregory, Shilique Calhoun and Joey Bosa—Turay finds himself in impressive company when it comes to rushing the passer.
But Turay has one statistic that jumps off the page more than his 5.5 sacks. He has not one, not two, but three blocked field goals this season. Playing against a team that has struggled in their field-goal kicking all season, seeing Turay line up across from them cannot be a welcome sight for the Badgers.
If Turay can get to Stave multiple times, the already skittish quarterback may be in for a long afternoon as No. 58 chases him around the field.
What They're Saying
This week, while Joel Stave was the pretty clear-cut No. 1 guy, Tanner McEvoy did get three whole drives. Of those three drives, two turned into touchdowns. He ended 5-of-7 for 44 yards through the air and added 84 rushing yards on four carries and a touchdown.
"They handle it well, the kids on the team handle it well," Andersen said, "and I have no reservations at all saying that we are going to move forward and have the ability to play both of those young men, and they've executed at a high level, and you can see the offense change."
The big story coming out of the locker room after Rutgers' 42-24 loss to Nebraska was the health of quarterback Gary Nova. Nova was injured in the waning seconds of the first half with the team down 21-7 as they were inside their own 20-yard line.
Many questioned the move by head coach Kyle Flood when Rutgers took over at its own 2-yard line with one minute to play in the half.
"(Nebraska was) getting the ball in the second half, I felt like we needed to be aggressive,'' Flood said after the game. "I felt like we needed to give ourselves an opportunity to see if we could get some points there at the end of the first half."
The following day, Flood offered an update on Nova's status, though he did not really provide any new information.
"I would tell you we got a positive report today but he’s still on crutches and I really don’t think we’re going to know anything until probably Tuesday morning for sure,” Flood said. “But we did get a positive report today.”
Getting off to a good start is imperative for the Badgers, as they play only their second true road game of the season and their third game away from Madison on the season—having lost their previous two trips away from home.
With quarterback Joel Stave settled in the pocket, the Badgers lead a confident eight-play, 75-yard drive to open up the day, capped off by a four-yard run by Melvin Gordon, his first of two scores on the day.
With either a shaky Gary Nova or freshman Chris Laviano under center, the Rutgers quarterback will see plenty of Badgers hounding and harassing them all afternoon as they pile up three sacks and give the quarterback no time to throw.
While Leonte Carroo will snag a touchdown in the third quarter and get close to the century mark, the lack of any real rushing attack will hinder the Scarlet Knights' ability to keep the chains moving. This will force them into obvious passing downs, which will allow the Badgers to blitz the quarterback and give the Scarlet Knights yet another rude introduction to Big Ten football.
With Gordon scampering for a pair of touchdowns while Stave connects with Arneson for another on a red-zone play-action look, the Badgers should walk out of High Point Solutions Stadium with a W to improve to 6-2 and 3-1 in Big Ten play, while the Scarlet Knights will drop to 5-4 and 1-4 in their first season of Big Ten play.
Wisconsin 38, Rutgers, 13