Wisconsin Badgers

Reasons UW is a west division fave: favorable schedule, RB Gordon and usual burly O-line

Oct 19, 2013; Champaign, IL, USA;  Wisconsin Badgers running back Melvin Gordon (25) during warmups against the Illinois Fighting Illini at Memorial Stadium. Wisconsin wins 56-32 over Illinois. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowksi-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 19, 2013; Champaign, IL, USA; Wisconsin Badgers running back Melvin Gordon (25) during warmups against the Illinois Fighting Illini at Memorial Stadium. Wisconsin wins 56-32 over Illinois. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowksi-USA TODAY Sports

The 11th installment of a series ranking Iowa’s 12 opponents for the 2014 season. Today it’s No. 2 Wisconsin, one of the Big Ten west division favorites and one of Iowa’s greatest football, if not greatest, rivalries. The game is in Kinnick Stadium on Nov. 22.


Division: Big Ten West

2013 record: 9-3 (6-2 2nd Leaders Division)

Returning offensive starters (7): RG Kyle Costigan, WR Jordan Fredrick, RT Rob Havenstein, LT Tyler Marz, QB Joel Stave, RB Melvin Gordon

Projected starting offense: QB Joel Stave, jr., 6-5, 225; RB Melvin Gordon, jr., 6-1, 207; FB Derek Watt, jr., 6-2, 231; WR Jordan Fredrick, jr., 6-3, 210; WR Kenzel Doe, sr., 5-8, 170; TE Sam Arneson, sr., 6-4, 254; LT Tyler Marz, jr., 6-7, 321; LG Dallas Lewallen, sr., 6-6, 322; C Dan Voltz, so., 6-4, 313; RG Kyle Costigan, sr., 6-4, 315; RT Rob Havenstein, sr., 6-8, 327

Returning defensive starters (3): SS Michael Caputo, CB Darius Hillary, CB Sojourn Shelton

Projected starting defense: DE Chikwe Obasih, fr., 6-3, 245; NT Warren Herring, sr., 6-3, 294; DE Konrad Zagzebski, sr., 6-3, 278; OLB Vince Biegel, so., 6-3, 233; OLB Joe Schobert, jr., 6-2, 230; ILB Derek Landisch, sr., 5-11, 230; LB Marcus Trotter, sr., 6-0, 233; CB Sojourn Shelton, so., 5-9, 172; CB Darius Hillary, jr., 5-11, 187; S Michael Caputo, jr., 6-1, 206; S Peniel Jean, sr., 5-11, 187

Returning specialists (2): P Drew Meyer, jr., 6-2, 185; K Jack Russell, jr., 6-0, 172; KR/PR Kenzel Doe, sr., 5-8, 170

Other specialists: LS James McGuire, sr., 6-1, 216

Key losses: WR Jared Abbrederis, LG Ryan Groy, TE Jacob Pedersen, RB James White, TE Brian Wozniak, NG Beau Allen, OLB Ethan Armstrong, ILB Chris Borland, DE Ethan Hemer, OLB Brendan Kelly, DE Pat Muldoon, ILB Conor O’Neill, FS Dezmen Southward

Key additions: OL Jaden Gault (6-6, 310) WR Dareian Watkins (6-1, 200), OL George Panos (6-5, 290), DL Billy Hirschfeld (6-6, 270), DL Conor Sheehy (6-4, 275), QB D.J. Gillins (6-3, 185), RB Taiwan Deal (6-1, 225), DL Jeremy Patterson (6-3, 285), K Rafael Gaglianone (6-1, 225)

2013 review: The one thing that we all really kind of knew but didn’t know for sure was revealed in 2013. Yes, the Badgers still pretty much run athletic director Barry Alvarez’s offense. Or, at the very least, the core concept, which is a power running game. We all thought, maybe that’s how Bret Bielema wanted it? Maybe, it was hard to see any real identity during Bielema’s 3-9 first season at Arkansas. During the news conference for hiring of Gary Andersen, Alvarez said outright that Wisconsin was going to be Wisconsin on offense. And so, it was and probably will for as long as Alvarez, who won three Rose Bowls as UW’s head coach, is in Madison. It’s cool. It is what Wisconsin has sustained and what it will be able to maintain for years to come.

Wisconsin’s offense took advantage of a top-flight wide receiver in Jared Abbrederis, but QB was an up-and-down deal and that probably held UW back from the big, big wins. The Badgers had some good wins (Northwestern, Iowa, BYU, Minnesota), but suffered a few disappointing losses (Penn State, Arizona State). Against elite teams, the Badgers couldn’t punch through (Ohio State and South Carolina).

In Andersen’s first season, Wisconsin featured everything that made Alvarez’s great teams go — a punishing running game led by game-changing running backs (James White and Melvin Gordon), multiple tight end sets, a stout, aggressive offensive line that penetrated the second level of opposing defenses and a potent play-action passing game. Defensively, the Badgers had six seniors in their front seven. In 2014, you’re probably going to see more of Andersen’s concepts, especially on defense.

2014 schedule: A30 vs. LSU (at Houston, Texas), S6 Western Illinois, S20 Bowling Green, S27 South Florida, O4 at Northwestern, O11 Illinois, O25 Maryland, N1 at Rutgers, N8 at Purdue, N15 Nebraska, N22 at Iowa, N29 Minnesota

Key Stretch: I’ve been saying all spring and summer long that Iowa’s schedule is its 12th man in 2014. For Wisconsin, it’s No. 12, 13 and 14. According to the NCAA method for calculating strength of schedule (based solely on the opponents’ win/loss record from the previous season), the Badgers have the easiest schedule in the Big Ten and are No. 87 in the country (Iowa is next in the B1G and No. 85, here’s a link). That said, schedules in June are very different from November, and that’s where we’ll go for UW’s key stretch.

Who knows what Rutgers will be in November. I have no idea. It was a bowl team last season. It had an offseason sprung from the embers of hell. The Badgers begin their November march toward west division contention in Piscataway, N.J. Then, it’s off to West Lafayette. Purdue won’t be good, let’s not try to make it something it’s not (this sentence is going up in Purdue’s lockerroom as we speak).

After those two roadies, it’s Nebraska at Camp Randall Stadium, at Kinnick and then the big close with the Paul Bunyan Axe game against Minnesota in Madison.

Wisconsin gets big points for starting with LSU at the Texans football stadium (I can’t tell if it’s Reliant or NRG and I don’t really care to figure out who owns the naming rights). And, when it was scheduled, South Florida was probably much more interesting than the 2-10 it put out last season.

Trap game: It’s either at Northwestern or at Rutgers. The case for Northwestern is that the Wildcats will be better than last season. Offense might take some messaging, but Pat Fitzgerald will have a better outfit in ‘14. It’s the Badgers’ Big Ten opener, it’s on the road and it comes after what should be three sleepy non-conference games.

Rutgers gets a nod here because it comes after Maryland, which returns pretty much everyone from a 7-6 2013, and it kicks off what could be a championship November push.

Glass half-full: Running backs Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement combined for 2,159 yards, 7.9 yards per carry and 19 touchdowns last season. They should be a super-fun duo for the Badgers. The Big Ten media days are about a month out. Along with that, expect to see Gordon’s name in the Big Ten offensive player of the year voting. He’ll lose to Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller, but he’s in Miller’s category. Gordon carried the ball 206 times last season and averaged 7.8 yards a carry. Clement got table scraps for carries (behind Gordon and senior James White) and still rushed 67 times for 547 yards (8.16 yards a carry).

The Badgers sat three O-line starters this spring, but the return of left guard Dallas Lewallen will provide the usual push this fall. Wisconsin again is monstrous up front. The spring absences helped a few other names emerge, including junior Ray Ball, a 6-7, 321-pound guard. The Badgers inside trio of Lewallen (6-6, 322), center Dan Voltz (6-4, 313) and right guard Kyle Costigan (6-4, 315) should set the pace in the league.

The Badgers lost three starters and two top reserves on the D-line, but that unit still could be UW’s deepest.

As Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda installs a 3-4, a player like Warren Herring will loom large. He has worked at nose guard and defensive end. The Badgers have a lot of names in the mix here and they all sound like names you’d give a Wisconsin D-lineman — Bryce Gilbert, Arthur Goldberg and Conrad Zagzebski (a probable starter at end).

It’s always good to have dependable, experienced cornerbacks on the roster. Sojourn Shelton and Darius Hillary give the Badgers exactly that. Junior Devin Gaulden emerged as a possible No. 3 this spring.

Glass half-empty: Does Wisconsin have a full-blown quarterback race/controversy? Probably not. Junior Joel Stave, who has 19 starts, completed 208 of 336 (61.9 percent) for 2494 yards, 22 TDs and 13 interceptions last season. He’s the most experienced and has dealt with QB competitions in each of the last two seasons. He has erratic spells, but he’s shown a big-play arm and poise in a few of the league’s real boilers (Ohio State and Nebraska).

This spring, Andersen said Stave is the starter and said it’s his spot to lose (that sort of sounds like the deal in Iowa City). Tanner McEvoy (6-6, 223) is the other option (with sophomore Bart Houston and freshman D.J. Gillins in the wings). McEvoy played safety in practice a lot of last season, but ended up the No. 1 QB this spring after Stave sat out with a shoulder injury.

He appeared tentative and overwhelmed and eventually played most of the season at safety. It’s Stave, but the book doesn’t sound totally closed.

Also like Iowa, the Badgers could run into depth issues on the O-line. There are no experienced reserves behind left tackle Tyler Marz and right tackle Rob Havenstein.

The loss of linebacker Chris Borland and wide receiver Jared Abbrederis left big holes in both position groups. Also at linebacker, UW lost three other players who finished third, fourth and seventh in tackles. Wide receiver might be Wisconsin’s most uncertain position.

The Iowa angle: Here is the rest of your football existence, Hawkeyes. Unless the Big Ten expands again (don’t see it, not right now, anyway) or unless there’s some sort of conference implosion (Big 12? ACC? Don’t see it), Iowa and Wisconsin will fight for the same piece of west division turf for now and forever. This is how it should be. Iowa and Wisconsin bit the bullet for the good (or maybe not so good) of the B1G Legends and Leaders mess. Wisconsin went to the Leaders; Iowa to the Legends and the rivalry — which Wisconsin now leads after last season’s victory 43-42-2 — dried up. The two teams didn’t play for two seasons. Now, it’s on like keg stands and farm fresh products at tailgates in Iowa City and Madison.

Last season, Iowa trailed just 14-9 going into the fourth quarter and then simply ran out of gas against a more physical team with a much more solid running game (this is the Iowa-Wisconsin game more often than not). The Badgers gained 99 yards to Iowa’s 24 (Iowa did have a nothing 64-yard drive down 28-9). The Badgers set up a short TD with an interception and pounded their point home with a 76-yard drive that was all on the ground. Iowa’s offense, which by that point was without starting QB Jake Rudock, didn’t help Iowa’s defense.

This year, Iowa will be more experienced up front on defense. Wisconsin still will have the guts of the running game that dinged Iowa for 218 yards. Both teams will have QBs who’ve guided their teams deftly, but will definitely be expected to show more in 2014. For what it’s worth, according to Golden Nugget, Iowa is favored in every game this season except its Nov. 22 matchup at Kinnick Stadium with ... the Badgers. Wisconsin is favored in every game except its opener against LSU.

All signs point to this game being meaningful and possibly telling in the Big Ten’s new west division.

Quotable: “I don’t focus too much on individuals goals. I want to help take Wisconsin to greater heights. I want to get our team to the (national) playoffs. That’s my goal. I have a paper posted on my wall — college football playoffs. That is our goal to get there. ... I didn’t come back to win this or that, to win the Heisman. I don’t feel like that is important. The goal right now is really a national championship. Wisconsin has never had one before. So that is my goal and that is our team goal.” — Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon, who rushed for 1,609 yards and 12 touchdowns last season and probably will enter 2014 a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate.

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