Mid-season diagnosis: Wisconsin football

Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Wisconsin faces Northwestern coming off the bye. Will the Badgers come out and make a statement after the tough loss in Columbus?

We're nearly half way through the season, and let's face it: Nobody should be content with where the Badgers' record currently sits.

Yeah, both losses were against quality opponents on the road, but both games were also there for the taking. When you looked at the schedule prior to the season, there is no denying that Arizona State and Ohio State were the two most difficult games on the slate. Walking away from those contests with two "Ls" is disappointing.

Now the Badgers have an opportunity to rectify their missed opportunities with a big-time win Saturday against a talented opponent.

Let's look a little bit at the matchup with Northwestern and reflect on what we've seen to this point. It's our mid-season diagnosis.

What we've liked

It's an easy selection for me: the running back trio. If you look at and break down and assess what each unit has done on the field, the running backs have collectively been the most impressive part of this Wisconsin team.

Melvin Gordon is still averaging over 10 yards per carry (10.3), despite having a mediocre 74-yard performance against Ohio State. As long as he's healthy, I expect him to shoulder the majority of the load in the backfield from here on out, and he should. Gordon's 698 rushing yards are tops in the Big Ten.

James White remains the consummate college back. He's productive, not too flashy, won't exactly wow you in any way -- he's just good. But he's also the clear No. 2. I'd like to see him utilized even more in the passing game where he's flashed capabilities with his hands. The Badgers have yet to find any viable complement to Jared Abbrederis, so I'd be trying to incorporate White in that capacity if I'm offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig.

Corey Clement looks like he's the next superstar running back waiting in the wings. He is the third-string tailback, yet has 334 yards on 44 carries. Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas has 338 yards on 42 carries. Contemplate that for a second.

What needs to improve

If Wisconsin was facing any type of bona fide passing threat the rest of the season, my answer here would be the Badgers' pass rush. Their seven total sacks on the year are tied for the 94th most out of 123 FBS teams. Dave Aranda's 3-4 defense has lived up to the billing in terms of its creativity, but it hasn't been as productive in getting players to the quarterback.

Fact of the matter is, however, that the best true passing quarterback Wisconsin will face the rest of the year is Trevor Siemian from Northwestern, and he's technically the Wildcats' No. 2 quarterback.

So I think the unit that has to improve the most for the Badgers to realize their full potential is the wide receiving core. If somebody not named Jared Abbrederis decides that they can get open against opposing defenses, it will take an enormous amount of pressure off of Abby and the Wisconsin running game. A healthy Jacob Pedersen will certainly help in this department.

If Joel Stave can find a couple of additional options in the passing game, Wisconsin won't lose another game this season. Heck, the Badgers won't win a game by fewer than two scores, and that includes this weekend.

Which player has impressed?

Three options here: Gordon, Abbrederis or Chris Borland?

Gordon is the best player on the gridiron whenever he touches the field.

Chris Borland leads the team with 46 tackles. He's also got two tackles for loss and a sack -- expect a spike in those numbers by the end of the year. His two stout defensive stand-ups against Ohio State last week were vintage Borland. Still, I think we can all agree as good as he's looked at times, he can be better, and he will be better.

I think you've got to go with Abby here, though. His performance last week against Bradley Roby had the billing of a heavyweight, best-on-best match-up, and Abbrederis dominated from start to finish. He's got 572 yards receiving through five games, good for 12th-most in the country and second most in the Big Ten behind Penn State's Allen Robinson.

I expect Abby to be a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award come season's end, and he'll do it without a true partner-in-crime on the opposite side of the field. Defenses know where Stave is going with the football when he goes to the air, yet Abby will find a way to burn you. That's a true testament to his greatness.

One final thought: I've got to throw Warren Herring into this mix as well.  He's leading Wisconsin in tackles for loss with 4 1/2 and in sacks with three. Put him in coach!

Which player has underwhelmed?

Joel Stave has felt the brunt of my answer to this question on multiple occasions this year, but I simply can't diagnose him as the most underwhelming player so far after the way he played in Columbus. He's improving each week and developing into a big-game QB. Now I just want to see the consistency.

Dezmen Southward should be considered here. The senior captain was supposed to be the steady performer in the Badgers' inexperienced, young secondary, but he just hasn't been as good as advertised. For a guy as impressive as Southward is physically, I feel he should have a bigger imprint on games than he does. In fact, I don't think there's any doubt Michael Caputo has been the better safety thus far for Wisconsin. Dez has to be better moving forward.

I guess the single most underwhelming player would have to be Kyle French. Kickers get judged on their ability to make big kicks, plain and simple, and French hasn't his whole career. I thought this year might provide a fresh start for the righty from Menomenee Falls, but it's been more of the same old story.

Next up

The Northwestern Wildcats come to town for homecoming Saturday. I picked the Badgers to win by a couple of scores last week, and I'm not moving an inch off of that prediction.

Northwestern will be emotionally drained after last week's close loss to the Buckeyes, and Wisconsin just doesn't lose in Camp Randall. The Badgers have had two weeks to prepare for the two-quarterback system, and I like Aranda's creativity to finally get guys to the quarterback on Saturday.

Plus, in all honesty, Northwestern is over-hyped. The Wildcats are good, and arguably the best team Pat Fitzgerald has had in his tenure as coach, but the Badgers are better. Wisconsin takes it, 31-17.

As for the rest of the season, I picked Wisconsin to finish 10-2, so I don't think they'll lose another game. It's obviously difficult to rattle off seven wins in a row no matter how maligned the competition is, but the Badgers can do it.

10-2 in the first year of the Gary Andersen era isn't too shabby, but the run of Rose Bowls and BCS appearances will come to an end. Even with a 10-2 record, I don't think there is much chance for UW to snag an at-large BCS birth. I'll likely be purchasing my flight to Orlando for the Capitol One Bowl once Wisconsin knocks off BYU.

Happy homecoming, everybody. On Wisconsin.

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