After a heartbreaking 28-24 loss to LSU, Wisconsin is now 0-1 for the first time since 1997. Luckily, the Badgers now enter the easiest part of their 2014 schedule, starting with their home opener against the Western Illinois Leathernecks (11 a.m. CT). This game will serve as an opportunity for the team to get back on the right track.
For Western Illinois, second year head coach Bob Nielson hopes to see his team rebound after finishing last season with a 4-8 record (2-6 in the Missouri Valley Conference). Nielson has had success as a head coach at the previous four schools that he has been at (Ripon, Wartburg, Wisconsin-Eau Claire and Minnesota-Duluth), totaling a career record of 174-67-1. At Minnesota Duluth, Nielson won two NCAA Division II championships. He looks to bring that success to Western Illinois, where the Leathernecks are vying for their first winning season since 2010. On Thursday, they started off on the right foot as they trounced Valparaiso 45-6.
While the Badgers prepare for their home opener, here are three things we should know about the Leathernecks.
They return plenty of talent on offense
The Leathernecks will return eight offensive starters this season, among them are sophomore receivers Joey Borsellino, Lance Lenoir, sophomore quarterback Trenton Norvell and senior running back J.C. Baker.
At 6'5, 220 pounds, Norvell has good size for a quarterback and is able to make good decisions while directing the offense. Last season, after transferring from Cincinnati, he completed 195-of-384 passes, throwing for 2,140 yards and 16 touchdowns. In the win against Valparaiso, he lit up the Crusaders' defense, going 20-for-28 while throwing for 320 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions.
Norvell's top three targets from 2013 also return this season. After transferring from community college, senior Hi-C Scott caught 32 passes last season for 458 yards and three touchdowns. Borsellino led the 2013 receiving corps with 41 receptions for 465 yards and three touchdowns, while Lenoir added 39 receptions for 489 yards and seven touchdowns. It's fair to expect Borsellino and Lenoir to improve even more heading into their sophomore seasons, while Scott is already off to a nice start in 2014, catching four passes for 68 yards and two touchdowns in the victory over Valparaiso.
At the running back position, senior J.C. Baker will look to balance the Leathernecks' offensive attack by providing a stable ground game. Last season, Baker averaged 95.8 yards per game, rushing for 1,149 yards and six touchdowns. On Thursday, he averaged 8.1 yards per carry, rushing for 137 yards and a touchdown and also catching a 40-yard touchdown in the third quarter.
The Leatherneck's strength will be through the air, but a solid running game will help balance out their offensive attack. The development between the three top receivers and Norvell is the key, as all three will be entering their second year at the program. As their talent and chemistry begins to build, it will make the passing attack an even bigger threat than it was last season. And a solid passing game will only help to open up the run game.
For Nielson, returning those six weapons on offense is the perfect way to improve upon last season, which he told the Quad-City Times in recent interview.
"Those players give us a great springboard into the upcoming season,'' Nielson said. "We're a much more experienced team than we were a year ago at this time and as a group, they've had a good summer."
Their defense is experienced
Eight starters will also return on the defensive side of the ball. Brian Ward is entering his third season as defensive coordinator, which should lead to the Leathernecks' defense improving in all departments.
Last season, their defense ranked second in the Missouri Valley Football Conference (MVFC) in total yards allowed per game, with 305.3 yards, behind only FCS powerhouse North Dakota State.
Expected to lead the Leathernecks defense is senior Martinez Davis, who earned preseason All-MVFC Conference honors prior to the start of the season. Last season, Davis finished with 50 total tackles, 10 passes deflected, one fumble recovery and three interceptions -- one of which he returned for a touchdown.
Seniors David McDaniel and Jonathon Rollins will also return as starters in the secondary. In his three years for the program, Rollins has recorded 167 career total tackles, while McDaniel has 150. Also starting this year is senior Dallas Nichols, who recorded 56 tackles last season.
Western Illinois' passing defense was spectacular in 2013, averaging 149 passing yards allowed per game. With an experienced group of seniors leading the secondary, there is no reason to believe that the Leathernecks can't keep that performance up.
"We expect a lot from each other on and off the field," said Davis this preseason. "That experience has made us super comfortable. We know our jobs, we know our assignments, so we can fly around."
They haven't fared well against FBS opponents
Since 2011, the Leathernecks have traveled to play at four Division I schools (Missouri in 2011, Iowa State in 2012, and Minnesota and UNLV in 2013). In those four contests, the Leathernecks have been outscored 173-22.
Against Missouri, the Leathernecks defense allowed 744 total yards as the Tigers steamrolled the Leathernecks 69-0. That next year, Iowa State racked up 504 total yards en route to a 37-3 blowout.
Last season, the Leathernecks hung tight with Minnesota, holding the Gophers to only 124 passing yards, but giving up 213 yards on the ground on the way to a 29-12 loss. And against UNLV, it was a similar pattern as the Rebels only managed 140 yards through the air, but plowed out 284 rushing yards en route to a 38-7 victory.
Now, this isn't to say that the Leathernecks haven't improved since last year, but the bottom line is they're no North Dakota State. Wisconsin should have no problem handling this improved Western Illinois team at home due to the fact that they will most likely have the luxury to run the ball with ease against a Western Illinois front seven that, quite frankly, doesn't match up well the Badgers offensive-line.
But there are still plenty of things that the Badgers can look to improve upon in this game-most specifically, the passing attack. The Leathernecks have a tough returning passing defense that proved last season they can hang tough with FBS talent. Tanner McEvoy and the Badgers receiving corps showed us on Saturday that the passing game has a long ways to go before we can stop labeling it as a weakness, completing just 8 passes for a mere 50 yards. This game could be a great opportunity for McEvoy and (hopefully) Joel Stave to get a lot of reps against an inferior opponent that will be able to bring somewhat of a challenge in the secondary.