Last week, the Wisconsin Badgers' offense stole the spotlight as they erupted for a school-record 756 total yards against Bowling Green. Now, the Badgers will look to keep the momentum rolling as they get ready for their final non-conference matchup of the season against the South Florida Bulls.
While it would be unrealistic to expect the Badgers to replicate their stellar offensive performance from last Saturday, this week's game will be a solid test heading into Big Ten play next week. Can the offense consistently run the ball as effectively as it did last Saturday?
Against Bowling Green, Wisconsin ran the ball for 644 yards, over 200 more than their combined rushing yards total from the first two games. The Badgers' offense will be ready to prove that what we saw on Saturday was no fluke.
While Wisconsin prepares for its non-conference finale Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium, here are three key things you should know about the Bulls.
They're much improved from 2013
Currently in his second season, Bulls head coach Willie Taggart has already seen his team make enormous strides from their 2-10 season in 2013.
Prior to taking the job at South Florida, Taggart was the head coach at his alma matter, Western Kentucky, from 2010-12. Before that, he was the running backs coach at Stanford under Jim Harbaugh. While at Stanford, Taggart played a key role in developing running back Toby Gerhart into one of the premier tailbacks in college football. At Western Kentucky, the Hilltoppers also went 2-10 in Taggart's first year as head coach; however they improved their record to 7-5 in the next season. After the Hilltoppers went 7-5 for the second straight year and also secured a berth in the Little Caesars Pizza bowl, Taggart became a hot coaching target for many schools. In fact, Taggart interviewed with Wisconsin for the vacant head coaching position before he decided to take the head coaching job at South Florida.
Last season was a difficult way to start the Taggart-era in
St. Petersburg Tampa. The Bulls had trouble scoring for much of the year, scoring 10 or fewer points in half of their games and finishing second to last in the FBS (123rd) with an average of 13.8 points scored per game.
This season, the Bulls have already shown improvement among their young roster. After four games, they hold a 2-2 record and have bumped their scoring average up to 21.8 points per game. In their first game of 2014, the Bulls stated the season out with a positive, defeating Western Carolina 36-31. They then suffered back-to-back losses home losses to Maryland and N.C. State. Against Maryland, the Terrapins rallied to score 10 points in the fourth quarter to secure a 24-17 victory. Against N.C. State, the Bulls were outscored 35-7 in the first half en route to a 49-17 loss to the Wolfpack. But Taggart's team showed resilience in rebounding the following week and defeating UConn 17-14.
Now fresh off a victory, Taggart leads the Bulls into Madison for their first road game of the season. South Florida's roster is loaded with young talent, highlighted by a strong 2014 recruiting class. As these young players continue to learn the system, the Bulls will continue to become more and more dangerous on the national scale.
They're reliant on the running game
Taggart has implemented his run-heavy system into the South Florida's' offense, typically running the ball at least 30 times per game. This year, the Bulls' offense is led by freshmen running back Marlon Mack. At 5'11, 192 pounds, Mack is an elusive downhill runner that excels at finding holes through the line of scrimmage and shedding defenders once he's in the open field. He was a four-star recruit in 2013 who was rated No. 26 for his position (per ESPN.com); this offseason, after an injury to freshmen tailback Darius Tice, Mack was thrust into the starting job. Mack is currently ranked ninth in the country with 502 rushing yards this season and has played solid in both of the Bulls' victories this year, as shown below.
|Marlon Mack's 2014 Stats|
|W. Carolina (W 36-31)||24||275||11.5||4|
|Maryland (L 24-17)||22||73||3.3||0|
|NC State (L 49-17)||12||51||4.3||0|
|UConn (W 17-14)||31||103||3.3||1
Mack also broke several records in the season opener against Western Carolina. The freshman managed to set two American Athletic Conference single-game records in his collegiate debut, rushing for 275 yards and scoring four rushing touchdowns (also the total number of rushing touchdowns the Bulls had all of last season).
Sophomore quarterback Mike White won the starting job this offseason over junior Steven Bench. Thus far, White has been struggling to get anything going for the Bulls' offense. Last season, White was one of four starting quarterbacks for South Florida, starting the last five games of the season and throwing for 1,083 yards, three touchdowns and nine interceptions. So far this season, White is 24-for-61, throwing for 388 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
The Bulls' offense is currently ranked 118th in the country with an average of 293 yards per game. The passing game is ranked 119th with an average of 141.8 passing yards per game (Wisconsin is ranked 118th, averaging 150.3). On the contrary, the Bulls' rushing attack is ranked 83rd in the country, averaging 151.3 rushing yards per game (the Badgers are ranked first with an average of 359.7).
The low numbers on both sides highlight the offensive struggles that the Bulls have been facing so far in 2014. While Mack has been a pleasant surprise at running back, he will not be nearly as effective if the passing game continues to struggle. For now, expect Mack to receive a significant amount of carries in the beginning of Saturday's game. If the Badgers jump out to a quick lead, however, the Bulls will be forced to abandon the run and go to the passing game, which could spell trouble.
Solid rush defense
After seeing what Wisconsin's rushing attack did to Bowling Green, we can be sure that South Florida defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan is going to devote plenty of time in practice this week to trying to stop (or at least slow down) Melvin Gordon and co.
Fortunately for the Bulls, stopping the run hasn't been nearly as big of a problem as stopping the pass has this season. The Bulls' defense is currently ranked 52nd in the country with 139.7 rushing yards per game. In comparison, their passing defense is ranked 72nd in the country with 235.3 passing yards per game.
Defensive standouts for the Bulls this year include junior safety Jamie Byrd and freshman linebacker Nigel Harris. After four games, Byrd currently leads the team with 31 tackles (26 unassisted). Second to Byrd in total tackles is Harris, who has 26 total tackles (21 unassisted). On top of that, Harris leads the team with four tackles for losses, two sacks and three forced fumbles.
The Bulls' highest-rated rushing opponent this season, N.C. State, is ranked 25th in the country, averaging 248.8 rushing yards per game. In the Wolfpack's blowout win over the Bulls, N.C. State gained 589 total yards. Of those yards, 315 were gained rushing, averaging almost 5.9 yards per carry. After their first four games, the Badgers lead all FBS teams with an average of 7.8 yards per attempt.
If South Florida is to have a chance of winning this game, the defense will need to pay close attention to Gordon, move extra players into the box and force Tanner McEvoy to make plays through the air. It will be very interesting to see if the Badgers are capable of another strong showing on the ground, or if the Bulls' defense executes a game plan similar to what we saw from Western Illinois, where the defense went all in on stopping the run but in turn left open receivers downfield for McEvoy to throw to. Either way, the Bulls' rush defense and running game will have to be flawless if they want to have a chance at upsetting the Badgers at home on Saturday.