The No. 21 Wisconsin Badgers look to end their non-conference schedule on a high note on Saturday evening under the lights of Camp Randall Stadium as they face the Mountain West's Hawaii Warriors. It's the first night game at Camp Randall Stadium for the Badgers since Bret Bielema's squad welcomed Gary Andersen's Utah State team on Sept. 15, 2012 (and my, my -- so much has happened since then).
Head coach Norm Chow's Warriors are 2-1 and come off a 47-27 victory over FCS opponent UC-Davis a week earlier. Hawaii played tough and physical, hanging around with No. 1 Ohio State until the fourth quarter of a 38-0 loss in their second game of the season at Columbus, while beating a struggling Pac-12 program in Colorado at Aloha Stadium to open the season.
"I think it's one of their strengths," Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst said when asked about Hawaii's physicality on Monday during his weekly press conference. "I think they're a team that loves the physical part of the game and they've got some guys that -- I think their schemes play to that and I think they've got some really good football players. We talked about Norm and their coaching staff, really good, respected coaching staff, different guys on our staff have played against different members of their staff and our guys will watch the tape and they will see it and they will be ready to go because it's a good team."
Before the conference season starts with an 11 a.m. match-up against division rival Iowa next week, here are the keys to Saturday's game.
Continuing the reconstruction of the running game, even without Clement
After the abysmal rushing performance against Alabama three games ago, the Badgers have built up the running game block-by-block against inferior defenses heading into the Hawaii game -- rushing for 188 yards against Miami University and 199 against Troy.
The Badgers will now be without junior running back Corey Clement until at least the Rutgers game on Oct. 31, as redshirt junior Dare Ogunbowale and redshirt freshman Taiwan Deal will receive the majority of reps heading into conference season.
Both have improved in the past couple of weeks. Ogunbowale, the converted cornerback and former walk-on, leads the team in rushing with 198 yards on 33 carries -- but also has been a key asset in the passing game with 10 receptions. Deal led the team in rushing last week, barreling for 84 yards and averaged five yards per carry. Their continued progression will be key not just against Hawaii, but heading into the Oct. 5 match-up with Iowa.
Redshirt freshman Micah Kapoi asserted himself well against the Trojans last week at right guard, pulling well and executing double teams in the zone run blocking schemes Wisconsin uses. Depending upon his performance, it could be the game that locks up the right guard spot for the native Hawaiian.
The Warriors will pose an interesting challenge for the Badgers. Hawaii only allowed Ohio State to score 17 points in the first three quarters -- though the Buckeyes racked up over 232 yards of offense in the first half. The running game for the defending national champions floundered -- gaining a mere 3.7 yards per carry. Ezekiel Elliott ran for over 100 yards and three touchdowns, but he himself was held to below four yards per carry at 3.7.
Joel Stave passing game overcoming physical Hawaii secondary
Hawaii only allows 192.3 yards per game through the air. Stave has thrown for 200 yards in three straight games -- the first time a Wisconsin quarterback's done that since Stave himself did back in mid-2012 -- and will be needed to relied upon once again to move the chains and carry the offense.
As B5Q's Andrew Rosin noted Friday, watch out for Hawaii defensive back Nick Nelson, who has seven defensive pass break-ups already in 2015. The Badgers should have their plethora of receiving targets available, between wide receivers Alex Erickson and Robert Wheelwright -- along with Ogunbowale, fullback Derek Watt and an emerging tight end in redshirt senior Austin Traylor -- to distribute the ball to keep drives alive.
If the Badgers receive the ball late in the first half, expect Stave and the offense to execute the same two-minute offense that's efficiently earned them 17 points the last two games. Against Miami University, the offense ran mostly out of 11 personnel out of the shotgun -- while against the Trojans, the Badgers drove down the field in chunks out of a 21 look.
Fun fact: Stave, the former walk-on, has gone 11-for-14 for 196 yards with two touchdowns in the final 3:30 of the first half over the last two games.
Disruptive plays on defense
Senior linebacker Joe Schobert's strip-sack on Troy quarterback Brandon Silvers in the third-quarter was the play of the game last week, as the Trojans moved the ball swiftly and efficiently at times with their up-tempo, spread offense. That turnover after a long Troy drive switched momentum in a 14-3 game back to Wisconsin, with redshirt senior Tanner McEvoy finding the end zone on a 32-yard run to put the proverbial dagger into the Trojans.
The best way to disrupt the rhythm of a spread-based offense are those sacks and tackles for loss -- along with forcing turnovers. The Badgers have forced five so far early in the year, all in the last two games. Putting pressure on USC transfer Max Wittek and the Warriors' offense can lead to key mistakes. Wittek's already thrown four interceptions this season -- two against both Colorado and Ohio State -- while the Warriors have fumbled seven times, losing three. Can the Badgers and sophomore cornerback Natrell Jamerson -- who will play in the first half for sophomore Derrick Tindal due to Tindal's ejection in the third quarter against Troy for a questionable targeting penalty -- create opportunities for the offense? And will Wittek and the Warriors' offense try to target the converted wide receiver in Jamerson?
Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda's squad has recorded three sacks each game so far, along with tallying 25 tackles for loss. Schobert is fifth in the nation in sacks (4) and third in tackles for loss (7.5).