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Roundtable: Dominant defense, stagnant run game among storylines during Wisconsin’s 4-1 start

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A brief look at the Badgers through five games.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Michigan State Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome again to another edition of our B5Q roundtable session, where the points don’t count, and we always fire Drew Hamm. The bye week is upon Badger Nation, and the Wisconsin Badgers are currently ranked No. 11 in the nation, according to the latest AP poll. Through five games, they hold a 4-1 record as they prepare for No. 2 Ohio State.

Our merry band of writers discuss Wisconsin’s strong start and what’s stood out through almost half of the season.

Who or what’s been the biggest surprise so far for the Badgers?

Owen Riese: An underwhelming run game. I think in a season where everyone (including myself) kind of expected the Badgers to return to form, it’s been a process. It’s certainly up from last year, but it’s far from what we’ve come to expect. Truthfully, Wisconsin still doesn’t start a senior on the offensive line, and I’d expect this unit, once healthy, to develop a tremendous amount of chemistry and continuity. However, that’s probably an unfortunate reality for seniors Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale, who will still have successful seasons running the ball in Madison, but I think the future is brighter than the present in the run game.

Andrew Rosin: Jazz Peavy. The Badgers knew what they were going to get with wide receiver Robert Wheelwright and tight end Troy Fumagalli. But the question of who was going to step into the spot across from ‘Wheels’ was an open one. Yes, Peavy was one of the offensive strugglers that cost them the Michigan game, but he still got open. Hornibrook had one good throw, and that yards per catch average would be back around 20. He’s already beaten his receiving yards total from last season, even a marginal game gets him past his 2015 reception total.

Jon Beidelschies: The secondary. The consensus coming into the season was that it was going to take a major step down with the loss of safeties Michael Caputo and Tanner McEvoy. By and large, this year’s unit has been solid. Coverage leads to sacks and there have been quite a few of those. By all accounts (and based on the product on the field) defensive backs coach Jim Leonhard appears to be a great add to the coaching staff.

Kevin O’Connell: Defensive depth. Going into the season, Justin Wilcox knew he had an exceptional defensive unit returning for the 2016 season. But I think even he would be pleasantly surprised at how deep the Badgers are on the defensive side of the ball. After losing Chris Orr early in the LSU game, inside linebacker Ryan Connelly stepped in and made some crucial tackles in that win. Junior Lubern Figaro has filled in nicely for Natrell Jamerson at cornerback, and has recaptured the confidence he had when he was a starter at safety as a true freshman.

Even last week, outside linebackers Garret Dooley and Zack Baun did a more than adequate job replacing an injured Vince Biegel. Sooner or later injuries will catch up to any team, but so far Wisconsin’s reserves have done a sensational job filling in for some banged up key starters on the defensive side of the ball.

What are the key area(s) Wisconsin needs to improve upon heading into their Oct. 15 nighttime match-up against the Buckeyes?

Owen: With Biegel healthy or not, the pass rush has to be turned all the way up against the Buckeyes. The caliber of athletes that Ohio State possesses is enough to overwhelm any secondary, especially if you can’t rush the passer. T.J. Watt, Dooley, Baun and potentially but probably not Biegel have to be successful pressuring J.T. Barrett. This also puts more pressure on defensive linemen Chikwe Obasih, Connor Sheehy, and Alec James, as I don’t expect the Badgers to be in a ton of base defensive looks.

Andrew: The receivers need to make friends with the jugs gun and get those hands in proper working order. Drops have been a problem for the Badgers all season, and you’re going to need balance in the offense if you’re going to hang a performance that will be something more than being game and falling short to a better on paper team.

Jon: Offensive line play. I hope everyone gets healthy. The line was out of sorts on Saturday and the Wolverines made them pay in the run game. Not picking on anyone in particular, but they’ve got to get right or it’s going to be another long night of tough sledding for Clement against the Buckeyes.

Kevin: As good as the wide receivers have been so far this year, Wheelwright, Peavy and Co. have to do a better job of getting open when Ohio State comes to town. It seemed, to me at least, that as bad as Hornibrook was at Michigan he had very tight windows to throw into the whole game. Ohio State trots out similar, if not better athletes in the secondary as Michigan, and the receivers need to do a much better job of getting open if Wisconsin wants any shot at moving the ball and winning this game.