Fresh off their 16-14 upset win over the No. 5 LSU Tigers last weekend, the No. 10/No. 16 (AP/Coaches) Wisconsin Badgers return to Camp Randall Stadium to take on the Akron Zips.
It’s the first home game in Madison of 2016, and though UW faced and overcame a tall order last weekend, Akron’s no slouch, either. Last year, the Zips won eight games and their bowl game.
Though it took an explosive fourth quarter to pull away from FCS opponent VMI in a 47-24 win, quarterback Thomas Woodson threw for over 400 yards and six touchdown passes last weekend on way to being named the MAC Offensive Player of the Week. The Zips’ spread offense features some intriguing weapons that could test the Badgers.
Head coach Paul Chryst said on Monday that the Badgers already have turned the page after their emotional win in preparation for their MAC opponent.
“I think that they see we can be a lot better, and yet, I don’t want to be hypocritical,” Chryst said. “I want them to enjoy the game and game day. That’s the best part of the week. What can you learn from it? What can you take away from it, and how can you apply that going forward?
“I didn’t need to prod the guys. Didn’t need to talk to them and tell them what to think. That’s what I was pleased to hear from them."
Here are three keys to the game for Wisconsin:
Avoid big plays by Akron’s spread offense
Different week, different offensive scheme. Wisconsin will not see the I-formation, pro-style looks that LSU ran. Akron runs a spread offense with Woodson, who could beat the Badgers through the air or on the ground (over 600 yards in 2015).
“Offensively, they’ll spread you out,” Chryst said. “Their quarterback has got a really strong arm but is also a good runner. I think their running back is a really good running back. They got some receivers that can run and got size. I think it’s going to stress us differently than last week where they’ll spread us out and we gotta play good assignment football. There’s times where you’ll be in one-on-one situations—we gotta make plays when we do."
As noted in Dylan Deich’s preview on Friday, the Badgers’ secondary will have to contain wide receiver Jerome Lane (10 receptions, 196 yards, two touchdowns last week). There’s also JoJo Natson, Jr., a Utah State transfer who caught four passes last week, three for touchdowns.
Running back Warren Ball, another transfer (Ohio State), ran for 110 yards and averaged six yards per carry.
Wisconsin contained Heisman candidate Leonard Fournette last week to 138 yards, and its front seven should present some problems for the Zips, even without Chris Orr (and possibly T.J. Edwards) at inside linebacker. Former walk-ons Jack Cichy and Ryan Connelly give UW a solid presence at that position, with the latter stepping up huge last week with seven tackles in place of Orr. Arguably the biggest was Connelly’s tackle of Fournette on a screen pass on 3rd-and-8 in the fourth quarter that forced a Tigers punt.
The secondary played very well against Travin Dural and Malachi Dupree last Saturday (eight catches, 74 yards combined). Expect cornerbacks Sojourn Shelton and Derrick Tindal to physically challenge the receivers again. It will be interesting to see the subpackages deployed by defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox to counter the spread look. Defensive backs Natrell Jamerson, Arrington Farrar and true freshman Caesar Williams could be on the field quite often.
"We’ve got confidence in our defense. Lot of guys stepped up and made plays in game one, and we need to do that again,” said Chryst on Monday. “We’ll be tested and challenged differently this week."
Play Wisconsin’s style of offense
UW ran for 134 yards against Dave Aranda’s LSU defense last week, and though that was below the Badgers’ season total of 150.3 from last year (94th in the nation), there were some impressive, promising signs from that group against an athletic, All-SEC front.
“I thought [left guard] Jon Dietzen came in and for his first snaps, did some good things,” Chryst said. “I thought [right tackle] Ryan Ramczyk settled in. I thought he played really well in the second half particularly, so I think it’s this group right now that did some good things in game one. The challenge for us and opportunity for us is to improve upon that."
Micah Kapoi is still questionable with his left foot injury, so it could be expected Jon Dietzen gets the start at left guard. HustleBelt.com’s Alan Rucker told B5Q the Zips have built a skilled defense, led by defensive lineman Jamal Marcus.
Akron only allowed 86 yards rushing last week at less than two yards per carry. UW isn’t VMI, though, and its defense did allow 300 yards passing in that season-opening win.
Expect Chryst to establish the run game early and combine that with a passing attack featuring tight end Troy Fumagalli (seven catches, 100 yards vs. LSU) and receivers Robert Wheelwright (four receptions, 60 yards) and Jazz Peavy.
Bart Houston continuing to improve
The redshirt senior completed 19-of-31 for 205 yards last week against the Tigers. It was a solid effort for the most part, but two critical interceptions either took away potential points from Wisconsin (red zone pick) or directly contributed to points (pick-six in the third quarter).
Luckily, Houston has the ability to flip the switch quickly and move to the next play. On the fourth quarter drive that led to Rafael Gaglianone’s game-winning 47-yard field goal last week, he was 3-for-3 for 38 yards.
He, and the Badgers in general, have to limit his turnovers for the team to be successful. If he does on Saturday, it should be a long day for Terry Bowden’s defense.
Prediction: Wisconsin 38, Akron 10
The big question is whether Wisconsin’s win over LSU will leave the Badgers in an emotional hangover. Based off of players’ reactions earlier in the week, I don’t see that happening.
Expect the Zips to get a play here or there, but Wisconsin should lock down when needed. I think Corey Clement gets his first 100-yard rushing game of 2016 (the first since Rutgers on Halloween last season) and the Badgers wear down the Akron front seven over the course of the game.
It’s rainy to start Saturday morning, but the clouds should dissipate leading up to kickoff. On a partly cloudy afternoon, Wisconsin should earn the win against another MAC opponent.