Many experts aren’t picking the Wisconsin Badgers to upset the No. 5 LSU Tigers on Saturday afternoon in the Lambeau Field College Classic.
Oddsmakers currently have the Badgers between 9.5 and 11.5-point underdogs to a team returning 17 talented starters on offense and defense combined, facing a Heisman Trophy candidate in junior running back Leonard Fournette and trying to overcome a defense led by former defensive coordinator Dave Aranda.
That doesn’t mean Wisconsin has no shot, by any stretch. Wisconsin’s strength should once again be its defense, which boasts an experienced and athletic front seven that, despite losing All-American outside linebacker Joe Schobert, could be even more productive than last season.
An offensive line that fought through growing pains a season ago gains a year of experience, and though there were some injuries during fall camp, the starting five could return to the precedent set in seasons prior.
Here are three keys to the game:
1. Contain Leonard Fournette, LSU’s run game
Any chance of Wisconsin staying close with LSU hinges on the Badgers' ability to slow down the Heisman Trophy favorite. Fournette is 13 yards away from 3,000 for his career, and he will in all likelihood become the fastest LSU player to achieve that landmark. Last season, the 6’1, 225-pound standout rushed for 1,953 yards and 22 touchdowns, averaging 6.5 yards per carry.
"He is a really talented football player. I think for good reason he’s being talked about as one of the best in the country," Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst said on Monday. "It’s always important when playing against a good player, you gotta do all you can to contain him, to try to minimize. They’re going to make plays, he’s going to make plays. What makes him good is that he’s extremely talented. I think he’s got really good players around him, and looks to me like he loves playing the game."
It doesn’t get easier behind Fournette. Derrius Guice, a true sophomore and former prep star, rushed for 445 yards and averaged 8.5 yards per carry. Hoping to open up holes in front of them is an offensive line led by senior center Ethan Pocic. The 6’7, 302-pound lineman is one of the nation’s best centers and likely an early NFL draft pick. The front seven will be tested early and often, but that’s where the strength of the Badgers’ defense lies.
The first-team defensive line boasts 35 starts between juniors Chikwe Obasih (20), Conor Sheehy (eight) and Alec James (three) and true sophomore Olive Sagapolu (four). None are seniors, and any combination of those three have the ability to stall LSU’s offensive line.
Behind them, the linebackers have the ability to be even better than last year’s team. Redshirt senior Vince Biegel moves over to the "field" side outside linebacker and redshirt junior T.J. Watt could be a revelation on the boundary side opposite him. Watching practices, the Pewaukee native appears to make a play almost every practice—a deflected pass, blowing up a defenseless running back, etc. Inside linebackers Chris Orr and Jack Cichy, even with T.J. Edwards out with a foot injury, have the chance to become more dominant with another year of seasoning.
It won’t be easy, but Wisconsin will have to wrap up Fournette, Guice and any tricks the Tigers try to throw at him. There’s a great chance Fournette gets his yards—especially if the Heisman candidate can get to the second and third levels of the defense—but if the Badgers can minimize large gains and force LSU to rely on its passing game, it could lead to quarterback Brandon Harris attempting to shoulder the responsibility to make play ... which leads into the next key.
2. Forcing turnovers
New defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and his past defenses have found a way to create takeaways. Last season, USC scored five defensive touchdowns, third-most in the FBS. In 2014, the Trojans ranked in the top 20 in turnover margin. Five years prior with Boise State at the same position, Wilcox's Broncos ranked No. 3 in the nation in turnover margin.
If Wisconsin can halt momentum in LSU’s running game, it will force Harris—who completed only 53.8 percent of his throws last season—to pass. The Tigers boast talented receivers in Malachi Dupre (43 receptions, 698 yards, six touchdowns in 2015) and Travin Dural (28 receptions, 533 yards, three touchdowns), who can definitely keep defenses honest and will challenge UW’s defensive backfield for four quarters.
There’s a possibility Harris could be erratic depending upon the pressure and schemes deployed by Wilcox and his players. Though Wisconsin’s secondary is relatively inexperienced with only senior cornerback Sojourn Shelton returning (started 37 of 40 career games in three seasons), junior Derrick Tindal has seen significant action on the field (24 career games). Safeties D’Cota Dixon and Leo Musso, along with needing to plug the run, will also have to defend LSU’s passing game under the tutelage of new defensive backs coach Jim Leonhard.
A couple of turnovers would deflate any LSU momentum offensively. A defensive touchdown could very well be needed, and would likely be a game-changing event.
3. Establish running game, minimize turnovers
The game will be won "in the trenches" on both sides of the ball. Wisconsin will have to move the ball on the ground to alleviate pressure off of quarterback Bart Houston, starting his first ever game. The rushing game will improve from last year, with injuries and inconsistency to the offensive line (seven starting combinations in 14 games) and running back Corey Clement dropping UW to 94th in the nation in rushing yards per game.
This season, four redshirt sophomores that pushed through a difficult 2015 will improve and could return Wisconsin to its standard rushing attack. Head coach Paul Chryst has stressed the line isn’t there yet, but it'll need to step up against the Tigers.
LSU boasts all-conference linemen in Davon Godchaux (41 tackles, nine tackles for loss, six sacks) and Lewis Neal (48 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, eight sacks). There’s also 6’4, 356-pound Travone Valentine, who has been cleared to play after transferring back to LSU from junior college.
Behind them is talented, first-team All-SEC linebacker Kendell Beckwith and second-team all-conference safety Jamal Adams. Eight starters in all return for LSU for new defensive coordinator Dave Aranda to transplant into his 3-4 scheme the Badgers know so well.
"They’re definitely athletic guys over there," left tackle Ryan Ramczyk said on Tuesday. "Obviously, we got athletic guys here, too, so it’s been good practicing against some guys here. It’ll be a challenge, but I’m excited for it. I’m ready."
Aranda’s defense last year was No. 1 in scoring defense (13.7 points per game) and No. 2 in in total defense (268.5 yards per game). Wisconsin has been preparing for the season-opener by watching both LSU’s spring game and its own defensive film from the year prior.
"It gives you a nice base and what to expect in their base defense. We’ve seen it so many times," redshirt sophomore Michael Deiter said on Monday. "I can remember it, the guys can remember it, so it definitely helps because you have a former knowledge with it. I’m expecting there will be some tricks and stuff like that—and we’ll have to go out there and make the adjustments and make sure we get everything is right."
There have been some issues with depth and injuries. Dan Voltz’s retirement last week gives Wisconsin essentially three guards that are game-ready, while injuries to Ramczyk (ankle), Jon Dietzen (head), Beau Benzschawel (shoulder) and Jacob Maxwell (foot) have kept the line shifting its personnel and numbers throughout fall camp.
It appears the starting five are all back to practice now and hoping to gel further heading into Saturday.
"It definitely takes a lot of reps to feel that confidence with the guy next to you to both be on the same page," left tackle Ryan Ramczyk said, "but I think we are at that point, and we’re executing well, so it’ll be exciting."
If Wisconsin can get Clement back rolling and implement some wrinkles, especially with the talent in the backfield or at wide receiver, it could exploit LSU players still learning Aranda’s scheme.
If not, Houston may be relied upon to channel his inner-Bart Starr and try to make plays through the air against a veteran and talented secondary that features Adams and consensus first-team All-SEC cornerback Tre’Davious White (44 tackles, seven pass break-ups). That is not the best way to attack LSU, and the first-time starter cannot try to force plays to happen.
If he does, it could be a feast for the Tigers’ secondary in creating turnovers.
"I think that’s one of those things you always have to manage, whether it’s the quarterback in Bart, whether it’s anyone on the team trying to do too much—you have to trust who you are and trust the preparation and work that you’ve put in," Chryst said. "I think those are natural tendencies of guys that are really competitive. I think Bart’s that, and yet he’s got to learn to manage that and handle that."