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What to know about Wisconsin’s home opener vs. Akron

Wisconsin gets a taste of #MACtion as it welcomes the Akron Zips to Madison for the 2016 home opener.

Camp Randall Stadium Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Wisconsin (1-0; depth chart)

Conference: Big Ten Conference, West Division

Last week: 16-14 win vs. LSU (neutral site)

Polls: No. 10 in AP Top 25 (last week: unranked), No. 16 in Amway Coaches Poll (last week: unranked)

Head coach: Paul Chryst, second season at Wisconsin (11-3)

Akron (1-0; depth chart on page 16)

Conference: Mid-American Conference, East Division

Last week: 47-24 win vs. VMI (home)

Polls: Unranked

Head coach: Terry Bowden, fifth season at Akron (20-30)

When Akron has the ball

The Zips’ only two returning offensive starters from a year ago made their presence known last week in a shootout victory over VMI. Quarterback Thomas Woodson threw for 407 yards and six (!) touchdowns on his way to earning Mid-American Conference Offensive Player of the Week honors. On the receiving end for much of Woodson’s production was Jerome Lane, who reeled in 10 passes for 196 yards and two touchdowns. In 2015, Akron only threw for 192.9 yards per game (97th nationally), so the Week 1 outburst was an encouraging performance for the unit. It’s obvious that Akron likes to throw the ball around to its talented receivers, but last week it got some support from the ground game as running back Warren Ball, a graduate transfer from Ohio State, ran 18 times for 110 yards and a touchdown.

An aspect of the offense to watch Saturday is Woodson’s ability to use his legs to make plays—the junior ran for nearly 600 yards in 12 games in 2015, though he didn’t make much of an impact running last Saturday. The Zips will put pressure on the Badgers’ secondary with their spread attack (Lane’s 20.1 yards per catch ranked 12th nationally in 2015), but they’ll need a strong performance on the ground from Ball and Woodson to have a chance at the upset this week.

Despite Ball’s solid numbers, the running game and offensive line are main concerns coming in to Week 2. If Ball’s best run, a 43-yard scamper, is removed from his stat line, his yards-per-carry average is down to 3.9, equal to Akron’s 2015 output. Overall, the Zips ran for 164.2 yards per game a year ago (75th nationally) and are tasked with replacing all five offensive line starters from 2015. The unit will need to gel early to handle the Wisconsin front that kept LSU under 260 total yards last Saturday.

The Badgers will be without sophomore linebackers Chris Orr and T.J. Edwards in the middle. Edwards missed the entire game a week ago, while Orr was lost for the season on the first defensive play. To cover for the loss in linebacker depth, Leon Jacobs started getting work at the position this week, in addition to his fullback duties. The team should otherwise be at full strength defensively as defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox looks to follow up his terrific first game at the helm. He’ll look to slow down an offense that may carry over some of its second-half success from a week ago.

When Wisconsin has the ball

Quarterback Bart Houston comes into his second career start looking to avoid some of the turnovers that helped keep LSU close last Saturday. The senior was provided plenty of time by his offensive line but still made some questionable decisions, most notably an interception that was returned for LSU’s first score of the game. Houston should get even more help by way of the running game this week—the Badgers were able to effectively run the ball against LSU, but should find the going a bit easier against an inexperienced Akron defense. Per the usual attack, Corey Clement and his teammates in the backfield should see plenty of work.

The Akron defense returned four defensive starters from a unit that ranked No. 3 nationally against the run and No. 15 in total defense. The Zips’ 4-3 scheme was able to hold VMI under two yards per carry last week, led by defensive ends Jamal Marcus and Se’Von Pittman. Marcus and Pittman will be tasked with not only stopping the vaunted Wisconsin ground game, but also putting pressure on Houston, something LSU struggled to do. In the secondary, cornerback DeAndre Scott and safety Zach Guiser lead the way and will look to keep Robert Wheelright, Jazz Peavy and the Wisconsin wide receivers contained.

Despite the strong performance against VMI’s running attack, Bowden has described his defense as “a work in progress.” It surrendered 300 passing yards and 24 points through three quarters a week ago, all to a team that plays at the FCS level. The linebacker unit, which replaced all three starters from 2015, will face a boatload of stress from the Wisconsin running and passing game, especially from tight end Troy Fumagalli. The Zips’ defense also surrendered over 100 receiving yards to VMI running back Quan Myers. A similar performance this Saturday will end in a very different result for defensive coordinator Chuck Amato and the Zips’ defense.

Special teams

Like its offense and defense, Akron’s special teams entered 2016 needing to replace talent. Kicker Robert Stein and punter Zach Paul graduated, leaving their duties to a crew of sophomores. Tom O’Leary took over the placekicking duties and got off to a rough start, missing two of his seven extra-point attempts last week. Nick Gasser and Jerry Fitschen both got action against VMI in the punting game. Running back Van Edwards had a 38-yard kick return and wide receiver Jojo Natson gives the Zips a solid threat as a punt returner.

On the Wisconsin side, P.J. Rosowski will handle punts for the second time in his career, while Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week Rafael Gaglianone will look to build upon his 3-for-3 start to the season. Natrell Jamerson will once again be back deep for kicks and Jazz Peavy will look to get his first crack at a punt return on the 2016 season.