Happy Halloween, kiddos.
Of all the ghouls and ghosts and things-that-go-bump-in-the-night, Saturday’s game at Indiana may be the most frightening goblin of all.
Wisconsin comes into the game undefeated, the No. 4 team in the country, fifth in the nation in total defense.
On paper, the Hoosiers should be an easy “W,” but after Wisconsin struggled to get much-harder-than-they-needed-to-be wins against fellow Big Ten sophisticates Purdue, Maryland, and Illinois, and with big games against Iowa, Michigan, and Minnesota on the horizon, this one feels like a trap.
Indiana is not (entirely) terrible
Indiana is kind of bad. Indiana is 3–5 and 0–5 in the Big Ten. Indiana has lost three in a row and gave up 42 points last week against Maryland.
Unfortunately, despite being kind of bad, Indiana is not entirely terrible. Particularly against good teams.
Indiana was up on Ohio State at home in its season opener before Hoosiers fans had a fleeting moment of hubris, the Buckeyes had an “are you trying to embarrass us on TV” moment, and Ohio State scored 29 unanswered points for the win.
IU also held its own in losses to Michigan (27–20 in OT at home), Michigan State (17–9 in East Lansing), and the aforementioned Maryland (42–39 in College Park).
The Hoosiers are sixth in the Big Ten in scoring offense, putting up 27 points a game. They average 258 yards in the air, though quarterbacks Peyton Ramsey and Richard Lagow may both see time (hopefully in an Illinois-esque, play-by-play timeshare that boggles the mind and baffles the senses).
So the Hoosiers can score, they play pretty well at home, and one suspects that they’ll be hyped for what could be one of the biggest wins in program history. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how upsets begin.
Maybe no Jonathan Taylor
The Badgers may be without starting running back and Big Ten Freshman of the Year frontrunner Jonathan Taylor. Taylor left the Illinois game in the second quarter with an undisclosed leg injury and is listed as questionable for Saturday’s game.
The breakout star of 2017, Taylor is the fourth-leading rusher in the FBS. After he went down against the Illini, the Badgers’ offense looked lost against a motivated but overmatched Illinois squad.
With junior Chris James also questionable, look for sophomore Bradrick Shaw and redshirt freshman Garrett Groshek to split the carries. Both have shown promise (Groshek, in particular, has been interesting in limited spots this season) but (self-evidently) neither one is Taylor. Expect senior Rachid Ibrahim to also continue to see work in the passing game.
Injuries are mounting
The injury bug is not just limited to Taylor. The preliminary injury report released Monday looks dire.
Depth at wide receiver is downright frightening. Quintez Cephus, who has emerged this season as a No. 1-caliber target, is listed as questionable. So, too, is deep threat freshman Danny Davis. Jazz Peavy and George Rushing both remain out. In the backfield, both James and fullback Austin Ramesh are questionable.
The defense has not escaped unscathed. Strong safety D’Cota Dixon, who was a late scratch for the Illinois game, is questionable. Though the secondary looked very good at times in his absence against the Illini, the Hoosiers are much more talented on the offensive side of the ball. Defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk is also listed as questionable.
The offense is struggling
It’s hard to separate the offensive struggles from the ever-mounting injury list, but without Taylor, Wisconsin has looked pedestrian at best.
Mistakes have been a recurring theme in big spots for the unit, with penalties and turnovers erasing offensive momentum and putting pressure on the Badgers’ defense to the tune of 14 “sudden change” situations on the season.
Uncharacteristically, Wisconsin has given up 47 penalties this season, averaging over 53 penalty yards per game. Against Illinois, the offensive line avoided the false starts and holds that have plagued the first half of the season, but against the Hoosiers, Wisconsin can ill afford to hurt itself with mental errors.
Quarterback Alex Hornibrook has not looked good in conference play. He’s thrown an interception in every conference game, including two each against Northwestern and Purdue and a pick-six that could have been costly on the road at Nebraska.
On the season, Hornibrook has thrown 13 touchdowns to eight interceptions. He has completed 64.3 percent of his passes, but that includes a record-setting 18-of-19 game against a legitimately terrible BYU squad.
Wisconsin’s saving grace may be Indiana’s defense. Indiana is 10th in the Big Ten in scoring defense, allowing 26.8 points per game. The Hoosiers allow 162 yards rushing per game, which may mean that Shaw and Groshek may be able to get things going on the ground even if Taylor can’t play.
Saturday’s game should be a fairly straightforward opportunity to grab a win against a lesser conference foe. With a victory, Wisconsin would have a de facto three-game lead in the West division with three to play.
Let’s hope that the offense plays clean, aggressive football that minimizes mistakes and the defense pins its ears back and does some damage against an overmatched Hoosiers offense. Let’s hope Indiana doesn’t get some early momentum. Let’s hope IU doesn’t grab a lead that forces Wisconsin to air the ball out with shaky quarterback and thin receiving corps. Let’s hope the Badgers stout defense doesn’t crack at precisely the wrong moment.
Sleep well, kiddos.