The Wisconsin Badgers open their 2018 season Friday night under the bright lights of hallowed Camp Randall Stadium. The opponent for the opener is the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, who come off a 6–7 season that ended in a 27–17 loss to Georgia State in the Cure Bowl. The 2017 Hilltoppers team fell off after back-to-back C-USA titles in 2015 and 2016.
2018 looks like it will be a rebuilding year for the Hilltoppers. Their season win total is projected at just 4.5 wins according to South Point Casino in Las Vegas, with many college football experts predicting a 4–8 to 5–7 season.
Despite all that, these are just projections, and every opponent should be taken seriously since you never know what could happen. So in turn, what will the Badgers need to do in order to take care of business and come away with a victory in Week 1?
Pound the Rock
It’s true, this could be a key to victory in almost all Wisconsin contests, but it’s even more so in Friday’s opener. WKU’s defense was average a season ago, ranking middle of the pack in a plethora of defensive categories. but there was one stat that stood out. The Hilltoppers ranked 103rd in third-down conversions allowed a season ago, meaning it was a struggle to get their defense off the field.
This stat bodes well for Wisconsin, who is very comfortable playing on third down, as the Badgers ranked fourth in third-down conversion percentage last year. With one of the top running backs and offensive lines in the nation returning, the Badgers should have no problem taking to the ground on any down. Wearing down the Hilltoppers on the defensive line will likely spring some big runs and allow Jonathan Taylor to do his magic.
Pressure the Quarterback
WKU’s biggest struggle a season ago was protecting the quarterback. In 2017, the Hilltoppers allowed an average of 3.69 sacks per game, which ranked 126th out of 130 FBS teams. In 2018, WKU will have to replace three of the starters from that offensive line, as well as quarterback Mike White, who threw for 8,540 yards and 63 touchdowns over the past two seasons. Furthermore, the Hilltoppers have to replace their top three passing targets from a season ago.
If you add all those factors together, you can see why there would be some concern for a pass-happy offense. Wisconsin will look to put a lot of pressure on the offensive line and quarterback to stifle the WKU passing game. If the Badgers can get to the QB early and often with guys like Andrew Van Ginkel and T.J. Edwards, WKU will struggle to produce on offense, likely leading to some turnovers and confidence given to the new faces in the Badger secondary.
Wisconsin loses both starters at outside linebacker, but returns Andrew Van Ginkel in 2018— Wisconsin Football (@BadgerFootball) January 6, 2018
In his final two games (Big Ten championship and Orange Bowl), Van Ginkel had 2 interceptions and 1 fumble recovery. #OnWisconsin pic.twitter.com/duq11QssIH
In 2017, the Badgers were a little slow getting out of the gate in their season opener against Utah State. If you recall, they ended the first quarter with a 10-point defect to the Aggies before rattling off 59 unanswered points.
Wisconsin will be in virtually the same game setting on Friday night, but the Badgers will want to get out to a faster start this time around. The longer an underdog hangs around, the higher the win probability gets. With the Badgers having a 39-game home win streak against non-conference opponents, it’s clear that Wisconsin can put away these types of games and will look to get a jump on it early. If the Badgers can come out and hit the gas right away, they should have no issue running away in this contest.