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Wisconsin football: key matchup to watch vs. Arizona State

A deeper look at one important matchup for the Badgers defense.

Wisconsin v Minnesota Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

This year we at B5Q dove into one pivotal matchup to keep an eye on weekly as the Wisconsin Badgers worked their way through their non-conference and Big Ten portions of their 2021 football schedule.

Alas, it is bowl season, and the Badgers are set to take on Arizona State in the Las Vegas Bowl on Thursday. While all of the various phases of a game are incredibly important, there are normally a few specific matchups that can make or break a bowl game for a particular side.

In anticipation of the contest with Arizona State, let’s take a deeper look into the matchup between Arizona State tight end Curtis Hodges and Wisconsin’s safeties.

Arizona State v Utah
Arizona State tight end Curtis Hodges is a bigger receiving threat to watch out for.
Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images

The case for Curtis Hodges

Arizona State is a team that has a balanced attack on offense. The Sun Devils have an almost perfect 50-50 split on the season in terms of rushing (203 ypg) and passing yardage (197 ypg) per game. With their top two running backs from the regular season out of the picture due to opt-outs and the transfer portal, it would not be surprising to see Arizona State lean on the throwing arm of Jayden Daniels a bit more than usual.

Daniels has seen a dip in his production this season after a fabulous 2019 freshman campaign, but he is still a very good quarterback that can push the ball down the field when the opportunity presents itself. While Arizona State does not have a singular elite receiver to worry about, they do have multiple talented pass catchers to account for. One player, in particular, that could provide a huge test for the Badgers is tight end, Curtis Hodges.

The 6-foot-8 graduate student from Arizona has multiple games this season with over 70 yards receiving and he is third on the team with 374 yards and two touchdowns despite only 20 receptions. This season he leads Arizona State’s primary targets with 18.7 yards per reception. A big reason for his production in limited chances is play action, and that has resulted in some big plays for Hodges.

Wisconsin gave up chunk plays in the passing game to tight ends the final two games of the regular season. Against Nebraska, Austin Allen hauled in seven receptions for 143 yards. Minnesota used some similar play-action concepts to get Brevyn Spann-Ford going for a team-leading three receptions for 62 yards. The Badgers will need to account for Curtis Hodges because he is a similar target for the Sun Devils that they like to utilize in play action.

The case for Wisconsin’s safeties

The Badgers received tough news earlier in the month, with the announcement that sixth-year safety Collin Wilder would miss the bowl game due to an injury sustained in the Minnesota game. John Torchio is projected to get the start alongside Scott Nelson in his absence, but how those two handle Hodges and the Arizona State offense will be a storyline to watch.

Wisconsin has one of the very best defenses in the country across all metrics, but it will be critical for Nelson and Torchio to limit big plays in the passing game. Both players are very aggressive which has led to turnover opportunities for Wisconsin on multiple occasions. For example, Nelson had a pick-six against Minnesota and also had a big interception in last year’s bowl game against Wake Forest that he returned for 60 yards. Torchio has two interceptions this season in a reserve role, and he earned the nickname “Jewelry Thief” by his teammates during fall camp because of all of the takeaways he generated.

Minnesota definitely used that aggressiveness against them on a couple of instances to spark some big plays, so it will be important for Nelson and Torchio to player sound football because that was something I would assume Arizona State may have picked up on during film study.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 06 Wisconsin at Rutgers
Safety John Torchio is expected to get the start in place of Collin Wilder in the bowl game.
Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If Arizona State does indeed need to throw the ball more because of fewer bodies to turn to in the running game, and well Wisconsin is extremely stout against the run, that should provide more opportunities for Nelson and Torchio, as well as reserve safeties Travian Blaylock and Hunter Wohler, to make plays. ASU quarterback Jayden Daniels has thrown nine interceptions this season, so there could be chances.

Regardless, the Badgers have plenty of experience in their secondary for this game, but the matchup between the safeties and Hodges will be an intriguing one to monitor based on how the final two games went for Wisconsin’s secondary.