In order to do so comfortably, the Badgers are going to need improvements in a crucial area: run defense.
Rutgers has rushed for 195.2 yards per game this season, led by top back Kyle Monangai, who has 471 yards and six touchdowns on 5.4 yards per carry.
Meanwhile, the Badgers have been somewhat susceptible on the ground at times this season, especially on runs inside the tackles, be it due to quarterback scrambles, poor tackling, or gap-fitting issues.
Is the run defense a worry heading into Week 6?
Head coach Luke Fickell attributed some of the struggles to third-down situations, which he believes are occurring not only in Madison, but around the nation in college football.
“It’s not like there’s an over-concern level,” head coach Luke Fickell said ahead of Saturday’s bout against Rutgers. “I think that we feel like we’ve given up some big runs in third down situations and those are the ones that have probably cost us as much as anything.”
“And unfortunately, you spend a little bit of time watching football... and I think that’s one of those things that I recognize across the board in college football right now is defensively in particular, people are having a little bit more of an issue with big plays and they’re coming on the third down runs. And I think it’s a great job by the offenses, to be honest with you.”
While Fickell doesn't get strung up into the statistics, the head coach understands that there is an issue that needs to be fixed there
“So I feel like we’re a little bit in that same category. You can get too tied into just how many rushing yards. I think that obviously against Purdue, the quarterback scrambling and running cost us a lot and there was a lot of yards there and then a couple of the big runs on some of the third down stuff that just really put you in a bad situation.”
“So, not alarming, but we all know that even enduring the by week, you’re finding things that you need to shore up and definitely run defenses is one of those ones.”
The good news? The Badgers have been able to identify some of those issues and create solutions for them early in the season thus far.
The bye week allowed Fickell and Co. some time to reflect on what the team has done well, but also where improvements have been made and need to be made.
“The good news is we had been poor in the first few weeks in turnovers, and then all of a sudden we get a bunch of turnovers,” Fickell said. “And we had been poor in the first few weeks in third down, offensively in particular. And obviously the last game at Purdue were much better in the third down stuff. So I think it’s all part of that evolution.”
That term of evolution appears to be integral to how the Badgers are approaching the season with a new foundation of players and coaches, and Fickell believes there’s more still to be done.
“You’re looking at where you’re doing a better job and where you need to focus. I know defensively it’s still about leverage, it’s still about tackling, but that’s not something all of a sudden in a bye week that you completely change. You’re going to go live all times,” Fickell said.
However, it’s been a positive sign that areas that the coaches have looked to emphasize have been addressed, which will hopefully be the same with the run defense as the weeks go by.
“But I think the best thing that you look at our guys and you look at our coaches and the things that we’ve emphasized, the things we’ve talked about, whether it was the first two or three weeks of the season into the fourth week, I think that our kids have kind of taken that to heart and have gotten better,” Fickell said. “So it gave us an opportunity to focus back on those same things we were talking about after two and three weeks, but also even more so in the first four in particular. So there wasn’t one in particular thing that you could just point at like we did in the first few weeks with turnovers and third downs.”
“But I think there’s a lot of little fundamental things that we have to do a lot better as we move forward [past the] bye week.”
The Badgers will face a tough test on the ground in Week 6 when they face off against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, who have started the season 4-1, courtesy of a solid defense and a resounding run game that has averaged nearly 200 yards a game.