Five burning questions: Bye week for the Wisconsin Badgers
After a strong start to the 2019 season, BadgerBlitz.com continues its weekly "Five Burning Questions" series as the No. 14 Wisconsin Badgers rest up this week before welcoming No. 10 Michigan to Camp Randall Stadium next week.
1. Can Wisconsin continue its impressive start to the 2019 season on both sides of the ball against a top-10 team?
To the degree of success in shutting out opponents while averaging 55 points per game -- along with Jack Coan completing 76 percent of his passes and throwing up 282 yards per contest through the air -- likely not. Despite sputtering the first two weeks, Michigan boasts more talent than South Florida and Central Michigan, and Wisconsin will be challenged on offense and defense.
The open week could allow the Wolverines to get back on track both in health and with its new offense under coordinator Josh Gattis. It took two overtimes for Jim Harbaugh's team to dispatch Army last weekend, but maybe the extra time allows pieces to better fall in place entering conference play?
That said, the bye week could also help the Badgers prepare for the Wolverines' with their snaps already on film to scheme against. Next Saturday's matchup will be a huge measuring stick to see this team's true potential.
2. How will Wisconsin's offense look the rest of the season?
News broke on Wednesday afternoon that tight end Zander Neuville suffered another injury that would subsequently end his football career. With the lack of depth at the tight end position - Luke Benzschawel, Gabe Lloyd and now Neuville on the shelf - Wisconsin has worked lighter in personnel the first two games.
In recent weeks, BadgerBlitz.com has looked at what Paul Chryst's offense has thrown at South Florida and Central Michigan. One notable observation has come with the amount of plays that Wisconsin has run out of 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers).
In the first half against the Chippewas, we counted 22 of the 44 snaps with three passing touchdowns coming from that 11 personnel. One could argue that the formation could utilize Wisconsin's best 11 players on offense the most with the firepower in the aerial attack.
It should bear watching on just how that affects Wisconsin's rushing attack as well, which has been good but not necessarily dominant early on with four new "regular" starters and right tackle Logan Bruss out last week. However, UW is still averaging 216.5 yards per contest on the ground.
With Neuville out, expect more use of David Moorman or Cormac Sampson as the extra lineman/pseudo tight end in short yardage or goal line situations. For what it's worth, UW also showed a "32" look with fullbacks John Chenal and Mason Stokke on the field at the same time in last week's win.
3. What will the injury report show next week for Michigan?
The time off this week comes at a good time, as Wisconsin sat four starters -- Bruss, safety Scott Nelson, outside linebacker Izayah Green-May and nose tackle Bryson Williams -- against Central Michigan.
We now know that in addition to Neuville that Nelson is out for the season after the redshirt sophomore defensive back announced the news on Saturday evening. Williams was a late add to the Thursday injury report last week after not being on the previous Monday's preliminary list, and Chryst acknowledged late last week that it was too early to know if the sophomore defensive lineman would be ready for Michigan. In his place, true freshman Keeanu Benton played well (one tackle for loss, PFF grade of 88.4) in his first career start at nose tackle.
During the Central Michigan game, wide receiver Kendric Pryor suffered an upper body injury and was designated as out for the rest of that lopsided win.
To defeat this Michigan team, Wisconsin will need to fire on all cylinders, and having healthy bodies back can only help its chances. Come Monday, we will get a glimpse of who could and could not be available next week.
4. The Badgers' defense has been absolutely outstanding. How will they react when adversity hits against better offenses?
It felt difficult to find a specific question for Jim Leonhard's unit, as it has been fantastic in giving up just 215 total yards and allowing merely 4-of-28 third down conversions in two games. The yards per carry (0.9), yards per pass (3.1) and yards per reception (7.0) further show a lockdown-like group of Badgers to begin the season.
On Sept. 21, Wisconsin will face a Michigan offense that, despite some work needing to be done, has averaged nearly 400 yards per contest. The Badgers could definitely contain the Wolverines' rushing attack that is averaging just 3.8 yards per carry based on early returns, but there is a passing attack that features quarterback Shea Patterson and wide receivers Nico Collins, Ronnie Bell and Tarik Black. If Jim Harbaugh's team can get rolling inside Camp Randall Stadium, how do Chris Orr, Zack Baun and others respond?
If UW can handle Michigan in sound fashion and respond accordingly in key red zone and third-down situations, that could continue the trend of performances that the unit can build upon as it progresses through the conference season. Not trying to look too far ahead, but offenses like Ohio State and Nebraska will be significant tests for Wisconsin on the road in late October and into November.
5. How can special teams make a further impact heading into conference play?
One facet of this third phase of the game has undoubtedly improved in the first two games with the punt return game. Jack Dunn has averaged 12.6 yards per attempt in nine tries, and that includes a 41-yarder against South Florida in the season-opener.
Redshirt sophomore walk-on Collin Larsh has made all 15 extra point attempts in two games and has been busy (and perfect) in that regard. However, he has missed two of three field goal opportunities, including a 30-yarder against USF and a 51-yarder last week against Central Michigan.
Senior Anthony Lotti booted three balls inside the 20-yard line against the Bulls on Aug. 30 but only recorded a 29-yard punt against the Chippewas last Saturday.
Will Aron Cruickshank also receive an opportunity to return a kickoff and make an impression there? All three phases will be needing to step up further during the Big Ten Conference schedule.