Roundtable: Assessing the Wisconsin Badgers through two games
Two out of 12 games is a small sample size, but there is no doubt the No. 14 Wisconsin Badgers have looked extremely sharp to start their 2019 season. Dominant wins against Group of 5 programs South Florida and Central Michigan have many wondering just what the ceiling is for Paul Chryst's team, and if the success can continue when Big Ten play starts next week with No. 10 Michigan coming to town.
The BadgerBlitz.com staff -- editor Jon McNamara, senior writer Jake Kocorowski and staff writer Asher Low -- came together for a roundtable session in discussing Wisconsin's early, overwhelming success.
Through two games, who or what has been the most surprising to you regarding Wisconsin’s 2-0 start?
McNamara: The offense has received a lot of publicity -- and for good reason. But back-to-back shutouts against South Florida and Central Michigan has to be the most surprising takeaway after two weeks. I questioned if Jim Leonhard's unit had difference makers heading into the 2019. Outside linebacker Zack Baun appears worthy of that title, and the line looks much different with a two healthy ends.
Low: The most surprising aspect of Wisconsin’s dominant 2-0 start has been the verticality and effectiveness of their passing attack. It suddenly feels like this group has a quarterback under center who can, in the words of the great Randy Moss, take the top off of a defense. To put things in perspective, through two games last year Wisconsin completed three passes that went for 15 yards or more. This year through two games they have completed 14. The added dimension of the offense has kept defenses guessing and created a multi-dimensional attack for a team that traditionally has depended on their ground game.
Kocorowski: I’ll expand upon Jon’s thoughts with the defense. In those two games, Wisconsin has allowed a total of just 215 yards of offense and 4-of-28 third down conversions. Even with the game lopsided, Wisconsin’s reserves continued to keep South Florida and Central Michigan scoreless. Jim Leonhard’s unit has shown shades of the 2017 defense that flew to the ball and created pressure and turnovers. We’ll see just how much it’s improved when Michigan comes to town in 10 days.
I will say with the offense, Jack Coan, in particular, has been an early revelation as well. He has completed over 76 percent of his passes with no interceptions to five touchdown passes. The junior quarterback has taken control of the offense early on and showed a confidence and assertiveness in the first two contests. Will he continue that against a more menacing opposing defense with Michigan on Sept. 21?
On the flip side, despite all the good that has happened, what areas of improvement do you want to see out of Wisconsin?
McNamara: I think there are some things that Wisconsin can clean up on the offensive line. This unit, which had to replace four starters during the off-season, has looked solid but not great the last two weeks. If there's a spot where the Badgers can continue to improve, it's up front, in my opinion. Should right tackle Logan Bruss be cleared to play against Michigan, it would certainly help this group moving forward.
Low: It is certainly hard to find anything to be concerned about for the Badgers up to this point. An area that has the potential for concern, and to decide games against teams like Ohio State and Michigan, is kicking. Sophomore Collin Larsh has just one made field goal in three attempts this year, with that make coming from inside the 30. He has yet to face the big moments that are certainly looming in conference play. We will see how much trust the coaching staff has with him for longer field goal attempts against Michigan next week.
Kocorowski: Jon brings up a good point about Joe Rudolph’s group, though I wonder just how much of it is due to Wisconsin needing to go with lighter personnel with the lack of depth at tight end. The Badgers have still racked up over 216 yards per contest on the ground, yet that rushing attack will need to be steady and make strides with conference play forthcoming.
I like where Asher was headed with special teams. I think former walk-on Jack Dunn has made huge strides in the first two games as punt returner. On the flip side, I want to see how Larsh and punter Anthony Lotti look against Michigan. For the former, making a 50-yard attempt is never a sure bet, and he rebounded by getting his first collegiate field goal in the third quarter. With the latter, he has not necessarily been called upon often this season -- especially against Central Michigan -- which is a good thing for the team in general with its offensive success. However, Wisconsin will need them to be on point against Michigan next week.
Which player has stood out to you the most in the first two weeks of play?
McNamara: It’s tough not to go with Jack Coan here. You knew he was Wisconsin’s top quarterback all fall, but the junior quarterback had yet to prove it in a game. After two weeks, I think he’s quieted many of his doubters.
Low: It has to be Coan. The junior quarterback has turned many doubters into believers in the first two weeks. Experience has done wonders for his confidence level, as he truly looks like the leader of this Wisconsin team. Even the questions after Week 1 about his accuracy and ability to throw the deep ball were answered last Saturday. He has become much more than just a game manager for the Badgers.
Kocorowski: With you two looking at Coan and the offense, I’ll look at the opposite side of the ball with outside linebacker Zack Baun. During spring ball and fall camp, we continuously asked who would replace the production of Andrew Van Ginkel, and the redshirt senior from Brown Deer, Wis., has responded with one sack each in the first two games. The first one of the year forced a fumble that wound up in the hands of Matt Henningsen who rumbled in for a touchdown against South Florida.
I still want to see other outside linebackers step up when called upon once conference play starts, but Baun’s making a significant impact and kicking off his final year in Madison with a bang.
Of course, wide receiver Quintez Cephus could also fit the bill here in leading the team in receptions (nine) and receiving yards (169) through two games as well after just rejoining the team less than a month ago.
Has your 2019 outlook changed about Wisconsin through two games?
McNamara: I think so. During Big Ten Media Days in Chicago this past summer, a big theme was how difficult the schedule was going to be for the Badgers. At that time, I felt this team would have eight or nine wins. Now, despite it being a small sample size, you wonder if this could be a special season. We’ll know a lot more in two Saturdays after UW's home contest against Michigan.
Low: Absolutely. After all the preseason talk about how wide open the Big Ten West would be this season, Wisconsin has placed themselves firmly in the driver’s seat. The offense looks multi-faceted with a passing attack that very few people were expecting to see. Defensively, Leonhard’s group is allowing a national-best 107.5 yards per game to opponents through two weeks. Yes, the opponents haven’t been the quality that the Badgers will see come next week. Although, the fact is that while multiple Big Ten teams have stumbled, Wisconsin has dominated on both sides of the football. I now fully expect an appearance in Indianapolis.
Kocorowski: I’m so hesitant because of the non-conference schedule. South Florida has now dropped eight straight games dating back to last year, and Central Michigan has been in rebuild mode after a 1-11 campaign in 2018.
That being said, the way Wisconsin has manhandled its competition early on has been downright impressive. It likely won’t continue to the degree of success it has had in averaging 55 points and giving up zilch in return, but I think if the Badgers stay healthy, a 10-win season is definitely a significant possibility with the (Wild Wild) Big Ten West looking up-and-down and despite the tough cross-divisional schedule.