Four games into the 2019 season, Kent State has already matched its win total from the previous years. The Golden Flashes broke records in their last outing, pulverizing Bowling Green with 62 points and 750 total yards of offense.
The challenge this week doesn’t just escalate, it amplifies to maximum difficulty. Kent State now must challenge the top scoring defense and top rushing defense in the country in a visit to Madison. No. 8 Wisconsin doesn’t just provide problems defensively. The Badgers have a running back in Jonathan Taylor who has finished in the top 10 of Heisman voting twice and one of the most powerful offensive lines in the country.
To preview the undefeated Badgers, SB Nation blog Bucky’s 5th Quarter sends one of its Wisconsin experts, Bob Wiedenhoeft, to Hustle Belt to preview the upcoming matchup against Kent State.
Steve Helwick, Hustle Belt: Wisconsin is known for great running backs and great offensive lines, but the Badgers haven’t found too many elite quarterbacks despite all their recent success. How promising is Jack Coan, and can Wisconsin rely on him to take over a game if the rushing attack ever stalls?
Bob Wiedenhoeft, Bucky’s 5th Quarter: Wait, are you saying that Joel Stave, who won 31 games as a starter, is not elite? Are you? Huh? Well, if you are, I agree with you.
Coan is the most athletic non-Russell Wilson QB Wisconsin has had since maybe Brooks Bollinger or Tyler Donovan. He’s also got a decent arm and a good head on his shoulders. His nose is not quite as prominent as former Badger QB John Stocco, but I will overlook it.
Over the next few years, Coan could be a consistent top-4 QB in the Big Ten, which is pretty good. I feel like the expectations for Coan are to have a career like Scott Tolzien had.
For your next question on relying on Coan if the ground game stalls, that really depends on why it stalls. Michigan tried man coverage and was ultra-aggressive, but Coan was able to pick apart the matchups thanks to the depth of Wisconsin’s recievers. However, the Wildcats played a zone, rushed 3-4, and tried to keep Wisconsin in front of them. Coan can punish teams for selling out on the run, but not if the run game stalls on its own.
Helwick: Which offensive linemen will present Kent State’s pass rushers and run stoppers the greatest challenge? Conversely, which member(s) of the Badgers’ could frequently break through the Flashes’ o-line to cause havoc in the Kent State backfield?
Wiedenhoeft: Wisconsin has a lot of weapons in the pass rush. Watch out for outside linebacker Zack Baun and inside linebacker Jack Sanborn, and the entire linebacking corp can bring the pain to the opposing QB. Heck, even Wisconsin’s secondary has gotten in on the rush. As far as Wisconsin’s offensive line, left tackle Cole Van Lanen and center Tyler Biadasz are probably the most likely to play on Sundays.
Helwick: Wisconsin’s offense was limited to just 24 points against a scrappy Northwestern team which has given the Badgers challenges in recent years. What did Pat Fitzgerald’s defense do to prevent the Badgers from another dominant offensive output last weekend?
Wiedenhoeft: Northwestern said it would drop seven in zone coverage, avoid the big plays, and make Jonathan Taylor beat them with lots of 4-5 yard rushes. In general, it worked quite nicely. Coan struggled to find open receivers, and when he did, they were short of the first down marker. To make things worse, Wisconsin struggled to consistently earn successful yardage on first and second down. Instead of blitzing every play, Northwestern occasionally sent a delayed blitz either from a safety or a linebacker. When Northwestern did send a blitz, it worked.
Helwick: How often can we expect to see Wisconsin’s 8-offensive linemen “Hippo” package? And what are some of the other unique looks the Badgers offense might present?
Wiedenhoeft: The Badgers are no stranger to using eight offensive linemen. In the 2012 Big Ten Championship game, Wisconsin used “the barge” which used nine offensive linemen and tailback James White taking the direct snap.
I expect Wisconsin to use 8+ linemen again in some sort of formation this season. However, I’m going out on a limb and saying that the Hippo is never coming back. We may see it as part of pre-snap shifts, but not at the snap. I hope I’m wrong because it is glorious.
Helwick: Compare this Wisconsin team to the 2017 squad which was one touchdown away from an undefeated 14-0. What’s better about the 2019 team, what’s worse, and can the current team challenge Ohio State for a Big Ten title/CFP run?
Wiedenhoeft: 2017 feels like such a long time ago. If you want to know about what is worse in 2019, it’s definitely special teams. I don’t even want to tell you the SP+ rating for Wisconsin on special teams. Perhaps the offensive line is marginally worse than it was in 2017.
One thing that is better is that defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard is now in his third season. I believe the added experience is paying off. Other than that, it’s a remarkably similar team.
The way Ohio State is going, it doesn’t look like Wisconsin will be able to challenge the Buckeyes. This isn’t a slight against the Badgers as much as it is begrudging respect for OSU. Frankly, I haven’t even thought about this until now. Wisconsin’s next big test is against Michigan State, and that’s several weeks away still.
Helwick: What is your prediction for Saturday’s game against Kent State? Also, how many rushing yards does Jonathan Taylor accumulate?
Wiedenhoeft: Sorry Kent State, Wisconsin will avenge Maine’s lacrosse team by thoroughly dominating Kent State. I’ll take the Badgers in this one 48-7.
Kent State is one of the least successful teams against the run; its 48% rush defense success rate is No. 112 in the country. Combine that with bottom 30 defensive rankings in havoc rate, stuff rate, explosive play rate, and defensive yards per carry, and Taylor should have a really nice day.
Therefore, I suspect Taylor could rush for 9 yards per carry. If he gets 20 carries, that’s 180 yards.
Wisconsin and Kent State meet at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday, October 5 at 12 p.m. ET. The game is viewable on ESPNU.