This wasn’t supposed to be the year that Wisconsin returned to the Big Ten Championship Game. With Iowa coming off of a West Division crown, Minnesota looking at one of the easiest schedules in the conference, and the Badgers themselves having to face both Michigan and Ohio State from the East, many prognosticators saw this as a down season for Wisconsin.
As we know well from watching the Nittany Lions defy the odds in 2016, college football is often delightfully unpredictable. The Badgers did indeed lose to both Michigan and Ohio State, but not before they shocked LSU in the season opener and bulldozed right over a Michigan State team that was still considered a conference title contender.
After the East slate was done, all it took was close wins over Iowa and Nebraska for Wisconsin to cruise to its fourth conference title game appearance in the past six years. The game hasn’t always gone to plan for the Badgers, but they have to like their chances in this one, if only because they haven’t already lost to the Nittany Lions this season.
For more details on Wisconsin’s campaign, we talked to Jake Kocorowski of Bucky’s 5th Quarter.
Black Shoe Diaries: Coming into the 2016 season, Wisconsin had one of the most daunting schedules in the country with a non-conference date with LSU and a Big Ten East draw of Michigan State, Ohio State, and Michigan. How have the results of the campaign compared with expectations?
Bucky’s 5th Quarter: Wisconsin's schedule this season was one of the most difficult in recent memory, and many thought their best mark could be 8-4. Now, many in the media (including myself) thought they would actually be better than the 2015 squad, just that their record wouldn't show it because of the tough non-conference season opener, along with five straight games to start Big Ten play with the Spartans, Wolverines, Buckeyes, Hawkeyes and Huskers. They needed to go 3-2 in those conference games, and they did just that.
The players never doubted themselves, and head coach Paul Chryst and his coaching staff have done an incredible job keeping them focused on just one game at a time. This is a team with only about a dozen seniors, and yet there's a poise and maturity that's led to the success of this year. I would have said you were highly optimistic, but it'd be plausible, for Wisconsin to win the West division and make the Big Ten Championship game. For them to be within two spots of the College Football Playoff, I'm not sure anyone would have predicted this.
BSD: Although Bart Houston holds big advantages over Alex Hornibrook in yards per attempt and completion percentage, it’s been Hornibrook who has gotten more action under center lately. Has the younger Hornibrook improved as the season has worn on? Is he expected to play in the title game on Saturday after suffering an injury against Minnesota?
B5Q: Hornibrook's listed as questionable as of Monday's injury report after suffering a head injury. Wisconsin usually sends out an updated injury report on Thursday or Friday, so we'll see if it's the Bart Houston show full-time on Saturday night.
Editor’s Note: Hornibrook has since appeared in practice and is expected to play on Saturday.
The redshirt freshman supplanted Houston during the Georgia State game with Wisconsin's offense struggling to convert third downs and put points on the board in the red zone. Hornibrook provided that for the Michigan State game, struggled in the Michigan contest, but had a decent comeback in the Ohio State loss. Chryst reintroduced Houston on the road at Iowa, and while Hornibrook's started since the conference-opener, both have been used interchangeably. Honestly, both quarterbacks never pulled away from each other in fall camp or during the season. Hornibrook has poise for a young quarterback with a nice touch on deep passes and can be more accurate. Houston, though, has looked like the better quarterback the past few weeks, and with the help of some timely turnovers by the Wisconsin defense, has translated those opportunities into points.
BSD: The bell cow of the Badger offense is senior tailback Corey Clement. He has at least 100 yards rushing in six of his last seven games, but his 4.2 yards per carry average is a little lower than we expect for a Wisconsin feature back. How does Clement compare to guys like Melvin Gordon and Montee Ball who recently made the jump to the NFL?
B5Q: Clement hasn't had the truly explosive year like he had hoped for 2015 and 2016, but he's shown how important he is to the Wisconsin offense. You could compare him more to Ball in terms of the large number of carries he's had this year as Ball did in 2012. Back in 2014, Clement was a perfect complement to Gordon, and showed an ability to get to the second level of the defense quickly — that led many to believe he'd be the next big back.
A sports hernia hampered that explosiveness last year, and an ankle injury suffered in the second game of this season also slowed him down a bit against Michigan State and Michigan. He's started to regain his past form from a couple of years ago, but he's also still working with a maturing offensive line that has lost a handful of experienced linemen in the past year or two due to injuries/retirement. The line's stabilized, and it's starting to show more these past seven games (five of which went over 200 yards rushing).
BSD: Jazz Peavy only has 39 catches this year, but he’s found the end zone five times, which is three more touchdowns than any other Wisconsin pass-catcher. What is it about the junior wide receiver that makes him so effective at making big plays?
B5Q: Peavy's made some sweet music (*ducks for Jazz pun*) in the passing game and in the run game. His speed in the open field has been utilized when running routes and also in the jet sweeps Wisconsin implements to keep defenses honest in the run game — which then opens the inside-zone play. Clement today called that play the "Jazz Sweep" since Peavy's usually the one running it, though Clement himself has run it this season out of different personnel.
Peavy averages 15.5 yards per carry on 17 carries this season. Against Northwestern, he took an end around (not jet sweep) 46 yards for a touchdown. He has shown some blips on the radar with some drops, including one on Saturday in the first half that could have been a huge gain, but he's the biggest playmaker they have outside of Clement. He's evolved his game nicely in his Wisconsin career, and he still has one more year of eligibility left.
BSD: Wisconsin leads the nation with 21 interceptions this season. Are Leo Musso and Sojourn Shelton just that good at tracking the ball or does the pass rush play a large role as well?
B5Q: It's a combination of an overachieving secondary and an impressive pass rush. There's more about the secondary I'll break down in a bit, but the pass rush has really helped — especially last week against Minnesota. The front seven's done a great job disrupting passing lanes, with quarterbacks becoming more and more uncomfortable. UW's recorded 11 interceptions in the past three games.
Musso's been the surprise player of the season, as he was supposed to be one of three new starters in the secondary (Shelton was the lone returning starter in the defensive backfield). The Waunakee, WI native and former prep running back has shown his ability to make big plays (five interceptions, one 66-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown against Michigan State), and he's become a ball-hawk back there.
Shelton had an impressive freshman campaign in 2013, a sophomore slump in 2014, but has rebounded nicely the last two years — especially this season where he was named first-team All-Big Ten by the media and second-team by the coaches. Honestly, the secondary under the leadership of former walk-on, All-American and 10-year NFL veteran Jim Leonhard has really solidified what was a major question mark in the defense. The defensive backs absolutely love Leonhard, and there's a confidence in this position group I haven't seen since I really started covering this team about three years ago.
BSD: Speaking of pass rush, junior linebacker T.J. Watt has nine-and-a-half of Wisconsin’s 31 sacks. Just like his older brother J.J., the younger Watt started his career at tight end. Is it any surprise at all that he turned out to be an excellent pass-rusher? Did Wisconsin waste Derek Watt’s potential by using him at fullback?
B5Q: Don't think they wasted Derek's potential at all (he was a middle linebacker in a 4-3 scheme before moving to become a four-year starter at fullback), as he's currently opening holes for Gordon in San Diego. Derek was just in a different build, in my opinion, where as J.J. and T.J.'s body types are more lengthy and taller.
It's not a surprise at all that he's made a quick and prosperous transition to the defensive side of the ball. T.J. was quick to pick up the position last season and found playing time (kudos to him and outside linebackers coach Tim Tibesar). There's been media reports saying that J.J. always believed T.J. was the best athlete of the three brothers, and with the right coaching and his work ethic, that athleticism's been on display and in quarterbacks’ faces most of the year.
BSD: Wisconsin is a two-point favorite on Saturday. How do you see the big game going for the Badgers?
B5Q: The Badgers will be challenged on Saturday, and I'm really intrigued by Penn State's offense and how UW will defend it. This game can go either way, and I feel the Nittany Lions could definitely come out with the win. Can Wisconsin contain a Penn State squad averaging almost 37 points per game and averaging about 430 yards per contest? They have to make the Nittany Lions one-dimensional, wrap up and contain Trace McSorley who leads the conference in passing efficiency, and get them off the field quickly. Wisconsin only allows opponents to convert on 26.6 percent of their third downs, while Penn State is third to last in the conference in moving the chains (shade over 32 percent). That will be a key down to watch, and if they can keep big plays on first and second downs at a minimum.
Offensively, the key to winning the game is through the run game and ensuring they can keep Penn State uncomfortable. Wisconsin leads the nation in time of possession, and moving the chains here is important in not allowing Penn State many chances on offense. I think Houston can lead this team through the air at times (as he's looked much more mature in the past three games), but they'll need to protect him with a defense bearing down on him that's ranked second in the conference in sacks.
Wisconsin's been doubted so much this year, and they've proved many people wrong. Can't pick against them this time. It'll be back and forth, but I think Wisconsin's front seven makes the difference, with Houston guiding the offense to points off of some more turnovers. It's close, but I think Wisconsin 23, Penn State 21.
Thanks again to Jake for taking the time to answer our questions. Remember to keep reading Bucky’s 5th Quarter to stay up to date on the Badgers through bowl season and beyond.