Three things to watch: Houston steps up, defense stays strong

1. Houston to the rescue

So far, the 2015 Badgers season has been defined by constant injury. On both sides of the ball, many of the Badgers have been forced to watch their team play from the sideline. In each case, both consistent heroes and young playmakers have had to step up and fill the void that the injury plague has created. Last week’s win over Illinois was no different, as the game was filled with new injuries and more Badgers ready to pick up the slack. 

Most notably, redshirt junior quarterback Bart Houston, who had thrown just 13 passes in his career, was forced to take control of the offense after redshirt senior quarterback Joel Stave suffered a head injury in the first quarter. 

“It’s always the next man up,” Houston said. “The second string guy always has to be as prepared as the first string guy.”

Houston did throw two interceptions, but he generally played well considering his lack of experience. He ended up completing 22-of-33 passes for 232 yards and two touchdowns. Additionally, his ability to throw on the run gave his wide receivers more time to get open down the field.

Similarly, redshirt senior wide receiver Alex Erickson had a career day after junior wide receiver Rob Wheelwright had to leave the game on crutches after sustaining a lower body injury. Erickson ended up with 81 yards rushing, 96 yards receiving and one touchdown.

Moreover, after redshirt junior offensive lineman Dan Voltz left the game with a knee injury in the third quarter, redshirt freshman Micah Kapoi entered the game and, within just a few plays, he helped the Badgers into the end zone, creating a hole at the goal line for freshman running back Alec Ingold.

Going forward, the Badgers will need to continue to have guys step up amidst injury in order to sustain consistent success.

2. Keep on running

Wisconsin is usually known throughout the nation as a power football team that can run the ball on almost any defense. However, the classic rushing attack of the Badgers is progressively becoming less prominent in their offense. In 2014, the Badgers averaged over 46 rushing attempts per game, while this year, they are down to just 37 attempts per game. 

Despite the lower rushing numbers, the ground game continues to prove imperative in putting points on the board. Even though the Badgers are often stymied on the ground, almost every time the Badgers need a big drive to turn the momentum of the game in their favor, their run game is what ignites their offense. 

Just two weeks ago, Wisconsin was trailing in the second half against Nebraska, and needed a spark on offense to help propel a comeback. For the first time in the game, the Badgers started to establish a rushing attack. The run game helped lead to a Badger touchdown, field goal, and ultimately, a win. 

Similarly, against Illinois, the Badgers were trailing 13-10 in the second half, and their run game came through in the clutch again. Erickson started the drive by taking a handoff 56 yards into Nebraska territory. The drive was later capped off by a rushing touchdown from Ingold. 

Even though the run game was often ineffective against Illinois, as it has been all year, when the Badgers needed it most, their rushing attack proved instrumental. 

Next week, the Badgers are going up against a Rutgers rushing defense that is in the top half of the Big Ten. Most likely, the Badgers will struggle on the ground in parts of the game, but, when they are in need of a big drive, they should still look to their run game to carry their offense. 

3. A dominant defense

Throughout the course of the season, the UW defense has become increasingly more balanced. Against Illinois, the secondary played well, but the front seven played an even bigger role in the victory. 

The Badgers front seven helped to hold Illinois to only 55 rushing yards on the day. If not for a 36-yard touchdown resulting from missed tackles in the secondary, the Badgers would have given Illinois almost nothing on the ground. Redshirt freshman linebacker T.J. Edwards and sophomore nose tackle Conor Sheehy also each recorded a tackle-for-loss.

Additionally, the front seven created pressure for junior Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt almost the entire game. Despite not recording any sacks, the Badger defense often forced Lunt to throw the ball quicker than he wanted. 

“The big play speaking from the outside linebacker standpoint, was to get pressure on the quarterback and win your one-on-one battles,” redshirt junior outside linebacker Vince Biegel said.

Maybe the biggest play of the game came thanks to that defensive pressure Biegel highlighted. With just 10 minutes to go in the fourth quarter, the Badgers led by 11 and Illinois had the ball to try to make a final push. Lunt dropped back in the pocket, and the Badgers got almost immediate pressure up the middle, forcing Lunt into an early, errant throw that landed in the hands of Badger senior safety Michael Caputo, helping to seal the Badger victory. 

Going into next week, the Badgers face a Rutgers rushing attack that is fifth in the Big Ten. The Badger front is going to have to continue to stop the run, while also getting pressure on the quarterback. Rutgers is 11th in the Big Ten in turnover margin, and the Badgers should be able to exploit that if they can get the pressure that they did against Illinois.

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