Wisconsin (1-1 Big Ten, 4-2 overall) will need to add onto its most complete performance last weekend against Illinois if it wants to defeat Purdue (0-1 Big Ten, 3-2 overall) and remain the favorite to represent the Leaders Division in the Big Ten Championship game Dec. 1.
The Boilermakers have faltered over the last couple of weeks, and the Badgers have turned in what most people believe to be their most impressive games of the season during that stretch.
Purdue allowed Marshall to rally late and nearly pull off an upset two weeks ago, giving up 439 yards through the air in the process. It was Purdue’s run defense that faltered last week, as the Boilermakers allowed 304 yards rushing against Michigan, 235 of which came from senior quarterback Denard Robinson.
Take away the electric Robinson and the rest of the Wolverines’ performance last week, and Purdue is only giving up an average of 106.5 yards per game on the ground, which would rank No. 17 in the nation. Purdue also has 11 sacks through just five games.
So the Badgers’ offensive line—which is extremely confident after its “manhandling” of the Illinois defensive line in the second half last Saturday, as Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema likes to call it—will likely be tested at Ross-Ade Stadium Saturday.
“[They have] big boys up front,” redshirt junior right guard Ryan Groy said earlier this week. “They move pretty well for how big they are and they get off the ball well. So it’ll be a good matchup for us.”
Six-foot-three, 315-pound Purdue senior defensive tackle Kawann Short anchors the unit. He has 17 tackles on the year, and eight have been behind the line of scrimmage.
However, the Badgers will get a boost from having redshirt freshman offensive lineman Kyle Costigan after he dislocated his kneecap at Nebraska. The Wind Lake, Wis., native missed the Illinois game and had surgery last Monday, but he is raring to go this weekend.
“He’s an incredibly tough individual,” Bielema said Thursday. “Obviously, he’s a guy that champions himself on toughness.”
If the Badgers can wear down the Purdue defensive front like they did against Illinois, the team should be in good shape.
Furthermore, if Wisconsin plays similar to the way it did in the first half against Nebraska two weeks ago and the second half against the Fighting Illini last week, this weekend’s contest could be decided early.
“We got in a rhythm,” Bielema said of the similarities between the two halves. “We had some big plays and they converted in the red zone. I think the defense played well and set them up for some good field position.”
Groy said he saw a side of the team during those two halves that he hasn’t seen before.
“I don’t think we’ve played with that kind of confidence before,” the 318-pound Middleton native said.
The Badgers’ secondary also acknowledged it must execute its fundamentals Saturday if it can limit senior quarterbacks Caleb TerBush, who threw for four touchdowns two weeks ago against Marshall, and Robert Marve, who saw action for the first time last week since Purdue’s loss to Notre Dame Sept. 8.
“Purdue does a good job of getting those receivers out in open space with hitch screens and bubbles and all of that stuff,” redshirt senior safety Shelton Johnson said. “So I know tackling in pursuit is going to be a big deal.”
Redshirt senior cornerback Marcus Cromartie noticed essentially the same thing when studying film on the Boilermakers.
“They’re going to put us in instances [such as] one-on-one stops and one-on-one tackles,” he said.
So if the Boilermakers struggle running the ball—which seems likely after averaging just 2.59 yards per carry over the past two games—expect them to exploit loose coverage from the corners and attempt to march downfield through the air.
“They get the ball to their skill players outside in space,” Wisconsin co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach Chris Ash said. “So we’ve got to have great pursuit, and we’ve got to tackle well.”