“They throw the ball a lot,” junior linebacker Zack Baun said.
The No. 20 Wisconsin Badgers (3-1 Big Ten, 5-2 overall) will see plenty of throws as they travel to Chicago in a showdown with Big Ten West leader Northwestern (4-1, 4-3) at Ryan Field.
The Wildcats boast one of the Big Ten’s top quarterbacks in Clayton Thorson. Thorson is coming off a torn ACL from last season’s Music City Bowl but still ranks third in the Big Ten in passing yards. The NFL prospect will pose a strong challenge for this inexperienced Badgers secondary.
“Obviously [they have] a very talented offense,” defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. “I’ve got a ton of respect for this quarterback — he’s got a lot of experience, he’s a great leader. Coming off what he came off of injury-wise — I’m just impressed seeing how he handles that offense. They have a lot of weapons. It’s fun to watch — they execute well, they do things well — but not fun to prepare for.”
“One thing that I learned is that he’s a patient quarterback, and he waits until plays develop,” sophomore safety Eric Burrell said. “That’s one thing that I think is his strong suit. It’ll be a passing game, so I’m excited.”
On Wednesday, Leonhard said freshman cornerback Faion Hicks will play Saturday, while other players listed as questionable would be game-time decisions. On Thursday’s injury report, cornerback Deron Harrell and safety Scott Nelson were ruled out, while safety D’Cota Dixon and nose tackle Olive Sagapolu remain game-time decisions. Safety Reggie Pearson was not listed on Thursday’s injury report, meaning he will be ready to go Saturday, barring any setbacks.
Should Dixon not be able to suit up, Wisconsin will likely start redshirt sophomore Burrell and true freshman Reggie Pearson at safety. At cornerback, it remains unclear who the Badgers will elect to start, as Leonhard has mixed and matched at that position with different players out through injury. Redshirt sophomore Caesar Williams and redshirt freshman Faion Hicks came into the season as starters, but true freshman Rachad Wildgoose has excelled when Williams and Hicks have been forced to stay on the sideline.
“All of a sudden, coming off the bye, you’re like, ‘Wow, this kid’s improved dramatically, he’s doing all the right things, he’s earned a bigger role,’ and then due to injuries, he gets a more expanded role, and he makes the most out of that opportunity. The last couple of weeks, he’s played extremely well … I think right now he is [a starter]. He’s playing at that level. Now it’s about expanding his role. He wants more,” Leonhard said.
Whoever Wisconsin elects to put out in its secondary, they will be tasked with slowing down Thorson and his top target, Flynn Nagel. Nagel ranks third in the Big Ten in receiving yards and ranks second in receptions.
“I’m very impressed with Nagel,” Leonhard said. “He’s a smart football player. They move him all over the place. They try to create different matchups with him, and that’s where he’s hard to get a beat on because they get him in a lot of different places.”
UW will look to continue its offensive rhythm from their 49-20 beatdown over Illinois. That game saw the Badgers rush for 357 yards with both Jonathan Taylor and Taiwan Deal passing the century mark. All five offensive lineman — Cole Van Lanen, Michael Dieter, Tyler Biadasz, Beau Benzschawel and David Edwards — were named in Pro Football Focus’ week eight Big Ten team of the week.
“Each week, you’re tested differently,” head coach Paul Chryst said. “This week will be a different test. For us to have our best offense, we need [the offensive line] to be good … I like what they’ve done, and they need to continue to keep getting better.”
Saturday will likely play a pivotal role in the chase for the Big Ten West, as Northwestern and Wisconsin are in a four-way tie in the loss column with one apiece.