Wisconsin enters Saturday's matchup looking to rebound from a loss to Northwestern that likely ended its hopes for a Big Ten title, while Rutgers is winless in conference play and entering the toughest stretch of its schedule.
Here are the three keys for each team to come away with a win.
1. Just don’t pass
Rutgers’ passing attack is bad. Historically bad. Worst-passer-rating-of-any-team-to-throw-at-least-100-passes-in-the-last-10-years-bad.
No coach wants to have a one-dimensional offense, but a one-dimensional offense is better than what happens when quarterback Artur Sitkowski puts the ball in the air. The freshman signal caller has thrown 15 interceptions to just three touchdowns in his eight starts, and he’s averaging a turgid 1.76 yards per attempt on the road in 2018.
Sitkowski’s turnover-prone ways have sunk the Scarlet Knights right off the bat in multiple games this year, and he has thrown as many touchdown passes to opposing defenses as to his own receivers.
Running the ball will at least not cost Rutgers’ defense a chance to put up a fight, and its three-headed rushing attack could have some success against a Wisconsin defense that uncharacteristically ranks outside the top 100 in yards per carry allowed.
2. Let them make mistakes
Wisconsin’s known as a program that doesn’t beat itself, designed around fundamentally-sound defenses and methodical rushing attacks.
This Badgers team is a little different, however, with inconsistent quarterback play and an inexperienced defense that has allowed several big plays in recent weeks. Realistically, Rutgers doesn’t have much of a chance to win if Wisconsin brings its A-game at home; the Badgers boast more talented and accomplished players at nearly every position on both sides of the ball.
If the Scarlet Knights are going to have any chance of pulling the upset, they’ll need Wisconsin to make several mistakes on both the offensive and defensive end. And if that happens, they’ll need to make sure they’re there to take advantage — recovering fumbles, catching interceptable passes and getting big plays on blown coverages or missed tackles will be crucial for a team that just isn’t good enough to dictate play against a quality opponent.
3. Rush the passer
If there’s one position where Rutgers might be better than Wisconsin, it’s on the defensive line, and especially at defensive end. The Scarlet Knights are led by sophomore Elorm Lumor and freshman Mike Tverdov, who have combined for 6.5 sacks in 2018. Along with 304-pound senior Kevin Wilkins, who has the size and athleticism to play anywhere on the line, the duo could exploit whatever combination of linemen Wisconsin plays at left tackle in the absence of starter Cole Van Lanen.
Van Lanen has been Wisconsin’s best offensive lineman since taking over the starting left tackle spot according to Pro Football Focus, allowing a pressure just once every 33 snaps in pass protection, compared to one every 21 snaps for presumptive starter Jon Dietzen.
Given that junior quarterback Alex Hornibrook has a long and documented history of struggling when facing pressure, the Scarlet Knights should do their best to bring pressure and attempt to force some mistakes from whichever signal caller Wisconsin starts on Saturday.
1. Stack the box
Wisconsin’s secondary has been, understandably, the focus of attention on Wisconsin’s defense in 2018, with inexperience and injury combining to create a major question mark at the back end of the defense.
The 407 passing yards allowed against Nebraska — the most by a Badger defense in more than a decade — got plenty of headlines, but the rushing defense has been quietly even more of an issue in 2018. Wisconsin is allowing 4.87 yards per carry this season, 102nd in the FBS, and ranks 120th in rushing defense, according to Pro Football Focus.
Without the personnel to control the run game straight up, Wisconsin should break from tradition and show the Scarlet Knights plenty of eight-man boxes. Daring Sitkowski to throw the ball is likely to end well for Wisconsin and keeps Rutgers away from the offensive area where it is (relatively) the strongest.
2. Don’t overthink it
Wisconsin ranks sixth in the country in yards per carry. Rutgers ranks 120th in the country in yards per carry allowed.
A lot of attention has been paid to Wisconsin’s play-calling in recent weeks, with fans and media members critiquing Wisconsin’s predictability on early downs. While the offense should certainly diversify, that can wait a week.
Whether it’s Coan making his second career start or Hornibrook coming off a concussion, the Badgers passing attack is unlikely to function crisply and cleanly off the bat. Instead of throwing early and running to hold the lead, Wisconsin should trust that sophomore running back Jonathan Taylor and its dominant ground game can put the game out of reach.
3. Confidence boost
Wisconsin’s locker room has done a good job of keeping a positive attitude even as postseason goals have slipped away, and Saturday’s matchup is an opportunity to raise the spirits of the team and the fanbase after a disappointing loss to Northwestern.
Wisconsin’s passing game, in particular, hasn’t lived up to pre-season expectations, and if the Badgers are up big in the second half, it could be a good opportunity to set up whichever quarterback starts with some opportunities to make big plays and gain back some mojo.
Defensively, this weekend presents Wisconsin’s best opportunity to hold an opponent to single-digit points, and a performance like that could be especially important for the younger members of the secondary who have been thrust into big roles while the team has struggled.