The Wisconsin Badgers (2-1) will open Big Ten play on the road against the Purdue Boilermakers (1-2) on Friday night.
Wisconsin, coming off a 35-14 win over Georgia Southern, has looked beatable in their first three games of the Luke Fickell era, causing concern after an offseason filled with hope and excitement for a new chapter of Wisconsin football.
The Badgers opened up the season with a 38-17 win against Buffalo but looked susceptible in a loss at Washington State the next week. Wisconsin will get an opportunity to erase those early season doubts with a statement win to begin their conference season.
To beat Purdue — a program also in its first season under a new head coach — Wisconsin must get off to a fast start. In their first three games, the Badgers have taken far too long to get going and found themselves in early holes. Against Washington State, the Badgers trailed by 15 at halftime. And a week ago, Wisconsin alarmingly trailed Georgia Southern 14-7 early in the second half.
Playing a team from a smaller conference like Georgia Southern, Wisconsin was able to eventually pull away, but such a slow start ultimately did them in against higher competition like Washington State. Wisconsin must start the game quickly to leave West Lafayette on Friday night with a victory.
One way to do that is to get the running game going right out of the gate. Led by Braelon Allen and Chez Mellusi, Wisconsin running backs have averaged 3.3 yards per carry in the first halves of games this season. Meanwhile, Wisconsin has averaged 8.1 yards per carry in the second half — a steep contrast. Wisconsin will make their lives a lot easier if they are able to get the running game rolling early.
Of course, help from quarterback Tanner Mordecai and the passing game would also help. Wisconsin’s wide receiver room has more depth than in past years as the Badgers have the ability to go five deep at the position. Led by Chimere Dike, Will Pauling and Skyler Bell, fans have seen flashes of what offensive coordinator Phil Longo’s Air Raid offense can be. However, the passing game has much too often seemed sluggish and misorganized.
The appeal of Longo’s offense has been the potential to mix Wisconsin’s traditionally high-powered rushing attack with a free-wheeling passing game. Wisconsin has been able to provide glimpses of the running game and passing game functioning effectively, but never at the same time. If the Badgers are able to marry the rush and pass at Purdue, they should have no problem winning.
As for the defense, Wisconsin’s secondary needs to do a better job of limiting big plays. Wisconsin allowed four different receivers to receive passes of at least 25 yards against Georgia Southern. That simply cannot happen against an experienced quarterback like Purdue’s Hudson Card.
The Badgers will have an easier time defending against big passing plays if the defensive line can generate consistent pressure. With only 2.5 sacks belonging to the defensive line this season, the amount of pressure caused by the position group has raised some concern. But if Wisconsin can get to the quarterback quickly, long completions against the secondary should come less.
Playing at home in a primetime game, Purdue will be equally motivated to start their conference slate off with a victory. To win, Wisconsin cannot come out flat in a difficult environment like they did at Washington State.
Trailing past halftime at home against a team like Georgia Southern is one thing, but Wisconsin could find itself in a much more challenging situation if the trend continues Friday night at Purdue.