Seemingly every clich? involving trap games and overlooking opponents has been thrown in the face of the Wisconsin Badgers this week, but to no avail.
Even outside of head coach Bret Bielema’s patented ‘1-0’ philosophy, the Badgers (3-0) have made it abundantly clear this week that despite Saturday’s opponent, the South Dakota Coyotes (2-1), coming from the Football Championship Subdivision, there won’t be any looking ahead to next week’s game – the inaugural Big Ten game for a certain squad from Nebraska.
“I’m expecting [South Dakota] to come in here full throttle with their backs against the wall,” safety Aaron Henry said. “It’s one of the games for them where I’m sure they feel like they have nothing to lose and a lot to gain. We’re going to do what we’ve been doing the last three weeks.”
Simply put, these last three weeks have been blissful for the Badgers. Wisconsin has posted a combined 135-24 margin of victory, ranking as the nation’s No. 11 scoring offense and No. 4 scoring defense. Quarterback Russell Wilson has emerged as an early Heisman Trophy hopeful with a stunning beginning to his Badger career, completing more than 75 percent of his passes for 791 yards, eight touchdowns and just one interception.
The passing game (802 yards) has been so good that its yardage numbers have eclipsed those of the vaunted Badger running game – albeit slightly. Running backs Montee Ball (272 yards) and James White (208) have carried UW’s rushing attack to 715 yards, an average of 238.3 rushing yards per game that ranks No. 16 in the country.
Nevertheless, seeing a Wisconsin football team excel through the air has generated an exceptional amount of buzz for a season less than a month old. Sure, the competition has largely been inferior compared to what the Big Ten schedule will provide. But the very strong connections Wilson has developed with wide receiver Nick Toon, tight end Jacob Pedersen and the exhaustive number of weapons on the Wisconsin offense has led many to overlook the deficiencies of Nevada-Las Vegas, Oregon State and Northern Illinois.
“As far as the passing game goes, it’s just working,” center Peter Konz said. “There’s a lot of open receivers, Russell’s doing great reads, so as far as anything different, it’s a good different. It’s not, ‘Oh no, we’re not running the ball.’ It’s good for us that we’ve found some other things that we can do.”
Of course, it’s not as if Wisconsin’s offense was ever solely one-dimensional. But as contests with Nebraska, Michigan State and Ohio State draw closer, a thorough tuning of the offense is welcome – and wise – in the weaker non-conference portion of the schedule.
Indeed, the Badgers’ offensive balance will be tested Saturday against the Coyotes. South Dakota employs a defense with plenty of different looks, with fronts including anywhere from two to four defensive linemen and a varying number of linebackers. The Coyotes lead the Great West Conference in scoring defense, allowing just 21.3 points per game.
South Dakota has enjoyed a pleasant start to the season, playing Air Force tough on the road before falling 37-20 and then defeating defending FCS champion and No. 1 Eastern Washington and Northwestern Oklahoma State.
“I expect them to do a lot of different things,” Konz said. “There’s just a lot to memorize, but luckily we’ve had teams sort of like this. Indiana kind of dabbled with it last year. Michigan obviously ran a three-front. Ohio State did that weird kind of four down linemen, but it was really like a linebacker who would stand up once in a while.”
On the other side of the ball, Coyotes quarterback Dante Warren presents a dual-threat attack similar to what Wilson himself brings, rather like the the Northern Illinois quarterback Wisconsin saw last week in Chandler Harnish. Warren has passed for 488 yards, completing 56.7 percent of his passes with five touchdowns and four interceptions. On the ground, Warren is South Dakota’s second-leading rusher with 185 yards and two touchdowns on 36 attempts (5.1 yards per). Those 36 carries are tied with running back Chris Ganious for the most on the team, indicating that the Badgers can expect plenty of intentional quarterback run plays.
“They run a couple of different formations; they run spread, pistol,” defensive end David Gilbert said. “Their main power plays are zone; they’re not a big stretch team. They come out in a lot of different formations. Nothing that we’ve never seen, but just things that we’re not used to. We’re definitely not used to playing all those in one game, even with all the teams we’ve faced so far. So it’ll be a challenge for us.”