Saturday could very well be the end of an era for the Wisconsin football program as they take on the Western Illinois Leathernecks.
With the new college football playoff in place, power conference teams, such as the Badgers (0-1), are shying away from scheduling Football Championship Subdivision opponents, like Western Illinois. This is to bolster their strength of schedules in the hopes that they can get into the elusive four-team playoff. Although an FCS opponent could find its way into Camp Randall in the future, the Badgers currently do not have any games scheduled against FCS opponents in the future.
Nevertheless, UW will take the field Saturday against the Leathernecks (1-0) looking to bounce back from a deflating loss to Louisiana State University this past Saturday. After holding a 17-7 lead midway through the third quarter against the Tigers, the Badgers fell apart, allowing LSU to score 21 unanswered points in a 28-24 loss.
Senior linebacker Derek Landisch, who was a part of the defensive unit that allowed only 16 first half rushing yards to the Tigers Saturday, is glad to be able to put the loss in the rear view mirror and look forward to Western Illinois. Landisch and the rest of the linebackers are looking to build on a strong performance in game one.
“Obviously it was a disappointing loss,” Landisch said. “But it feels good to finally get back out here on the field and put [the loss] behind us.”
“As far as the linebackers go, all four of us had a pretty solid game,” Landisch added. “But football’s a team game and we fell apart in the fourth quarter. We just need to work on finishing in practice.”
The Leathernecks are no slouch when it comes to playing Football Bowl Subdivision teams. Western Illinois owns six victories over FBS teams all-time. Last season, the Leathernecks were down by just three, 15-12, against Minnesota going into the fourth quarter. The Gophers eventually outlasted Western Illinois by scoring 14 unanswered points in the final period, but the close loss against one of UW’s biggest rivals is something that Badgers’ head coach Gary Andersen is well aware of.
“We’ve got a great challenge,” Andersen said of the game against the Leathernecks. “If you throw in the tape a year ago, watch the [Western Illinois] team play against Minnesota, that’s our rival. We know how good our rival is. They’re a very good football team.”
Western Illinois, who blew out Valparaiso 45-6 last Saturday, uses a spread offense and has plenty of playmakers on their team. Leatherneck quarterback Trenton Norvell finished Saturday’s game 20-for-28 with 320 yards and four touchdowns while scat-back JC Baker rushed 17 times for 142 yards and a touchdown. Nine players caught at least one pass for Western Illinois against Valparaiso with five of those receivers hauling in at least 40 yards.
“So [Western Illinois] is a very respectable team,” Andersen added. “Look at what they did in the first game. They scored a lot of points. It’s a spread team. It’s a major departure from what we practice against and what we prepared against for LSU. So we’ve got to get ready for that.”
Going into Saturday’s game, the Badgers are still trying to answer questions of their own on both sides of the ball.
The quarterback play of Tanner McEvoy, who made his first career start for UW at quarterback against LSU, was ineffective in the first game as he went only 8-for-24 with only 50 yards passing and two interceptions against the Tigers.
To further complicate the quarterback situation, presumed backup, and last season’s starter, Joel Stave, admitted Tuesday that he is physically able to perform but is not in the right mental state to play. There is currently no timetable for Stave to return. Redshirt sophomore Bart Houston will take over backup quarterback responsibilities for the time being.
The defense was also left scratching their heads after allowing 21 unanswered points to LSU. Redshirt junior cornerback Darius Hillary said eliminating the big plays are one thing the secondary unit has been focusing on. The Tigers exploited the Badgers’ defense for five plays of more than 26 yards including an 80-yard touchdown pass Saturday.
“I think we came out this week and focused on some of the things that we didn’t do so well [against LSU],” Hillary said. “Tackling, run fits and covering those deep balls, so I definitely think we’ll come out with a new swagger. We’re just ready to get back into the swing of things.”
The Badgers’ run defense will be without one of their key cogs as senior defensive lineman Warren Herring will miss four to six weeks after undergoing knee surgery Wednesday for an injury he sustained in the LSU game. Redshirt sophomore Arthur Goldberg will fill in at nose guard for UW on defense, which should get a boost from starting defensive end Konrad Zagzebski. He is expected to return Saturday after also getting hurt against LSU.
The defense as a whole, according to Zagzebski, is one he hopes can put together four quarters of solid play, even without Herring on the field anchoring the unit.
“I really want to see us finish,” Zagzebski said. “We’ve been in some spots before where it’s been the case and it’s just how many times can you take a punch in the gut? I feel that this week can be awfully good.”
“We have the components of being a stout front, similar to what we had last year,” Zagzebski added. “But we have a little more athleticism, we have a little more ability to make plays, and so that combination is a good combination if we can play all four quarters with it.”
For Landisch, Western Illinois comes into Camp Randall Saturday as a real test for the Badgers after the loss to LSU. Whether or not it’s the final FCS opponent UW will face going forward, Landisch and the rest of the Badgers are looking forward to the chance to get back on the field, especially with the circus that surrounded the quarterback situation earlier in the week.
“The biggest cure for us right now would just be to play a game and get that bad taste out of our mouth,” Landisch said. “Western Illinois is going to come in here, and they provide a big challenge for us so we’re definitely looking forward to that opportunity.”
After Saturday’s game against the Leathernecks, the Badgers will have their first of two bye weeks during the regular season. Kickoff between UW and Western Illinois is scheduled for 11:00 a.m. Saturday.