Last year’s 8-5 record was anything but indicative of what this year’s edition of the Badger football team is capable of doing. Despite a loss to Illinois this weekend, the Badgers have competed at a high level all season.

Before the loss, the Badgers were rolling with an undefeated record. As they prepare for a critical second-half slate that includes matchups against The Ohio State University and Iowa, the team is aware these games will be critical for their playoff hopes.

Much of Wisconsin’s success can be credited to junior Heisman hopeful running back Jonathan Taylor. The 2018 Doak Walker Award winner for Best Running Back has picked up right where he left off in the first seven games of the 2019 campaign, scampering for 957 yards and 15 touchdowns.

On top of that, Taylor has developed as a receiver, surpassing his receiving yards total from last year and managing to find the endzone four times.

Taylor’s best performance of the year came against Kent State, running for 186 yards and totaling five all-purpose touchdowns.

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Taylor’s dominance hasn’t been the only story for the Badger offense. After a mediocre 2018 season, junior quarterback Jack Coan kept defenses on its heels and provided balance to the offense. In his first seven starts, Coan has managed the game masterfully, ranking second in the NCAA in completion percentage.

Following the 38–0 win against Michigan State, Coan credited his improvement this season to his teammates.

“I just got a lot of great guys around me,” Coan said. “They are really making plays and just making me look good.”

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On the outside, Quintez Cephus and AJ Taylor have used their game-breaking athleticism when given the opportunity. Following his return, Cephus has burned defenses for 353 yards and three touchdowns through seven games. Taylor and Coan have also found chemistry, connecting for 16 receptions and 158 total yards.

“It all started in the spring and winter workouts,” AJ Taylor said. “We were throwing all of the time, and we’ve got a pretty good relationship. We also got a little bit of a party planned for him when his birthday comes around.”

These great relationships, combined with Wisconsin’s variety of offensive weapons, make it difficult for defenses to game plan against the Badgers.

On the other side of the ball, Wisconsin’s stifling defense complements their balanced offense. Wisconsin ranks first in the country in points allowed and yards per game with 7.6 and 193.9, respectively. The opportunistic defense has forced 14 net turnovers, good for sixth-best in the country.

The linebacking trio of Zack Baun, Chris Orr and Jack Sanborn has been lethal, combining for 108 tackles, 18 sacks and five forced fumbles. Baun is a nightmare for offensive tackles, using his speed to edge rush quarterbacks for 6.5 sacks through seven games.

Baun credits friendly competition to the rise of the defense’s play.

“I think competition between anyone is good. Whenever there is competition, it builds more character and advances everyone’s play,” Baun said.

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This week’s matchup against The Ohio State University brings back some tortured memories for Badger fans. Wisconsin has lost six consecutive games to the Buckeyes, including two losses in the Big Ten championship, one of which was a 59-0 thumping that propelled the Buckeyes to the College Football Playoff. The last Wisconsin win against Ohio State came almost a decade ago at Camp Randall in 2010.

To end the cursed streak, Wisconsin’s game plan must focus on stopping dual-threat Heisman candidate Justin Fields. In just six games, Fields has torched opposing defenses, throwing for 1,492 yards, 22 touchdowns and just one interception.

Junior running back J.K. Dobbins is as dynamic as they come. Dobbins is well on his way to his third consecutive 1,000 yard season and has eclipsed over 170 rushing yards in three separate games.

The Badgers have yet to play a ranked opponent on the road and will be welcomed to the “Horseshoe” from approximately 104,944 raucous Buckeye fans. It will be interesting to see how Coan and the offense handle the noise.

The other ranked matchup in Wisconsin’s remaining five games is a home game against the No. 20 ranked Iowa Hawkeyes. The Badgers have dominated the matchup, winning six of their last seven games against Iowa dating back to 2010.

Iowa is led by senior quarterback and three-year starter Nate Stanley. Stanley has been solid for the Hawkeyes this year, throwing for nine touchdowns and achieving a 62.3% completion percentage. Despite this, Stanley has struggled against ranked opponents and threw three interceptions in Iowa’s road matchup against Michigan.

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Over the past 10 years, Wisconsin football has been one of the nation’s most consistent teams. Since 2009, the Badgers hold the country’s 6th-highest winning percentage at 77.7% with an impressive 98-28 record.

Even though the program has appeared in four conference championship games and six New Year’s Six bowls, the team still has not appeared in a College Football Playoff. This final stretch will be pivotal for the Badgers’ hopes and will dictate whether this year is different from years past.