Coach Gary Andersen (right) and Wisconsin will take on LSU and coach Les Miles (left) in one of the biggest season openers in UW's recent history.
Badgers-Tigers: 5 things to watch
The game: Advocare Texas Kickoff
The teams: No. 14 Wisconsin Badgers (0-0) vs No. 13 Louisiana State Tigers (0-0)
The time: 8:10 p.m. CDT Saturday.
The place: NRG Stadium, Houston, TX
The TV coverage: ESPN with Sean McDonough and Chris Spielman in the booth and Todd McShay on the sideline.
The last time: Wisconsin and LSU haven’t met since 1972 when the Tigers won 27-7 in Baton Rouge.
The series: LSU leads 2-0
The Badgers’ injury report: Wisconsin will likely have their preferred lineup on both sides of the ball against LSU. At one point in fall camp that didn’t appear likely. In their second scrimmage on Aug. 18, seven starters on defense were held out due to injury. UW coach Gary Andersen knew the guys needed to practice but didn’t think the risk was worth it. They were held out, and now guys like linebacker’s Derek Landisch (hamstring) and Vince Biegel (concussion), are expected to start in the opener.
The Tigers’ injury report: It would probably be more accurate to name this, “The Tigers that didn’t come to Houston report,” considering a still growing list of players that might have had an impact on the game not actually playing. It includes Rashard Robinson (reported suspension), who started two games at corner last year, highly touted freshman wide receiver Malachi Dupre (ankle injury), last year’s starting center Elliott Porter (unknown) and redshirt freshman defensive tackle Maquedius Bain (reported suspension).
The line: LSU -4.5
THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH
1) His first start
Joel Stave has started 19 games at quarterback for Wisconsin, and despite some fans thinking he doesn’t have much to offer, he does have some advice for Tanner McEvoy, the junior who is expected to make his first Division I start at quarterback on Saturday night.
“Get the ball out quick,” Stave said this week. “Every (quarterback) knows when you’re practicing, they’re not going to hit you. They’re running by and tagging off, and you can move in the pocket a little more freely. Once you get to a game against a good team, they’re not going to do that. They’re going to put their helmet right in your ribs if they get a chance, so don’t give them that chance. Get the ball out.”
It’s solid advice, though Stave should have also mentioned that McEvoy should slide if given the opportunity. Had Stave done that in the Capital One Bowl loss to South Carolina, he wouldn’t have been knocked out of the game and would have been healthy during spring practice. Instead, he missed large portions of it, allowing McEvoy to get more reps and improve over last year. Now, Stave will be watching from the bench, while the junior college transfer McEvoy leads UW out on the field.
“Once spring ball started, I was playing pretty well. I got a lot of reps and it just started to click,” McEvoy said this week.
The path to things starting to click wasn’t easy or conventional. McEvoy played wide receiver his first three of high school in New Jersey. As a senior in 2011, he was moved to quarterback, throwing for 2,264 yards and 32 touchdowns, while adding 1,196 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground. It was good enough to earn him a scholarship from Steve Spurrier and South Carolina. But after redshirting his first year, and taking part in spring practice, the 6-foot-6, 222-pound, McEvoy was on the move, transferring to Arizona Western College.
There he led the Matadors to their first bowl win in 40 years and was named the All-Arizona Community College Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year. He earned that by throwing for 2,301 yards, 29 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He added another 472 yards and six touchdowns on the ground.
McEvoy picked Wisconsin in February of 2013 over offers from Oregon, Florida and West Virginia, mainly due to the idea he’d be given a chance to play early. And he was. But it was apparent from nearly the moment he threw his first ball in fall camp, that there was just too much ground to be made up on Stave and Curt Phillips. His athleticism was too great, though, for him to sit on the bench. He was moved to wide receiver, where he promptly broke his wrist.
Another move, this time to safety, followed the injury. McEvoy would start three games and make 27 tackles, pickoff one pass and break up four more. But he always envisioned himself as a quarterback and switched back over in the offseason. Andersen feels his time on the other side of the ball can be beneficial under center.
“The one thing I would say is he has played in big‑time games,” Andersen said. “He's been a starting free safety, which is the quarterback of our defense. He has a lot of alignment issues, very technical back there. There's a ton of communication that has to take place.
“So he's been in that moment. He's prepared to play in Big Ten games. He's prepared to play in a bowl game, which is great for him.”
McEvoy had a strong spring and put himself in position to compete with Stave in fall camp. And though it appeared that the incumbent was the better quarterback in practices open to the media, the coaching staff will go with the dual-threat McEvoy.
“It’s kind of the same offense but Tanner adds a little (different) mixture to it with his versatility,” sophomore running back Corey Clement said. “He can run, throw and get out of the pocket easily.”
2) Impact freshmen on both sides
LSU has long been known as a team that uses true freshmen as much as any team in the nation. A year ago, 14 played in a game – the fifth most in the country. And that won’t change this season after losing seven players early to the NFL.
The headliner is running back Leonard Fournette. He was the No. 1 overall recruit in the class of 2014 according to the 247Sports.com composite rankings. At 6-foot-1, 230 pounds, Fournette is about speed and power, and he’s been compared to Adrian Peterson.
"Who wouldn't want to play in a backfield with a guy like that?," senior tailback Terrance Magee said at SEC Media Days in July. "To be honest, I think (Peterson is) the only guy that's playing the running back position right now that you can compare [Fournette] to."
But he’s not alone. LSU will use, at times, a true freshman at quarterback in Brandon Harris and give significant playing time to others including wide receiver Trey Quinn and safety Jamal Adams.
"Six to 12," LSU coach Les Miles told local reporters when asked about the number of true freshmen that could play. "And I think six will play key roles."
Wisconsin brought 14 true freshmen on the trip with them to Houston, though the number of them that will play on Saturday is likely in the eight to nine range. Among those is free safety Lubern Figaro, who will start.
Safeties coach Bill Busch said that throughout his career he has never used a true freshman this early in a season. He recalled that when he was the secondary coach at Utah in 2003, Eric Weddle took over a starting spot in the fourth or fifth week of the season. Still, Busch is more unsure of how the young players will handle the before part of the equation.
“The football is football. That’ll kind of take care of itself,” Busch said. “(But) trying to conserve energy. Sometimes you’re going to get awfully excited about your first game no matter what. All of a sudden it’s coming as a true freshman, in a pretty big venue so I just want to make sure (Figaro) is ready when the game starts. Just keeping him in the moment.”
UW will use a true freshman at kicker – Rafael Gaglianone – and are counting on wide receivers George Rushing, Natrell Jamerson and Krenwick Sanders, along with cornerback Derrick Tindal, safety Austin Hudson and inside linebacker D’Cota Dixon.
“The way we prepare won't change at all,” Andersen said of being such a youthful team.
“(If) they're getting on that airplane and going, they should be prepared. Have they lived it exactly? No, but they understand what's expected.”
3) Defense up for challenge
LSU’s skill positions took a hit in the offseason, and though a top 5 recruiting class helped them reload, the offensive line is their strongest unit on offense and possibly the team. Led by left tackle La’el Collins, the line helped LSU average 202.3 yards on the ground a year ago. And they should look familiar to UW fans, because like the Badgers, they are big. The five starters average 321 pounds – third most in the SEC.
Meanwhile, UW’s defense decided to slim down this year, with their front-seven averaging 252 pounds – 10 less than last year. They are hoping it’ll make them quicker and faster but that leaves them with a major question: Can they slowdown offenses that want to run the ball down their throat?
“I’m confident that they’ll play well,” defensive coordinator Dave Aranda said of his front-seven. “We’re not the front that we were last year. Last year there was a lot of positives to that front. There were some negatives too, and I think it’s the same with this group. I think as coaches we’re better off in identifying that, identifying who we are and who we’re not and kind of riding those strengths and hiding those weaknesses.”
Aranda also feels it’s vital to get off to a good start – something they didn’t do in their four losses last season. He said the defense, despite being confident in the plan, were on their heels early against Arizona State, Ohio State, Penn State and South Carolina before settling in.
It will also be key to create turnovers and make impact plays when they are there – another aspect of the defense that Aranda felt was missing last season.
And so while many are questioning the front of the Badgers defense, Aranda is taking a big picture view after losing nine seniors that played a lot of football for him a year ago.
“There’s so many new parts all around,” Aranda said. “Are we a fast start team? Are we a big play team? I think last year we played well, but we made it hard on ourselves. We didn’t make a lot of big plays. We fought down to the wire in the 15th round taking shots, split decisions and things. It’d be nice if we could throw some knock out punches every once in a while. I think this defense has the ability to do that.
“Those are my questions.”
4) It begins
Melvin Gordon returned to Wisconsin for several reasons, and he’ll get his first look on Saturday as to whether it was worth it.
The Badgers’ running back could have been the first back off the board in May’s NFL Draft. Instead he was just getting done with spring football in Madison, working towards improving his pass blocking skills. That was among the areas he talked about getting better at when he made his decision to come back for his junior year.
"Not very many young men, that are in the spotlight and the primetime that he’s in, will actually sit back and identify and say, ‘Coach, I need to get better at this’," UW coach Gary Andersen said. "And he prided himself on it, and I believe that he has gotten better a certain things."
He also came back to take UW to places they haven’t been, namely to the first ever College Football Playoff. Any chance at making that happen begins with a victory over LSU or ends with a loss to the Tigers.
“It’s going to be challenging,” said Gordon, who ran for 143 yards against South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl -- his only matchup against an SEC team. “LSU is a great team. Everyone knows them around the nation. They always play hard, physical. They’re athletic. They’re not only strong but athletic as well. You probably won’t outrun too many people. You’ve got to play ball.
“It’ll be a tough physical game, but I think we’re ready, and I’m excited to watch them and play against those guys.”
The last, and if you ask Gordon or any other member of the team, the least important reason for the Kenosha Bradford native being back in Madison is winning a Heisman Trophy and every other award possible.
UW has two Heisman’s in their trophy case, with the last going to Ron Dayne following the 1999 season. And it just so happens Dayne is the guy Gordon looks at and wants to emulate. Not his running style or any particular part of his game, but how impactful he was, and is, on Wisconsin’s campus to this day.
“Everyone knows Ron Dayne,” Gordon said last month at Big Ten media days. “I mean everyone. Everyone in Madison, little kids, everyone. Wearing '33' jerseys, everyone knows him.”
With a veteran offensive line, and a new starting quarterback in Tanner McEvoy, the ability for Gordon to accomplish everything he wants to will be very much in his control starting against the Tigers on Saturday night.
5) Game impact – on and off the field
It could be argued that this is the biggest season opener in UW’s history. It’s easily the most anticipated since 1995 when the Badgers were ranked 21st in the country and hosted No. 14 Colorado at Camp Randall Stadium. It didn’t go well, as the Buffs, led by Koy Detmer, dominated the Badgers 43-7.
At the time, Colorado was considered one of the better programs in the country. The ’95 team would finish No. 4 in the polls, but no opponent in a recent UW opener has the cache of respect that LSU does. They’ve won two national titles in the last seven years and are unbeaten in their last 45 regular season non-conference games.
A victory for UW would be the biggest regular season win since they upset No. 1 Ohio State in 2010, and would setup the Badgers for a possible run at a berth in the first College Football Playoff.
“I think we get a real good idea of how we stack up against one of the best programs in the country year in and year out,” UW coach Gary Andersen said. “That's exactly where LSU sits, and the respect we have for them is very, very high.
“You'll see a bunch of young kids competing, and we'll have a lot better idea of where we sit in the big picture, as far as not just the Big Ten, but in college football in general on the biggest stage.”
But a victory could be even bigger off the field – both for Wisconsin and the Big Ten.
The conference is in desperate need of a signature victory over the SEC, and a UW win would certainly give them that. And for the Badgers, who have stepped up their recruiting efforts in the South, especially in Texas, coming out on top would be invaluable.
“It helps us in an area we want to recruit in,” Andersen said. “It helps us play an SEC opponent. It's the first game of the year. It's on national television. It's going to be a primetime game. So all that stuff is great for the University of Wisconsin. All that stuff is great for the football program.”
Zach Heilprin’s prediction: LSU 34, Wisconsin 24 (Season prediction: 10-2)
Jim Rutledge’s prediction: Wisconsin 24, LSU 20
Tony Cartagena’s prediction: LSU 31, Wisconsin 27 (Season prediction: 9-3)
Chris Oldach's prediction: LSU 24, Wisconsin 17 (Season prediction: 10-2)
- Zach Heilprin