I caught up with Jake Kocorowski of Wisconsin’s SB Nation blog Bucky’s 5th Quarter to talk about this week’s upcoming game between Wisconsin and FAU.
You can checkout my Q&A for them here.
Cyrus Smith:Why did Wisconsin struggle in the first half against Utah State? What corrections did they make to eventually pull away from the Aggies?
Jake Kocorowski: There were a few reasons. Mostly, they were beating themselves with penalties (six in first half), and as head coach Paul Chryst said, weren't playing good football. Now, give Utah State credit for using their pace-based offensive tempo to force Wisconsin's hand (and also some nicely designed defensive plays on the other side that netted three sacks in two quarters) and they took advantage of a costly turnover deep in UW territory to get their only touchdown of the game.
Once Wisconsin stopped being its own worst enemy, they quickly took over and showed just how potent this team can be to the tune of 59 unanswered points--that includes 28 points and 251 yards in just the third quarter alone.
Cyrus: What are the strengths and weaknesses of Paul Chryst’s offense? Who are the players we should look out for?
Jake: Let's start off with the weaknesses first. The biggest may be one that wouldn't show up unless there's a significant injury at quarterback. Redshirt sophomore Alex Hornibrook played well on Friday, throwing for 244 yards and three touchdown passes. He's leaps and bounds above the others as QB1 due to his knowledge and preparation with this offense, but behind him, there's true freshman Jack Coan, who beat out redshirt freshman Kare' Lyles for the back-up job. If the southpaw goes down at any point, Wisconsin's offense loses a critical piece to its success.
The offensive line is essentially set outside of left guard, where you'll see Jon Dietzen and Micah Kapoi in different series, but the one to watch for is left tackle Michael Deiter. It appeared he played well on Friday after sliding out from center, but the team captain and Rimington Trophy candidate is still learning the ins and outs of being on the edge. FAU fans should also pay attention to the running backs and their pass blocking capabilities.
Strength-wise, however, this team has a lot of firepower. There's immense depth at tight end, with the likes of preseason All-Americna Troy Fumagalli (five receptions, 105 yards, one touchdown last week), Zander Neuville 28-yard touchdown catch on Friday) and Kyle Penniston being threats in the receiving game. Wisconsin's running backs could eclipse last year's production with Bradrick Shaw (listed as questionable with a right leg injury), Chris James and true freshman Jonathan Taylor--the latter who led the team in rushing against Utah State with 87 yards on nine carries and a touchdown. Hornibrook has shown a better zip on his passes and has great touch on deep passes, and the offensive line--despite Deiter adapting to left tackle--is now back to its physical precedent from years' past with experienced, talented starters. Oh yeah, the wide receivers could be among the best seen in years in terms of speed and talent.
Cyrus: How would you assess Jim Leonhard’s debut as the defensive coordinator? Any concerns entering this game and going forward?
Jake: It was really almost a tale of two halves, or I'd say even more like first 20-25 minutes, than the rest of the game. It's hard to gauge how a team will game plan for the first contest of the year. Utah State got some decent runs off in the first quarter or so, but then they adapted well and recorded four takeaways starting with the late interception in the second quarter. It kind of goes back to the first answer where they stopped beating themselves up, and along with fixing up some missed fits, they showed why they could be a top 10 defense again. Though they gave up over 300 yards to the Aggies, the last two drives in garbage time went for about 136 yards against reserves.
I've had the opportunity to speak with Leonhard not just during media availability, but for Walk-On This Way, the book I wrote about the influence of walk-ons on the success of the Wisconsin football program since 1990. Rex Ryan told me that Leonhard used to joke with Ryan's defensive coordinator, Mike Pettine, that he knew the playbook better than he did. He was a quarterback of the Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets in the late 2000s into the early 2010s, and he's going to be just fine. There's bound to be some learnings for adjusting to be a coordinator rather than a defensive backs coach, but he's highly intelligent, knows the game and most importantly, his players.
I'm not necessarily sure there are many concerns outside of just being themselves. The first-team secondary played well for the most part, but should be interesting how cornerbacks Nick Nelson (remember the name) and Derrick Tindal play against FAU's receivers. There's also the third cornerback spot, as Dontye Carriere-Williams can play both inside slot or outside, but up until last week we didn't know if he or senior Lubern Figaro would get reps there. Maybe the biggest concern here is, again, injuries. Inside linebacker, team captain and chronic ball of unleashed energy Jack Cichy is out for the year with an ACL tear suffered in camp. T.J. Edwards, Ryan Connelly and Chris Orr have the ability to sustain success at inside 'backer, especially Edwards, but another injury could be problematic with depth. Same with outside linebacker, as key reserve Zack Baun was listed out for the season last week due to a foot injury. Wisconsin needs to replace the production seen last year at the position with T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel (15.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss altogether). Garrett Dooley and Leon Jacobs played well in fall camp, with the latter looking like a beast physically and recorded two tackles for loss last week. Another injury there, though, could thin the herd further in a unfavorable way.
Cyrus: Special Teams in the opener: Good? Bad?
Jake: Eh? That's a sad cop out, but it was a mix. It's good to have placekicker Rafael Gaglianone out there again this year, as he's recovered from back surgery. Also returning is holder Connor Allen and kickoff specialist P.J. Rosowski, the latter who booted over 64 percent of his kickoffs into the end zone last year. He hit 4-of-9 touchbacks against Utah State. Punter Anthony Lotti recorded a nice 54-yard punt in the first quarter and averaged 43 yards on his three attempts, but he'll need to continue to be consistent to allow the field position to flip when the offense stalls. The kickoff and punt return units really never got started due to some penalties last week early on. Those two areas really need to improve to give the offense better field position, as Wisconsin's first five drives against the Aggies were deep in their own territory.
Jake: We all know about the Jump Around tradition, but what other game day traditions like the 5th Quarter, should the Owl fans who are making the trek be aware of?
Get here a few days beforehand and enjoy the food and atmosphere in and around Madison. There are a ton of great restaurants (Dotty Dumpling Dowry's, Old Fashioned, Cooper's Tavern, etc.) and bars that will keep you occupied. Also, got to get to Ian's Pizza for a slice of great pizza.
On game day, check out what's going on down on Regent Street with the blocks upon blocks of various tailgates. I absolutely love the smells in and around Camp Randall Stadium. Take in some brats and a few brews if you choose, but you can also check out the UW Marching Band down at Union South right across the street from the stadium about an hour or so before the game. Like you mentioned, the 5th Quarter is a must-attend event. After the game, the band performs on the field and plays various songs with its own twist of personality.
Cyrus: On a scale of 1-10 how concerned are you that the Lane Train picks up steam Saturday afternoon and leaves Madison with a win?
Jake: About a two or three so long as major injuries don't hit the group. Wisconsin should start faster this week after a slow beginning against the Aggies, and I'm sure they want to show they can shut down an opposing offense for all four quarters. If there are ailments to the likes of Hornibrook or either linebackers or the secondary, then that would add some concern. Otherwise, if Wisconsin's running game can see the success Navy did against FAU last week, Paul Chryst's offense should simply run over the Owls on way to a win.