LOGAN –Wisconsin has had Matt Wells’ attention since January. The fifth-year head football coach will take his team into Camp Randall Stadium Friday night for the first game since last year’s “unacceptable” three-win season.
It has been a long offseason for Wells and his team, and one full of talk about returning to the winning culture. Players have said they are tired of losing and report hitting the weights harder than ever. If there was ever a time to prove a change has taken place, Friday is it. Wisconsin boasts a No. 9 national ranking and is coming off a Big 10 West championship season.
The Badgers appear to be USU’s toughest opponent in 2017. The team hasn’t lost a home opener since 1996 and has won 18 of its last 22 games. The Badgers’ 37 consecutive non-conference home wins ranks sixth all time.
But Utah State has been an underdog in Camp Randall before, back in 2012. Trailing 16-14 with just seconds on the clock, the Aggie field goal attempt went wide right, giving USU its first of just two losses of the year.
This year, the Wisconsin Badgers – as they usually are – are big, strong and physical. Wells said their physicality is comparable to the 2013 USC team, the 2013 and 2015 Utah teams and last year’s USC team, which beat the Aggies 45-7. The Badger defense held its opponents to an average of 98.8 rushing yards per game a season ago.
“They have tough, hard-nosed guys up front, and run multiple schemes,” Wells said. “Their defensive linemen are big and strong, and the linebackers have length. They are very sound in their schemes and have a lot of guys back off of a defense that was top-15 nationally last year in almost every defensive category.”
Wisconsin likes to run the ball. The team averaged more than 200 yards on the ground per game in 2016, and they did it behind a massive offensive line. This year’s starting five on the offensive line averages 6-foot-6 and 322.4 pounds. For comparison, that’s three inches and 18 pounds more than USU’s average.
“They are a very physical bunch on both the offensive and defensive lines, the front seven on both sides of the ball,” Wells said. “We’re going to have to match that and we’re going to have to be very physical and play with relentless pursuit on defense and put hats to the ball.”
The team’s top rushers are gone. Cory Clement rushed for 1,375 yards last year while Dare Ogunbowale added another 506. It will largely be up to sophomore Bradrick Shaw, who totaled 457 yards in his freshman season.
USU senior safety Dallin Leavitt said the Aggies will be on the right track to win if they can stop Wisconsin’s run game.
“If we can get three-and-outs stopping the run and cause turnovers early, that will be a sure sign that we’re doing exactly what we need to do,” he said. “They’re a team where they run the ball a ton, and if we can force them to pass it, that’s in our favor.”
It isn’t just the Wisconsin offensive line that has size. For the most part, it’s across the roster. Badger quarterback Alex Hornibrook, a sophomore that started nine games as a redshirt freshman in 2016, is 6-foot-4. Hornibrook threw for 1,262 yards and nine touchdowns a season ago, but also had seven interceptions.
On average, Wisconsin passed for 179.1 yards per game last year. Wells singled out senior wide receiver Jazz Peavy and senior tight end Troy Fumagalli as two guys that can stretch defenses. The passing game is something the Aggie defense will need to keep in check while trying to prevent the run.
“You get lulled to sleep in the run game and then there goes play-action with the tight end right down the seam, or a shot over the top to Peavy,” Wells said. “You have to be worried about those weapons. They are good at the skill positions.”
Leavitt said he thinks Friday’s game will be a great opportunity to showcase what the Aggie defense is about.
“They’re going to try and big boy you up and down the field,” he said, “then around the logo they’re going to take shots.”
Wells said Wisconsin will make a mistake at some point. Capitalizing on that, he said, will be a good sign his team can stick with them.
“Will Utah State be able to capitalize on it quickly?” he said. “Will we put points on the board? I can’t predict the situation, but are we going to be able to capitalize on a mistake by them?”