1. The offensive line needs to perform.
The Bulldogs had very little trouble moving the ball offensively against UC Davis.
The offensive line run blocked and pass protected well across all gaps, and more importantly, across both the first and second team units. However, Fresno State had dominant size, strength and speed over the Aggies. Against Wisconsin, the matchups will be closer in talent and more challenging.
Wisconsin's defensive line consists of: defensive ends O'Brien Schofield and JJ Watt, and interior DL Patrick Butrym and Jeff Stehle. Schofield highlights a DL unit that, while losing key cogs like Matt Shaughnessy and Mike Newkirk from last year, played well against Northern Illinois last week, allowing 274 total offensive yards. Jaevery McFadden, along with Culmer St. Jean and Blake Sorenson, headlines the linebacking unit.
Against NIU, the Wisconsin d-line was able to collapse the middle and not allow runs through. Therefore, the Bulldogs must find ways to trap to the B or C gaps, or more likely, bounce it way off tackle when they decide to run.
The speed of Ryan Mathews, Lonyae Miller and Robbie Rouse will be put to the test in this game as all will try to look to run off the middle. The Bulldogs OL, led by guard Andrew Jackson, should be able to hold blocks long enough for passing opportunities to culminate. WR Devon Wylie was timed twice under 4.30 in the 40-yard dash during the summer, and he will need to put that speed into use against the Badgers secondary in order to keep the linebackers off of the line of scrimmage and away from the middle to soften up for the Bulldogs' running game.
The Bulldogs offensive line had very basic blocking schemes for UC Davis. But co-offensive coordinators Jeff Grady and Derek Frazier will have to utilize much more of the playbook to be able to run and block against a stout Wisconsin front seven. Fortunately for the Bulldogs, run blocking is the strongest attribute of the offensive line. As long as substitutes from second team units in Richard Pacheco, Leslie Cooper, and Matt Hunt continue to be seamless, the Bulldogs offensive line should give Ryan Colburn, Ebahn Feathers and Derek Carr ample time to throw the ball, and the running backs to cut into gaps.
2. The passing game needs to click very early and often.
Wisconsin returns veteran defensive backs in safeties Jay Valai and Chris Maragos, and cornerback Aaron Henry, along with new corner starter Devin Smith. However, Wisconsin will likely go all out to stop Fresno State's running game, considering the Bulldogs ran for 310 yards and five rushing touchdowns, with a six-yard per carry average in their last game. That may mean the defensive backfield will be playing lots of zone and moving the safeties up closer to the box.
Mathews had over 100 yards rushing in a little over a quarter of play, but will need to play more versatile roles in both running and receiving against the Badgers. Quarterback play will be the most important in this game, as Fresno State only threw 13 total passes against UC Davis, completing eight of them. The Bulldogs may have to take advantage of early, short, quick passes to loosen up coverage and push the linebackers back and out wide to aid in pass coverage.
Fresno State was not able to utilize much of the middle of the field against UCD because of the void at starting tight end, and is still look for someone to emerge to replace departed Bear Pascoe. However, the Bulldogs found their long ball, with a 92-yard touchdown catch and run by Marlon Moore.
The Bulldogs boast two outside speed receivers in Moore and Wylie. And with the attention towards the line of scrimmage, opportunities out wide in the passing game will eventually present itself. The formations for UCD were very basic, with little in the way of how the Bulldogs practiced preseason. Post routes were rare, as the middle of the field saw little in the way of passing opportunities, but will need to be utilized by the slot receivers against Wisconsin.
The Bulldogs have practiced with spread-option plays, and they will open up the variations against Wisconsin.
Ebahn Feathers was effective against UCD, using his 4.38 speed in marching his first series methodically downfield before racing a reverse untouched to the end zone around the defense. His throwing ability will be tested in this game, as the Bulldogs will look to take advantage of Wisconsin's front seven overloading at the line. His threat to run should pose a conundrum to Wisconsin's defensive backs, to choose whether they will drop back in zone or choose man coverage in order to stay closer to the line of scrimmage against running plays. If Feathers can effectively pass from the pocket as well as on the run, the Bulldogs should see good success in its ground game as a result.
3. Turnovers need to be generated.
Linebacker Nico Herron's 94-yard interception return for a touchdown against UC Davis was the proverbial nail in the coffin for the Aggies.
Badgers quarterback Scott Tolzein threw two interceptions in the game, one late that allowed Northern Illinois to come back and make it a game. Such capitalization of mistakes by Wisconsin needs to happen for the Bulldogs to gain momentum.
The two teams are mostly going to trade time of possession away from each other, using their ground game as a means to control the offense and tire its opposing defense. In long drives that eat up clock, any mistakes need to turn into points. The Bulldogs had ample opportunity to notch at least two more interceptions against UC Davis, but the DBs had their backs turned to the ball and were hesitant to step in front of the pass. That aspect needs to change against Wisconsin.
4. Be more aggressive against Wisconsin's receivers.
The Badgers have a huge target in tight end Garrett Graham, who hauled six passes in for the Badgers against NIU, and he was Wisconsin's leading receiver from a year ago. The Bulldogs will undoubtedly double team him, likely from weakside linebacker Kyle Knox and safety Lorne Bell.
Wideout Nick Toon has the same body type as Seyi Ajirotutu, and he hauled in five catches against NIU. Cornerbacks A.J. Jefferson and Isaiah Green both have more than enough speed to match up with any of the Badgers receivers, but the question remains:
Can they disrupt routes from the opposing wideouts at the line of scrimmage?
The Bulldogs rarely did any bump and run against UC Davis, but will have to against Wisconsin.
When zone coverage comes, whether off blitzes or from nickel/dime packages, the secondary need to be aggressive in jumping routes and getting interceptions.
Wisconsin's QB Scott Tolzien went 15-of-20 for 257 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions against NIU. As with the Bulldogs, the large question mark for the Badgers preseason is how well their new starting quarterback will fare. Either team has had its passing game truly tested against its respective opposition, until they face each other on Saturday, as NIU from a year ago ranked 100th in the nation in passing offense, while UC Davis ranked 6th in the nation, but at the FCS division.
5. Defensive line play needs to improve from the last meeting.
The defensive front seven last year could not stop Wisconsin at key critical downs to get the ball back. This time, the Bulldogs will have to use their depth and upgrade in speed to get through and around a starting Wisconsin offensive line that averages 6'6 and 314lbs.
Hybrid tackle/end Chris Lewis has come on strong, competing well through the offseason and showed glimpses of his explosiveness against UCD. He'll have to continue that against Wisconsin, if the Bulldogs hope to pressure Tolzien and make tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
Wisconsin's running game was surprisingly tepid at best against NIU, with running back tandem John Clay and Zach Brown combining for 96 yards on 29 carries, a 3.3 yards per carry average. Both backs were brought down on seemingly ankle tackles and were running horizontal quite a bit as opposed to straight north. If that trend continues, the Bulldogs should be able to use their speed at end, from Kenny Borg, Chris Carter and Lewis, to narrow down end runs for the Bulldogs' linebackers to finish.
The d-line unit is completely healthy. With a year under their belt, defensive tackle Logan Harrell and nose tackle Chase McEntee should be able to hold their ground along with returners Wilson Ramos, Cornell Banks, Mark Roberts and newcomer Anthony Williams. The latter three weigh over 300 pounds for a major upgrade in size in the interior.
The d-line play should be complimented by the upgrade in speed and depth at the linebacking unit. The physical play of true freshman Travis Brown and the slimmed down Herron have given the Bulldogs more range in both coverage and choice of blitz packages with different personnel that hopefully should improve their play against a major strength of Wisconsin's team.
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