BYU has been on fire the last few weeks, ripping off a five game winning streak and seeing the rewards of the up tempo offense implemented by the coaching staff at the beginning of the season. The Cougars will have a chance this week to silence skeptics that they've beaten largely inferior teams with a visit to No. 21 Wisconsin. The game takes on extra significance after Gary Andersen was hired away from Utah State to coach the Badgers, giving Bronco Mendenhall another chance to beat a former in-state rival coach. Will BYU continue its impressive streak and upset Wisconsin on the road? Or will the Badgers take care of business at home? Here's a position-by-position look at this week's matchup and which team will have the edge heading into Saturday's game:
Taysom Hill has grown before our eyes to become arguably the best quarterback in the state with his dual threat style under center. Since the first four weeks of the season when Hill threw only one touchdown and four interceptions, the sophomore has thrown 11 touchdowns and four interceptions. He was particularly impressive against Boise State, turning in a surgical performance by completing 27-of-41 passes for 339 yards and three touchdowns. The coaches have reigned in his rushing attempts, but he continues to be a threat on the ground with 69 yards rushing and a touchdown against the Broncos.
The man at quarterback for the Badgers is redshirt sophomore Joel Stave. Stave isn't a gun slinger, but fills the role Wisconsin asks of him nicely, managing the game and providing a passing threat when opposing defenses load the box to stop the Badger running game. He has 15 touchdowns and seven interceptions this year along with 1,630 yards passing, but has an issue with turnovers after throwing at least one interception in six of Wisconsin's eight games this season. Overall, if Wisconsin falls behind, it's doubtful Stave can keep them competitive in a shoot out.
Jamaal Williams has stepped up the last few weeks for the Cougars. After his concussion injury, Williams slowed down significantly from the first two weeks of the season, but the last three weeks, he's scored three times and is averaging 92 yards per game. Williams didn't get into the endzone versus Boise State, but he rushed for 107 yards on 21 carries and looks primed for a solid production the rest of the season.
Wisconsin's strength is undoubtedly its rushing game. Sophomore Melvin Gordon and senior James White form arguably the best 'back tandem in college football and have combined for 20 touchdowns and 1,926 yards. The Badger offense runs through Gordon, who has a staggering six games this season in which he's rushed for over 140 yards. Look for Wisconsin to do what they always do: wear down the BYU defensive front with the tandem of Gordon and White and control the clock to keep the ball out of Hill's hands.
BYU will have to do without second reception leader JD Falslev and more responsibility will fall on Cody Hoffman and Mitch Mathews against a stingy Wisconsin secondary. Hill will have to lean on Hoffman especially to make plays in the passing game. After a huge 156 yard and one touchdown game against Houston, Hoffman slowed down against Boise State for only 57 yards and a touchdown. Mathews is a capable replacement and has 387 yards receiving and four touchdowns this year.
Wisconsin may be in trouble in the passing game after leading receiver Jared Abbrederis suffered a rib injury last week against Iowa. Abbrederis is listed as "day-to-day" and would be a huge loss for the Badgers. He has 500 more yards than Wisconsin's second leading receiver with 782 and twice as many touchdowns as the second leading receiver with six. White is a reliable option out of the backfield, but Stave will have to lean heavily on tight end Jacob Pedersen and receiver Jeff Duckworth to make up the difference if Abbrederis is out.
BYU's makeshift offensive line has been in flux more than any unit for the Cougars, but gets some stability back this week when Terrance Alletto returns from injury. Hill was sacked twice against Boise State, a solid defensive line, which could bode well for a tough test against the Badgers. However, BYU has still given up 24 sacks this season and will have to play its best game of the season to keep Hill upright.
Wisconsin's line has been stout all season long and has only allowed 10 sacks so far, tied for third in the Big 10. The Badgers have given up only two sacks over the last two weeks after giving up three against Northwestern and have pushed around opposing defenses for 287 yards rushing per game and 26 rushing touchdowns.
Defensive line and linebackers
The Cougars' front seven was stout against Boise State, racking up two sacks in the process. However, BYU will have to toughen up against a bruising Wisconsin offensive line after the Cougars were gashed for 151 yards by Boise State running back Jay Ajayi. This will be a defining game for defensive leaders like Kyle Van Noy, who has 11 tackles for loss and four sacks this season, and will need to bring White and Gordon down immediately to limit their yards after contact.
The Badgers rank fifth in the Big 10 with 18 sacks and have brought the quarterback down 10 times in the last three weeks. Warren Herring is a player to watch for the Badgers and could be a handful for the Cougars interior offensive line Saturday. The junior has five tackles for loss and three sacks this year for a defensive unit that has 43 total tackles for loss.
The Cougars held up well against Boise State's back up, surrendering 232 yards, one touchdown and grabbing one interception. The Cougars are limiting opposing passers to about 237 yards passing per game and should have an advantage over Stave, especially if Abbrederis is out for the game. BYU's safeties will also be charged with making tackles near the line of scrimmage to keep Gordon in check.
Wisconsin is stingy on the back end of the defense and ranks third in the Big 10 with only 195 yards given up through the air. The Badgers also rank first in the Big 10 in passing touchdowns surrendered with six. Freshman corner Sojourn Shelton has been dominant for the Badgers, picking off three passes so far in 2013 and is the player to watch when he matches up with Hoffman.
Prediction: BYU has been on fire lately and it's hard to argue against the production in recent weeks of Taysom Hill, but the Badgers are too talented on defense and in the running game for the Cougars to win this game on the road. Wisconsin should be able to control the clock comfortably with Gordon and control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball to stifle BYU's offense and overwhelm BYU's defense. The Badgers will win this one 31-17.