Despite a bunch of personnel shuffling — including the quarterbacks — and schedule difficulties a year ago, the Wisconsin Badgers still almost won the Big Ten championship. No wonder Badger fans are hoping for more in 2017.
Expectations were more limited in 2016, as LSU, Ohio State and Michigan all graced the schedule.
And though they used a two-quarterback rotation through stretches, the Badgers were still at the doorstep of the Rose Bowl until they relinquished a 28-7 lead against Penn State in the Big Ten championship game.
This season? No. 9 Wisconsin has a steadier quarterback situation and returns seven defensive starters.
The Badgers’ season-opening opponent: Utah State. At Camp Randall. But the Aggies are more excited than apprehensive. They’re eager to finally play against somebody wearing different colors. But they know what they’re up against, too.
“You’re ready to play somebody else and that somebody else is really good. It gets your attention and it has since January,” USU coach Matt Wells said. “The success of that program over the past several head coaches is evident. They plug a lot of guys in and they keep on playing at a high level.
“It’ll be a major test for our guys and one we’re looking forward to getting into.”
Utah State at No. 9 Wisconsin
Friday, 7:30 p.m. MDT
TV • ESPN
On offense, sophomore Alex Hornibrook — whom Wells calls an extension of Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst — is back at quarterback. Hornibrook got the starting nod in 2016 in the fourth game, but wound up sharing the job with Bart Houston.
Badger fans are hoping that Hornibrook’s touchdown-to-interception ratio will improve with more consistent playing time. Last year, he tossed nine touchdown passes and accumulated 2,262 yards through the air, but he was also picked off seven times.
Hornibrook’s mates in the backfield will include new tailback Bradrick Shaw and, when throwing, the lefty QB will have familiar targets in wideout Jazz Peavy and senior tight end Troy Fumagalli.
Wells points to Wisconsin senior fullback Austin Ramesh as a key as well.
“He maybe makes the whole thing go for them,” said Wells of Ramesh. “He’s a really good player.”
On defense, the Badgers lost T.J. Watt to the NFL draft and fellow outside linebacker Vince Biegel to graduation.
Other than that, Wisconsin returns its defensive line and inside linebackers intact as seniors Alec James, Conor Sheehy and Chikwe Obasih comprise the front line with junior T.J. Edwards and senior Jack Cichy at inside linebacker.
“Tough, hard-nosed guys up front, multiple schemes, and big, strong defensive linemen,” Wells said. “Lot of guys back from a team that was top 15 nationally in almost every defensive category.”
Comparatively, the secondary has only half of its starters back. But senior Derrick Tindal provides returning experience at cornerback and senior D’Cota Dixon is back at strong safety.
Edwards, with 89 tackles, was Wisconsin’s leader in 2016. Dixon and Cichy had 60 stops each last year.
“Our guys are going to have to make some amazing catches,” said Utah State quarterback Kent Myers of his team’s outlook against what’s expected to be a very stingy Badgers defense.
“I’m going to have to make some tight throws, but that’s what we like to do” Myers said.
The Badgers, who also play at BYU on Sept. 16, have a third different defensive coordinator in the past three years. Jim Leonhard succeeds Justin Wilcox, who got the head job at California.
“There’s a lot more similarities than there are differences,” Wells said. “It’s going to be a tremendous challenge.”