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BYU football: 5 questions with a Wisconsin football insider

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MADISON, Wis. — BYU travels to take on a tough and relatively unfamiliar Wisconsin team this Saturday. The teams have squared off just once through the years with BYU coming away with a 28-3 win in 1980.

Wisconsin has risen to become one of the premier programs in the Big Ten Conference and is currently ranked No. 21 nationally by AP. The Badgers present a physical type of team that should challenge the Cougars on both sides of the football.

In order to learn more about Wisconsin, we asked John Veldhuis five questions. Veldhuis writes for badgerblitz.com on the Rivals network and knows the Wisconsin football team as well as anyone.

1. How has Gary Andersen done in his first year as coach? What's the general perception regarding the job he's doing?

As far as the regular games go it’s been pretty much as expected. The Badgers lost a tough conference road game to Ohio State, and while their loss to Arizona State was controversial, I don’t think many people expected them to get a win there. They’ve handled their business in all of their other games so far, and have looked pretty good in the process. The BCS has them as the No. 24 team, but anyone who covers the Wisconsin program and some other national analysts have been arguing for them to be ranked a lot higher.

But wins and losses aren’t everything. Andersen has been particularly well-received by the media and the Wisconsin fan base because of how unliked Bret Bielema was. Andersen is very straightforward with the media and has given us a lot of access that Bielema didn’t, and his public persona has been well-received by the fans. Dressing up for Halloween last week is the perfect example — Andersen isn’t afraid to have fun at his own expense sometimes, and I think people appreciate that about him.

2. This is a huge game for BYU, but how does Wisconsin view this unusual out-of-conference game in November? How does Wisconsin regard BYU as an opponent?

I think the Badgers understand how tough it will be to play BYU at this point in the season. The vast majority of their coaching staff has experience with BYU, and I think the coaches are going to draw on their previous games against the Cougars to show their players just what BYU is capable of. The Badgers and the coaching staff have a particular respect for Taysom Hill and Kyle Van Noy, so I think the players will be well-educated on just what Hill and Van Noy can do when they’re on their game.

In particular, I think the Badgers have a good idea of what they’ll be facing on offense this week. It is a little odd for the Badgers to have a non-conference opponent come in to Camp Randall so late in the season, but the players I spoke with on Monday said they think they’ll be ready for something a little different after grinding through a few Big Ten games. And while some teams might not know how to play against a high-tempo offense, the Badgers remember all too well what it was like to play Oregon in the 2012 Rose Bowl. At the very least I don’t think they’ll be surprised with BYU’s pace — the question will end up being whether they can slow it down and stop it.

3. Talk about Wisconsin on offense. What type of system does it run and who are the primary play-makers?

The Badgers are sticking with a classic pro-style offense under new offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, who you might remember coached San Diego State’s offense last year in the Poinsettia Bowl. The Badgers run to set up the play-action passing game, with short quick passes mixed in to keep the defense honest.

As far as players go, running backs Melvin Gordon and James White keep the Badgers moving down the field. Gordon is the home-run hitter of the group, especially on a particular jet-sweep play that the Badgers have used so well for most of this season. White’s a quick change of pace, but he doesn’t quite have the burst and acceleration that Gordon does. It ends up being a pick-your-poison: teams can usually stop White or Gordon, but getting them on the field at the same time means it’s hard to keep both in check at once.

Sophomore Joel Stave is under center for the second straight season, and he’s having a pretty decent first full year under center if you ignore his vocal critics and just look at the numbers. His completion percentage is higher than last year, but Stave and the Badgers really depend on senior wide receiver Jared Abbrederis if they want to hit scores through the air. If BYU can keep Abbrederis in check, it’ll be a lot harder for the Badgers to move the ball down the field the way they want to.

4. Same question on defense. What's the system and who are the primary play-makers?

The Badgers switched to a base 3-4 under Andersen and Dave Aranda, who came with the head coach from Utah State. It’s worked out rather well for a team that recruited to the 4-3 for so many seasons. The Badgers have been very effective on defense this season, thanks largely to a senior-laden front seven. All three of their defensive linemen are seniors, and it’s best to keep an eye on inside linebacker Chris Borland. He’s the defense’s emotional leader and has a knack for big plays, but he missed last week’s game against Iowa with a hamstring injury and missed about half of their game against Illinois with the same injury two weeks before. He says he’s feeling better and will practice this week, but Wisconsin’s defense plays a lot differently without Borland.

Apart from that, the Badgers use a lot of pretty traditional 3-4 concepts. They end up playing more man coverage now than they did in a 4-3, which puts some pressure on the younger players in their secondary. At the line of scrimmage the Badgers will rotate a lot of players in and out of the game to match up against different offensive packages, and like to use an all-up package on third down to disguise where the fourth or fifth rusher is coming from.

5. What are the key matchups this Saturday and what do the Badgers need to do to come away with a win?

The Badgers are going to need to run the ball well if they want to beat the Cougars at home. Ohio State is the only team they’ve played with a better rushing defense, and the Buckeyes held the Badgers to just 3.9 yards per carry — easily their lowest mark of the season. And either through the passing game or the running game the Badgers need to make a few plays where they get a few big chunks of yardage. The Badgers are 15th in the country with 25 offensive plays of 30 yards or more, whereas the Cougars have allowed 18 plays of 30 yards or more this season (72nd nationally).

On defense, the Badgers need to keep the Cougars from converting red zone trips into touchdowns and have to keep their third down conversion percentage low. That means holding Taysom Hill and the rest in check on first and second down, which is no small feat. It wouldn’t hurt if the Badgers could hang on to a field position advantage, either: the Badgers were able to keep Iowa out of the end zone despite excellent starting field position in the game, but it’ll be harder to do that if the Cougars can work with a consistently shorter field.