When it comes to Wisconsin linebacker Vince Biegel — in particular, the timing foot of his surgery and its impact on the Badgers — Josh Liskiewitz has a theory. And he’s sticking to it.
“(The team’s) thinking is, ‘We want to get to Indianapolis (for the Big Ten championship game),’” The Pro Football Focus college analyst told Landof10.com Friday.
“‘We want to win the Big Ten West. In order to do that, we can’t have three losses — it doesn’t matter if it’s the East or West, we can’t have that in the Big Ten.
“‘So it’s going to be tough for us to beat Ohio State at home and go to Michigan and beat Michigan. To go into East Lansing, hypothetically, it should be tough, but that’s our best shot. Out of those three, that happens to be the best one. So that also gives us three weeks after that game for him to get back healthy for the real meaty part of the schedule, for the West powers.’
“I think that does make a lot of sense.”
It kind of does, especially if you’re in to scheduling conspiracies. Or long-term thinking. According to ESPN, Biegel — eighth-ranked Wisconsin’s high-motor, mullet-happy pass-rushing ace — has been playing with a small fracture in his foot for a few weeks now, including last Saturday’s 30-6 romp at Michigan State. Various media outlets also reported that Biegel had surgery Thursday, that he’ll miss this weekend’s clash at No. 4 Michigan and that he could be sidelined for as long as three more weeks after that.
The Badgers’ October itinerary: At Ann Arbor, a bye week, home to No. 2 Ohio State, at Iowa, home against No. 15 Nebraska — and West division foes the rest of the way.
“(With Iowa), his presence in that game wouldn’t be nearly as critical,” Liskiewitz said of Biegel. “Nebraska, they’ve got a tight end, wide receivers that can do some things, and a quarterback (Tommy Armstrong) who can run and throw.”
Now he’s not saying that’s why the surgery happened this week, necessarily, much less that it’s a good thing. The senior linebacker has been hell on wheels this month, even while playing on one bad axle — ranking third nationally in Pro Football Focus’ pass-rushing productivity charts, which tracks the number of quarterback pressures per defensive snap. PFF credited Biegel with 12 pressures in East Lansing, setting the tone of a pretty dang miserable afternoon for Spartans quarterback Tyler O’Connor:
Wisconsin pressured Michigan State QB Tyler O’Connor on 51% of dropbacks (only 23% coming in)
OLB Vince Biegel:
12 pressures on 28 rushes
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) September 25, 2016
Big Ten pass rush productivity leaders
Vince Biegel, WIS
Anthony Nelson, Iowa
T.J. Watt, WIS
Rashan Gary, UM
Edge defenders, min 50% snaps
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) September 29, 2016
Plus, there’s no guarantee that Biegel will be back to speed within four weeks, let alone two or three. A screw in the foot is a toss of the dice.
But Liskiewitz offers a valid hypothetical here: If you’ve got crappy news, is there a way to minimize the damage to a point where it doesn’t cripple your defense — or your season?
On paper, Michigan State, through the first month of resume-building, is a better matchup for the Badgers than either the Wolverines or Buckeyes. And if a West title is the carrot at the end of the stick, the division’s destiny likely falls in the hands of who wins out in the head-to-head meetings among the Hawkeyes, Huskers and Badgers.
Iowa swept the other two last fall and rode the momentum all the way to Indy. Wisconsin swept the season series during the 2014 campaign en route to the division crown.
So if the options are either a) continuing to play through the injury and risking a total loss for the season; b) picking a good — or rather, less bad — time to shut Biegel down and still theoretically get him back for West division opponents, which door is the right one?
“I think it’s going to hurt them with the production of the defense and the pass-rushing,” said Dan Shonka, longtime director of scouting with Ourlads.com. “But I’ll tell you, they’ve answered every bell.
“The kids at Wisconsin may see it as a rallying point, too. ‘We’re down a guy, we’ve got to circle the wagons and dig in and cut off the run and the pass game.’”
Which they very well might, Vince or no Vince. Although not everyone is quite so convinced: Liskiewitz had chalked up a trip to Michigan as a lost cause well before No. 47 was lost from the depth chart. Badgers officials had announced earlier Thursday that starting placekicker Rafael Gaglianone was done for the season because of back surgery.
“Michigan is just a terrible matchup for Wisconsin,” Liskiewitz explained. “(The Badgers) are not going to be able to match their power up front. They’re not going to be able to run the ball. Unless they get 5 turnovers or (Michigan) drops a punt on its 5-yard line, I didn’t think Wisconsin had any chance of beating them.”
But, he continued, the matchups improve after that. So do the odds. Especially if Biegel heals even quicker than the two-to-four-week window initially floated.
“I think they do match up better against Ohio State, because Ohio State is not nearly as stout up front as people assume they are,” Liskiewitz said. “What’s going to happen at Michigan is going to happen at Michigan. I don’t think it’s going to be pretty. The Ohio State game (at home) is the one I’d be keying on.”