Wisconsin will face its first true test of the season when the Badgers play at BYU on Saturday (2:30 p.m. CT, ABC). And while the Cougars are off to a 1-2 start, they have a long history of taking down teams from Power 5 conferences.
BYU has defeated at least one Power 5 conference foe every season since 2007. This Wisconsin team, however, will be one of the best opponents BYU will have faced during that time.
Here are three keys to the game for Wisconsin, as well as a final score prediction.
1. Pressure the quarterback
Wisconsin’s front seven hasn’t had the opportunity to really get after quarterbacks the first two games because both opposing teams played an up-tempo style. BYU employs a more traditional offense, which features five-step and seven-step drops from the quarterbacks. Badgers outside linebackers, in particular, spoke this week about how much they were looking forward to finally having the time to test pass rush moves.
BYU could face a major challenge given the injury status of starting quarterback Tanner Mangum. He sustained a left foot or ankle injury late in his team’s 19-13 loss to Utah last week. His status for the Wisconsin game remains uncertain. Mangum completed 21 of 39 passes against Utah for 177 yards and was intercepted 3 times. If he isn’t healthy enough to contribute, backup Beau Hoge will step in. He appeared in three games as a freshman in 2015 and completed 10 of 17 passes for 137 yards with 1 touchdown and 1 interception. That’s not a ton of experience entering a game against one of the more talented defenses in the country.
2. No shaky starts
Last season, Wisconsin was one of the most dominant first-quarter teams in the FBS, when it outscored opponents 88-22. Through two games this season, Utah State and Florida Atlantic have combined to outscore Wisconsin 17-14. Utah State led 10-0, while Florida Atlantic trailed 14-7 after notching a 63-yard touchdown pass on a huge Badgers coverage breakdown in the secondary. A similarly rough start against BYU could come back to bite Wisconsin in a way that has yet to happen against lesser opponents.
One way Wisconsin can start well is simply to own the time of possession battle, which will wear down the BYU defense and ultimately lead to big gains. Wisconsin ranks eighth nationally in time of possession (35:56) per game. BYU ranks 116th (25:06) and hasn’t been able to generate much offense this season.
3. Don’t let BYU build confidence on offense
The BYU offense has mostly been awful thus far. The Cougars rank 124th in the nation in total offense (231.7 yards per game) and scoring (11.0 points per game). BYU defeated FCS foe Portland State 20-6 in the opener but was held scoreless in a 27-0 loss to LSU and lost 19-13 to Utah.
BYU isn’t the type of team that’s going to get many chunk yardage plays on offense. The Cougars are averaging 9.51 yards per pass completion, which ranks No. 113 in the FBS. Compare that to Wisconsin’s 14.09 yards per pass completion, which ranks No. 29. And BYU’s rushing offense has been equally ineffective, ranking 118th (76.3 yards per game). BYU’s biggest advantage might be in its defensive front seven, but the Cougars don’t appear to have enough offensive weapons in place to seriously threaten Wisconsin.
This is arguably one of the most difficult games on Wisconsin’s schedule given the road atmosphere, the higher altitude and the physical manner in which BYU plays. If Wisconsin is to achieve its dream of reaching the College Football Playoff down the road, however, it’s exactly the type of adversity the team will need to overcome. BYU’s lack of offensive punch is a big reason Wisconsin should pull ahead early and stay there. And perhaps the Badgers will finally play a full game up to the level they expect. Wisconsin 27, BYU 10.
Game 1 prediction: Wisconsin 48, Utah State 7; Game 1 score: Wisconsin 59, Utah State 10
Game 2 prediction: Wisconsin 52, Florida Atlantic 10; Game 2 score: Wisconsin 31, Florida Atlantic 14