MADISON, Wis. — After months of anticipation, Wisconsin’s season opener has finally almost arrived. Expectations are as high as they have been in years, and the Badgers begin their quest for a special campaign at 8 p.m. CT Friday against Utah State at Camp Randall Stadium.
Wisconsin appears to have the advantage in nearly every category, but the team has much to learn about itself under the lights. Here are three keys to the game for Wisconsin, as well as a final score prediction.
1. Start fast and end the game early
Wisconsin was an exceptional first-quarter team last season, outscoring opponents 88-22. There’s no reason to believe that trend won’t continue, particularly in the first game against an inexperienced Utah State team. The Logan (Utah) Journal noted that 13 of Utah State’s 22 first-team offensive and defensive players are starting their first-ever game for the program on Friday night. Meanwhile, 18 of Wisconsin’s 22 first-team offensive and defensive players have started at least one game for the Badgers — and most have far more experience than that.
This is not the Utah State team that came to Camp Randall Stadium back in 2012 and put a scare into the Badgers. That Aggies team, led by coach Gary Andersen, ultimately lost 16-14 but went on to a fabulous 11-2 season that helped Andersen briefly move on to become Wisconsin’s coach. Utah State finished 3-9 last season, and the Aggies are 1-11 on the road in the past two regular seasons. Wisconsin has a 37-game nonconference home winning streak. Nothing suggests the Aggies should still be in the game by halftime.
2. Establish the run and build confidence
Wisconsin has three running backs listed as co-starters entering the season opener, and only one of them played in a game for the Badgers last season. That would be Bradrick Shaw, who carried 88 times in 11 games as the third-string tailback. Chris James played on the scout team while sitting out after transferring from Pittsburgh. Jonathan Taylor was setting single-season high school rushing records in New Jersey.
The game Friday represents a perfect opportunity for those three players to showcase their ability and put the nation on notice about how good Wisconsin’s running backs can be this season. Utah State ranked 90th nationally last season in run defense, allowing 203.3 yards per game. Wisconsin’s offensive line returns four starters and should dominate in the trenches to create plenty of big holes for the running backs. The Badgers figure to run the ball early and often, which will perhaps provide coaches with a better sense of how to use their tailback rotation moving forward.
3. Manhandle Utah State’s O-line to force sacks or turnovers
Utah State quarterback Kent Myers is a solid signal caller who rarely makes mistakes through the air. In fact, he has thrown only 14 interceptions on 679 career attempts — 2.1 percent of the time — to rank as the lowest interception percentage in school history. But Utah State is opening the season with an entirely different offensive line, which includes four players who weren’t even at the school last season. That lack of experience or cohesiveness could spell trouble against a dominant Badgers defense.
Utah State left tackle Roman Andrus played on the defensive line last season for Snow College in Ephraim, Utah. Left guard Moroni Iniguez also played at Snow College last season, appearing in five games on the offensive line. Center Quin Fiklin was last seen playing fullback at BYU. Right tackle Sean Taylor sat out last season after transferring from Laney College in Oakland, Calif. And right guard Rob Castaneda was an honorable mention All-America selection at Ellsworth Community College in Iowa Falls, Iowa.
Wisconsin’s coaching staff has said it wants to see more production out of the Badgers’ defensive line. Defensive ends Alec James, Chikwe Obasih, and Conor Sheehy, as well as nose guard Olive Sagapolu, should be able to throw their weight around. The Badgers’ linebacking corps also has the speed and athleticism to wreak havoc on Utah State’s O-line. And if Myers does have time to throw, he’ll have to deal with a secondary eager to continue its impressive interception rate. Last season, Wisconsin’s secondary was responsible for 16 of the Badgers’ 22 interceptions — a team total that ranked tied for second in the FBS.
Wisconsin is listed as a 27-point favorite against Utah State. Few people, if anybody, believe the Aggies can make a game of this one. The Badgers have legitimate College Football Playoff aspirations, and they can make a strong statement on Friday night before most of the Week 1 games get rolling the following day. Wisconsin 48, Utah State 7.