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Badger Thoughts 2017: Game Two Victory Versus Florida Atlantic

Jonathan Taylor had an excellent rushing game against Florida Atlantic with 223 yards and 3 touchdowns. (Dylan Buell/Getty Images North America)

Badger Thoughts 2017: Game Two      Victory Versus Florida Atlantic

The Wisconsin Badgers have opened the season 2-0 after a 31-14 win over Florida Atlantic on Saturday afternoon. Like the opening game versus Utah State, there were bright spots and some concerns. We provide our notes and takes on both this game and the 2017 season.

1. Jonathan Taylor makes his case to be starter going forward – Taylor got the start against FAU after an injury sidelined Bradrick Shaw and Taylor showed the coaches the decision was an excellent one. Taylor showed both his power and speed on his two first half touchdown runs.

Taylor finished the game rushing for 223 yards and 3 touchdowns on 26 carries. His backup, Chris James, also showed some good rushes after a tepid first game. James finished with 101 yards on 16 carries and the Badgers averaged 6.6 yards per carry. There are plenty of positive things to say about Taylor and his touchdown runs have been great to watch over and over again.

A few things that are worth bringing up:

  • Taylor is just a freshman, which is great for the Badgers if he continues at this pace. However, solid production from a healthy Shaw and James will be key to keep Taylor fresh at the end of the season.
  • The first two games were against Utah State and Florida Atlantic, teams the Badgers should dominate and look good against. The competition the rest of the season will be much stronger.
  • Injuries and poor quarterback play could make it an uphill battle for the entire rushing attack. Taylor lost a fumble as well in the third quarter, which, at this point, appears to be more of the exception.

Based on what we have seen in two games, Taylor should be the starter at running back with Shaw and James getting plenty of touches as well. It is a long season and three different options behind the offensive line will help the entire offense.

2. Alex Hornibrook struggled to see the field – It was clear that Alex Hornibrook was not having a good day. The timing was not there as he constantly threw behind his receivers and then there was the horrendous interception. On that particular play, he was going backwards with a defender in his face and he forced a throw without even seeing the defender that made the interception. It was a throw that should not have happened and it led to a touchdown for FAU.

Late the second quarter, Hornibrook threw another pass on an out route to the sideline that was woefully short and nearly picked. Luckily for him, it was dropped, but another example of his timing and arm strength being not good enough.

Overall, Hornibrook has to get better if he wants to stay the starter. The timing, precision, arm strength, and general awareness all are a concern though he is just a sophomore. There is time for improvement, but how long does he have before Jack Coan is called on for a bigger role?

3. The secondary gets torched – Florida Atlantic had 142 yards passing, yet it felt like it was far more. FAU’s DeAndre McNeal had catches of 35 and 63 yards with the latter going for a touchdown. There was also another 35 yard pass play to McNeal in the third quarter following Taylor’s fumble, but that was negated due to a holding.

Given the memories of 2016 when Penn State moved up and down the field on the Badgers at will in the Big 10 Championship, it is worth watching this unit to see how they respond going forward.

4. Injury concerns are mounting – The defense was already short due to the losses of Jack Cichy and Zack Baun for the season. During practice on Wednesday, Chikwe Obasih suffered a knee injury that will keep him out for a few weeks.

Now, the offense has some injury worries with Shaw ruled out and then right guard Beau Benzschawel left the game in second quarter and did not return. There is currently no news on the severity of the injury, but the loss of a starter on the line does not bode well.

5. The overall performance felt mediocre – The Badgers dominated this game on offense with 564 yards compared to 248 yards for FAU. They had just one penalty and held the ball for over 38 minutes. However, it was an inefficient game.

The Badgers turned the ball over twice, were stopped three times inside the two yard line early in the second quarter, several passes were dropped, and even Rafael Gaglianone missed a 37 yard field goal. The first half against Utah State and most of this game was nothing like the Badgers we expected to see in 2017. The entire team will have to improve quickly because the non-conference schedule ends next week with a road trip to BYU.

Next week’s game at BYU will be at 3:30 PM Eastern Time and can be seen on ESPN. The Badgers will have a bye the following week before starting Big 10 play against Northwestern at home on September 30.

Wisconsin Badgers 2016-17 Football Season Report Card

T.J. Watt had a big 2017 finishing with a double digit sack total. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images North America)

Wisconsin Badgers 2016-17 Football Season Report Card

The Wisconsin Badgers have finished the 2016-17 season with a 24-16 win over the Western Michigan Broncos to end at 11-3 overall. It was another double digit win season for the Badgers as 2016 marked the sixth time in the last 8 years they have won at least 10 games.

We will give a grade to each unit on the team as well as an overall team grade and a grade for head coach Paul Chryst. For a measuring stick, here is the midseason report card and we will include the midseason grade for each unit below. Let’s start with a quick glance at the results of each game for the Badgers.

Wisconsin Results

Week 1 (9/3) – Defeated #5 LSU 16-14 (Green Bay, Wisconsin)

Week 2 (9/10) – Defeated Akron 54-10 (Home)

Week 3 (9/17) – Defeated Georgia State 23-17 (Home)

Week 4 (9/24) – Defeated Michigan State 30-6 (Away)

Week 5 (10/1) – Lost to Michigan 14-7 (Away)

Week 6 (10/8) – Bye

Week 7 (10/15) – Lost to Ohio State 30-23 in 1 OT (Home)

Week 8 (10/22) – Defeated Iowa 17-9 (Away)

Week 9 (10/29) – Defeated Nebraska 23-17 in 1 OT (Home)

Week 10 (11/5) – Defeated Northwestern 21-7 (Away)

Week 11 (11/12) – Defeated Illinois 48-3 (Home)

Week 12 (11/19) – Defeated Purdue 49-20 (Away)

Week 13 (11/26) – Defeated Minnesota 31-17 (Home)

Week 14 (12/3) – Lost to Penn State 38-31 (Big 10 Championship)

Bowl (1/2/17) – Defeated Western Michigan 24-16 (Cotton Bowl)

Head Coach Paul Chryst

Midseason Grade: B+

2016 was not an easy year for Paul Chryst in his second season. He had to juggle two quarterbacks, a new defensive coordinator, and what looked like a daunting schedule. Looking at the entire season, he did well switching between Bart Houston (began the season as the starter) and Alex Hornibrook.

The hire of Justin Wilcox as the defensive coordinator already looks like a steal. The Badgers allowed 13.7 points per game in 2015 and saw that increase only marginally to 15.6. The yardage allowed per game do go up from from 268.5 in 2015 to 301.4 yards per game. Still, the defense played well this year, but Wilcox has departed for the California Golden Bears’ head coaching vacancy. The Badgers will have their third defensive coordinator in three years for the 2017 season.

The schedule before the season looked imposing. They had LSU, Michigan State (away), Michigan (away), Ohio State, Nebraska, and the potential for a Big 10 Championship Game. The Badgers ended up facing 7 teams that were ranked in the top 15 at the time of the game for the 2016-17 and went 4-3 in those games. Granted, some of those teams were far from being top 25 material by season’s end, but the Badgers navigated the season well under Chryst.

Final Grade: B+

Quarterbacks

Midseason Grade: C-

Bart Houston began the season as starter, but was replaced in the Georgia State contest by Hornibrook. After that game, the duo split time behind center though Hornibrook was injured versus Minnesota and subsequently missed the Big 10 Championship game. Many pundits lament the two quarterback system, but these two actually worked pretty well though they were far from game changers.

We noted that on the midseason report card that Hornibrook had looked like the better of the two quarterbacks after five games. By the end of the season it was far more even as Houston gained confidence and was more efficient. Houston finished the year with 1,245 yards (68.1%) with 5 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. After being benched versus Georgia State and not playing the next three games, Houston threw 70 passes and completing 52 of those (74%) for 718 yards with 3 touchdowns and 1 pick.

Hornibrook finished the season with 1,262 yards (58.6%) with 9 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. In the Badgers’ final eight games, he went 52 of 85 (61%) with 4 touchdowns against 1 interception (remember he missed the Big 10 Championship). He has some things to work on like his reads, throwing the ball into coverage, etc., but he has a bright future as long as he continues to improve.

Final Grade: C+

Running Backs

Midseason Grade: B

It is not hard to see how the running game changed over the Badgers’ season. Over the first five games Wisconsin averaged 161.6 yards per game on the ground. In the final 9 games the Badgers averaged 226.1 yards rushing per game. Corey Clement easily led the team in rushing with 1,375 yards (4.4 yards per carry) with 15 touchdowns. In addition, the final 9 games saw Clement have at least 100 yard performances 7 times.

Dare Ogunbowale had a few big games against Nebraska (120 yards and a touchdown) and Illinois (103 yards) to finish with 506 yards (5.6 YPC) and five touchdowns. He also played a big role in the passing game with 24 catches for 208 yards and a touchdown, but it felt like he was a go to receiver on third down for much of the year.

Both Clement and Ogunbowale are seniors, which means that freshman Bradrick Shaw could feature prominently in the future. He had 457 yards and 5 touchdowns on 88 carries (5.2 YPC). He did have some fumble issues, but his strength, power, and quickness could make for a scary sight in the next few seasons. He could be in a backfield with Taiwan Deal (164 yards rushing) and Pittsburgh transfer Chris James (690 yards rushing in two seasons) in 2017.

Wide receiver Jazz Peavy had a big impact in the rushing game as well. He was used almost exclusively on the end around to finish the season with 318 yards rushing and a touchdown on just 21 carries (15.1 YPC). He came up big throughout the season when called upon and he could see a familiar role in 2017.

Final Grade: A-

Wide Receivers

Midseason Grade: B-

As with any run-heavy Badger offense, the wide receivers are not likely to put up big numbers. There were some stars that emerged in Jazz Peavy and Troy Fumagalli. Peavy finished as the leading receiver with 43 catches for 635 yards and 5 touchdowns (along with the aforementioned rushing impact). Fumagalli had 47 catches for 580 yards and 2 touchdowns, but bookended his season with very good performances against LSU (7 catches for 100 yards) and Western Michigan (6 catches for 83 yards and a touchdown). Both players are juniors and if either of them leave for the NFL, that would create a big void in the passing attack.

Ogunbowale was instrumental in the passing game, but he will move on as a senior. Robert Wheelwright caught 34 passes for 448 yards and 1 touchdown, but is a senior. George Rushing had just 12 catches for 136 yards and was spotty throughout the season. With more consistency he could be a possible #2 opposite of Peavy, but he has a ways to go to fill that void.

Three freshmen who saw some playing time in 2016 and worth keeping an eye on in their development were Kyle Penniston (6 catches for 102 yards and 2 touchdowns), Quintez Cephus (135 total offensive yards), and A.J. Taylor (72 total offensive yards).

Final Grade: B-

Offensive Line

Midseason Grade: C+

The offensive line had a slow start this season. Injuries and new quarterbacks hurt them. It took until after the Michigan game for the line to assert itself. The first five games saw the Badgers average just 3.8 yards per carry while that number shot up to 4.6 yards per carry over the final nine games. For the season, the Badgers averaged 4.3 yards per carry, which was better than 2015’s number of 3.8, but still less than the lowest output between 2009 and 2014 of 4.6. Tackle Ryan Ramczyk was named as a first team All-American. Ramczyk will move on to the NFL creating a massive void to refill.

The offensive line had allowed 8 sacks in the first five games, but gave up another 16 the final 9 games to make it 24 on the season. To be fair, the sacks are not always the fault of the line and both Houston and Hornibrook had a tendency to hold on to the ball too long from time to time. In 2015, the Badgers allowed 23 sacks. The offensive line did make good progress over the course of the season particularly in the running game.

Final Grade: B

Overall Offensive Grade

Midseason Grade: C+

There was a clear change in the offense between the Michigan and Ohio State games. It is worth mentioning that between those games was the Wisconsin bye week, which probably allowed them to re-focus the offense. The running game came alive after the bye week while Houston looked more efficient. The Badgers averaged 28.4 points, 382.1 yards, 203.1 rushing yards, and 179.1 passing yards per game. The total yardage was similar to 2015 (378.6 per game), but the emphasis was more on the run (150.3 yards rushing per game), which was not surprising given a new quarterback.

The offense will need to work on being far more efficient in the red zone. They had 58 red zone trips and converted 49 of those into points (84.4%), which ranked 63rd in the country. However, only 37 of those trips resulted in a touchdown (63.8%). This is a big area of improvement for the Badgers in 2017.

Final Grade: B

Defensive Line/Linebackers

Midseason Grade: A+

The linebackers had a great year in 2016 led by the T.J. duo. T.J. Watt led the team in sacks (11.5) and tackles-for-loss (15.5). His partner T.J. Edwards led the team in total tackles with 89 while also recording 3 sacks and 8.5 tackles-for-loss. Jack Cichy was on his way to a stellar year after 7 games before a torn pectoral ruled him out the rest of the season. Cichy recorded 60 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 7.5 tackles-for-loss. Ryan Connelly (59 tackles and 7 TFL), Garret Dooley (40 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and 6.5 TFL), and Vince Biegel (44 tackles, 4 sacks, and 6 TFL) were big contributors to an incredible linebacker group.

Only Biegel is a senior though Watt (a second team All-American) or Edwards could bolt for the NFL after stellar campaigns. Chris Orr will also return after missing 2016 with a torn ACL.

Defensive ends Connor Sheehy and Alec James, both juniors, had similar seasons on the stat line. Sheehy had 27 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and 4 tackles-for-loss while James finished with 23 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and 3.5 tackles-for-loss. Also returning on the defensive line are Chikwe Obasih (31 career starts along with 22 tackles in 2016), and Olive Sagapolu (14 tackles and 1 sack).

The possibility of everyone outside of Biegel returning is tantalizing, but the NFL is a loud call this time of year. Still, the front seven should be a deep and talented group for the Badgers next season.

Final Grade: A+

Defensive Backs

Midseason Grade: A-

One clear area of regression as the season went on was in the secondary. Perhaps the Georgia State game was a sign of things to come for the final few games, particularly the Big 10 Championship. The Panthers were able to put up 269 yards through the air that day and a few other teams had some success as well. Northwestern threw for 277 (they played from behind the whole game), Purdue had going deep, and then Penn State gashed the back four with ease in the second half.

Sojourn Shelton had 4 picks and 12 pass breakups (most on the team) while Leo Musso recorded 74 tackles and 5 interceptions (led the team). Derrick Tindal had 3 picks and 11 pass breakups and Lubern Figaro finished with 7 pass breakups.

Tindall and Figaro will both be seniors in 2017 as will D’Cota Dixon (60 tackles and 4 interceptions) and Natrell Jamerson (mainly a return guy, but he did have 19 tackles and 4 pass breakups). Those four, along with others, will need to step up to replace Shelton and Musso. This group faltered down the stretch and in the pivotal second half of the Big 10 Championship Game versus Penn State. Look out to see if the secondary plays with a chip on their shoulder in the next year after how they finished the season.

Final Grade: B

Overall Defensive Grade

Midseason Grade: A

The defense did play very well for most of the season. The secondary had documented struggles, but they did play well for stretches of the season. The linebackers led the way for this side of the ball and there were some stars we hope return in 2017 to make this another top defense in the nation.

Final Grade: A-

Special Teams Grade

Midseason Grade: B

The loss of Rafael Gaglianone in late September really hurt then, but after seeing the season play out, that is even more evident now. Gaglianone went 7 of 8 on his field goals and was a perfect 10 for 10 on extra points. Andrew Endicott replaced him and from the start was uneasy. He finished the season 13 of 19 with a long of 46 yards. He made 35 of 37 extra points, but even a few of those were barely inside the uprights. Gaglianone will be back in 2017, which will be a boost to the kicking game.

The punting game left some room for improvement. Anthony Lotti averaged 37.7 yards per punt and put 25 punts inside the opponent’s 20 yard line, but he had a few games where he struggled (see the Michigan game). P.J. Rosowski averaged 36.7 yards per punt and also handled kickoff duties. He had 79 kickoffs with 51 touchbacks and just one kick go out of bounds. Lotti was only a freshman in 2016 so he will have a few seasons left as Badgers to get better.

Natrell Jamerson had 12 kick returns for an average of 21.1 yards per return while Dare Ogunbowale had 10 returns for an average of 21.3 yards per return. Jamerson had a long of 39 and Ogunbowale had a long of 41 and neither had a touchdown. Jazz Peavy returned punts for the Badgers and averaged a paltry 5.8 yards per return on 17 returns. The Badgers can afford to work on the return game going into the 2017 season.

Final Grade: C+

Overall Team Grade

Midseason Grade: B+

2016 was a very good year for the Wisconsin Badgers. Expectations were subdued with the loss of Joel Stave, Alex Erickson, Michael Caputo, and Tanner McEvoy among others. A new starting quarterback turned into two new starters at that position and both players handled it well.

The running game got off to a slow start, but turned it on after the bye week. In turn, the quarterbacks performed more efficiently and the team was able to shake off back-to-back losses to Michigan and Ohio State to claim the Big 10 West. The defense had breakout stars in T.J. Watt and T.J. Edwards under new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox while Corey Clement remained healthy to have a solid season.

Overall, it is hard to argue with the results produced by the Badgers. Many (including this author) thought 10 wins were out of the question, but the Badgers did one better than that and won their first Cotton Bowl.

Final Grade: A

2015 College Football Preview: Big 10 West

Corey Clement has big shoes to fill in replacing Melvin Gordon while Wisconsin has been to three of the first four Big 10 Championship Games. (Mike McGinnis/Getty Images North America)
Corey Clement has big shoes to fill in replacing Melvin Gordon while Wisconsin has been to three of the first four Big 10 Championship Games. (Mike McGinnis/Getty Images North America)

2015 College Football Preview: Big 10 West

Part fourteen of Sports Enthusiasts’ 2015 College Football Preview delves into the Big 10’s West Division. There are only three conferences left in the preview series with the Pac-12 and SEC still a few weeks down the road. Below is the schedule of conference previews completed and those still to come.

MAC East Division – July 1

MAC West Division – July 3

Mountain West, Mountain Division – July 7

Mountain West, West Division – July 10

C-USA East Division – July 14

C-USA West Division – July 17

The American East Division – July 21

The American West Division – July 24

FBS Independents – July 28

Sun Belt – July 28

Big 12 – July 31

ACC Coastal Division – August 4

ACC Atlantic Division – August 7

Big 10 West Division – August 11

Big 10 East Division – August 14

Pac-12 North Division – August 18

Pac-12 South Division – August 21

SEC East Division – August 25

SEC West Division – August 28

The Big 10 West Division is broken down below.

1. Wisconsin Badgers

Bret Bielema bolted Wisconsin after the 2012 season to go to Arkansas while Gary Andersen came in for the 2013 and 2014 seasons. He led the Badgers to a 9-4 record in 2013 before a double digit win season in 2014 including a 59-0 destruction at the hands of Ohio State in the Big 10 Championship. He too bolted Madison and went West to Oregon State. Paul Chryst returns to his alma mater where he played quarterback from 1986 to 1988 and was the offensive coordinator from 2005 through 2011. He was also the head coach at Pittsburgh from 2012 t0 2014.

The offense was very good under Andersen where they had nearly identical output over his two years. In 2013, they put up 34.8 points and 481 yards per game and it was 34.6 points and 469 yards in 2014. The offense has five starters back with Joel Stave not having to worry about another QB. Stave threw for 1,350 yards with 9 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Melvin Gordon is gone after his monstrous season with 2,587 yards with 29 touchdowns, but Corey Clement is willing to try and fill the void. Clement had 949 yards and 9 touchdowns rushing while Dare Ogunbowale had 193 yards and a touchdown on only 34 carries. The go to guy last year, Alex Erickson, is back after recording 55 catches for 772 yards and 3 touchdowns. Troy Fumagalli caught 14 passes for 187 yards last year and a second wide receiver will need to develop in 2015. The offensive line also has only two starters returning, but the quarterback numbers should be better with Chryst in charge. The loss of Gordon will hurt, but the offense should be solid even with Chryst coming in.

The defense for Wisconsin is constantly solid. Between 2009 and 2014, the defense has not yielded more than 22 points and 325 yards per game. The defense had only 3 starters back in 2014 and allowed 20.8 points and 294 yards per game. There are six starters back including most of the secondary. Chikwe Obasih had 21 tackles and 1.5 sacks in seven starts. The depth is also better after plaguing them the past two seasons. The linebacker unit has the two outside ‘backers returning in Vince Biegel (56 tackles, 7.5 sacks, and 9 tackles for loss) and Joe Schobert (69 tackles, 3 sacks, 10.5 tackles for loss, and 7 pass breakups). The secondary has three starters back led by Michael Caputo. Caputo was the top tackler last year with 106 stops while also recording 1 sack, 5 tackles for loss, 6 pass breakups, and an interception. Darius Hillary and Sojourn Shelton will be at the cornerback spots, but need to interception more passes after those two failed to record any in 2014. Tanner McEvoy has also moved to safety after splitting time at quarterback and safety in 2014.

Wisconsin opens with a daunting game in Arlington, Texas against Alabama that will surely test them to their highest capability. After that, it is much easier with the trio of Miami (OH), Troy, and Hawaii all coming to Madison. In conference, Wisconsin faces Iowa, Purdue, and Northwestern at home while playing Nebraska, Illinois, and Minnesota on the road. From the East division, the Badgers take on Rutgers (home) and Maryland (road). The Badgers will surely make a bowl game in 2015 and can expect to be the team to beat for the West, but they have their question marks.

2. Northwestern Wildcats

Pat Fitzgerald did something that only Bob Voigts was able to do: win a bowl game. Voigts won the 1949 Rose Bowl while Fitzgerald won the 2012 Gator Bowl after losing the previous four bowl games. Since that 2012 season, Northwestern has not been back to a bowl game after back-to-back 5-7 seasons that have been filled with injuries. 2015 must result in a bowl game for the Wildcats and Fitzgerald.

The offense sputtered last year after putting up 23 points and 353 yards per game despite eight starters back. This year, the offense will have six starters back, but one of them will not be at quarterback. That may not be a bad thing as Trevor Siemian only threw for 2,214 yards with 7 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. Zack Oliver threw for 367 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, but he will be battling with Clayton Thorson and Matt Alviti for the starting job. Justin Jackson is back after a stellar freshman season. Despite only starting five games, Jackson ran for 1,187 yards with 10 touchdowns while also catching 22 passes for 201 yards and a touchdown. There is plenty of talent back at wide receiver with Dan Vitale leading the way. He had 40 catches for 402 yards and 2 touchdowns. Cameron Dickerson (24 catches for 318 yards and a touchdown) and Miles Shuler (23 catches for 190 yards) back as well. The biggest returner is Christian Jones, who had a solid 2013 season with 668 yards, but missed all of 2014. The offensive line has three starters back and the entire offense should be able to perform better this year.

The defense was decent in 2014 with seven starters back, giving up 25.2 points and 384 yards per game. Eight starters are back in 2015, the most for Fitzgerald since 2009 (gave up 24.5 points and 350 yards per game). The entire defensive line is back led by Dean Lowry, who had 41 tackles, 4 sacks, 4 tackles for loss, and 8 pass breakups. The linebacking unit is the worry for Northwestern with only Anthony Walker returning (51 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 7.5 tackles for loss, and 2 interceptions). The secondary is another strength with three starters back. Traveon Henry had 73 tackles (#2 on team) and 2.5 tackles for loss while Matthew Harris had 70 tackles (#3 on team), 3.5 tackles for loss, 7 pass breakups, and 2 interceptions. The defense should be solid once again for Northwestern and should improve on the numbers the allowed last season.

Northwestern does not have an easy start to the season with Stanford coming to town followed by Eastern Illinois. A road trip against Duke comes before their final non-conference game against Ball State at home. In conference, the Wildcats will face Minnesota, Iowa, and Purdue at home while taking on Nebraska and Wisconsin on the road. They also face Illinois in Chicago on the final weekend in November. From the East, they will have the pleasure of facing Michigan (road) and Penn State (home) in two tough games. All around, Northwestern should be better in 2015 and could have a chance to take the division with a win over Wisconsin (Nov. 21).

3. Nebraska Cornhuskers

Nebraska was led by Bo Pelini starting in 2008 and going through 2014. During that time, Pelini led Nebraska to at least 9 wins each year including three 10 win seasons. Pelini, however, did not make a BCS or Group of Five bowl in that time and was let go after the 2014 season. Mike Riley comes over from Oregon State after 15 years there and only once led the Beavers to at least 10 wins (2006).

The offense has six starters back from a group that put up 37.8 points and 452 yards of offense per game. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong threw for 2,695 yards with 22 touchdowns and 12 interceptions while also rushing for 705 yards and 6 touchdowns as the teams second leading rusher. Ameer Abdullah will not be back, which leaves Imani Cross (384 yards and 5 touchdowns) and Terrell Newby (297 yards and 5 touchdowns) as the top returning running backs. Nearly all of the receivers return led by Jordan Westerkamp (44 catches for 747 yards and 5 touchdowns) and De’Mornay Pierson-El (23 catches for 321 yards and 4 touchdowns). The offensive line has two starters back at the tackles. The offense will probably not put up the same numbers as they did last year with a new coach and new schemes.

The defense has six starters back from a unit that allowed 26.4 points and 384 yards per game. Three starters are back on the defensive line that gave up 178 yards and 4.7 yards per carry last year. Greg McMullen (4 sacks, 5 tackles for loss, and 4 pass breakups), Maliek Collins (45 tackles, 4.5 sacks, and 9.5 tackles for loss), and Vincent Valentine (45 tackles, 3 sacks, 4 tackles for loss, and 2 pass breakups) are the returners. David Santos is the lone returning linebacker after recording 50 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, and 1 interception. The secondary has two starters back led by Nathan Gerry (#1 tackler), who had 88 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 6.5 tackles for loss, 4 pass breakups, and 5 interceptions en route to making the 2nd Team Big 10 squad. There may be some growing pains in 2015, but the numbers should not fluctuate too much.

Nebraska opens with BYU and South Alabama at home before traveling to face Miami (FL) on the road and getting Southern Miss at home. The Cornhuskers face Illinois, Minnesota, and Purdue on the road while playing Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Iowa at home. From the East, Nebraska will take on Michigan State (home) and Rutgers (road). Nebraska should be in a bowl game in 2015 and could even make the Big 10 Championship Game with a few stumbles and surprises.

4. Illinois Fighting Illini

Ron Zook was in charge of Illinois from 2005 through 2011 and led the Illini to three bowl games including the 2007 Rose Bowl. Zook was let go before the 2011 bowl game that Illinois won 20-14 over UCLA. Tim Beckman came in starting with the 2012 season and went 2-10 followed by a 4-8 record in 2013. The Illini had to make a bowl game in 2014 for Beckman to keep his job and they did, but lost to Louisiana Tech 35-18. 2015 is another chance for Illinois to make a bowl game.

The offense put up 25.9 points and 367 yards per game in 2014 with Wes Lunt taking over at quarterback. Lunt had injury issues throughout the season while finishing with 1,763 with 14 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. Josh Ferguson is returning at running back after a sub par year with only 735 yards and 8 touchdowns. Ferguson also was the team’s third leading receiver with 50 catches for 427 yards and 2 touchdowns. Mike Dudek led the team in receiving as a freshman in 2014 with 76 catches for 1,038 yards and 6 touchdowns, but tore his ACL in April. He status for 2015 is still up in the air. Geronimo Allison (41 catches for 598 yards and 5 touchdowns), Malik Turner (25 catches for 256 yards and a touchdown), and Justin Hardee (19 catches for 240 yards and a touchdown) all return in case Dudek is unable to go. Three starters are back on the offensive line to bring the total up to eight for the offense. A healthy Lunt will mean higher numbers for the Illini offense even if Dudek is out for the year.

Defense has been an issue for Illinois under Beckman, as the unit has not allowed less than 32 points per game in his tenure. Last year, the defense gave up 34 points and 456 yards per game with seven starters back. That same number is back this year with Jihad Ward and Rob Bain back on the line. Ward had 51 tackles, 3 sacks, and 5.5 tackles for loss last year. Two linebackers return in Mason Monheim and TJ Neal, which is good news for Illinois. Monheim had 111 tackles (#1 on team), 1 sack, 5.5 tackles for loss, and 2 interceptions while Neal had 98 tackles (#4 on team) and 6.5 tackles for loss. The secondary has three starters back including Taylor Barton, who had 100 tackles (#3 on team). V’Angelo Bentley is back in the secondary as well, but he will also be utilized in the return game. The defense should improve in 2015 with seven starters back.

Illinois opens with home games against Kent State and Western Illinois before traveling to face North Carolina on the road. They close out the non-conference portion of their schedule against Middle Tennessee at home. Within their division, Illinois will play Nebraska and Wisconsin at home while facing Northwestern in Chicago. They also play Iowa, Purdue, and Minnesota on the road. From the East, the Illini play Penn State (road) and Ohio State (home), which is a tough draw. There is enough offense and defense on this Illinois squad to make a second straight bowl game under Beckman.

5. Iowa Hawkeyes

Kirk Ferentz is entering his 17th season at Iowa. In that time, Iowa has 11 winning season and four season with at least 10 wins. Since going 11-2 in 2009, however, Iowa has not reached that success with their best recording being 8-5 in both 2010 and 2013. The pressure may be on Ferentz to get Iowa back to double digit wins sooner rather than later.

The offense will return five starters from a group that put up 28.2 points and 400 yards per game. CJ Beathard is taking over at quarterback for the now transferred Jake Rudock (went to Michigan). Beathard threw for 645 yards with 5 touchdowns and 2 interceptions while also not having Mark Weisman (812 yards and 16 touchdowns). Jordan Canzeri (494 yards), Akrum Wadley (186 yards and a touchdown), Jonathan Parker (141 yards and a touchdown), LeShun Daniels (49 yards and a touchdown), and CJ Hilliard will all see some looks at the running back spot. Tevaun Smith (43 catches for 596 yards and 3 touchdowns), Jake Duzey (36 catches for 392 yards and 3 touchdowns), and Matt VandeBerg (14 catches for 256 yards and 1 touchdown) are back. The line has three starters back while the offense could put up similar numbers in 2015 as they did last year.

Last year’s defense was not as effective as an Iowa defense usually is. They gave up 25.6 points and 344 yards per game with only five starters back. The number of starters returning increases by two, to seven, which is good news. Drew Ott (57 tackles, 8 sacks, 4 tackles for loss, and an interception) and Nate Meier (57 tackles, 2 sacks, and 4 tackles for loss) are back to anchor the defensive end positions. Bo Bower and Josey Jewell are the two starters returning at linebacker while the secondary has three starters back. Jordan Lomax will be at one of the safety spots after recording 92 tackles, 6 pass breakups, and an interception last year. 2015 should see Iowa’s defense improve.

Iowa opens the season against Illinois State at home before facing in-state rival Iowa State on the road. The non-conference schedule ends with Pittsburgh and North Texas both coming to Iowa City. Iowa will face Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Nebraska on the road while playing Illinois, Minnesota, and Purdue at home. From the East, Iowa has Maryland (home) and Indiana (road) in two winnable games. Iowa should be back in a bowl game this year, but will that be enough to keep Ferentz around another year?

6. Purdue Boilermakers

Darrell Hazell came in from Kent State in 2013 and had a rough first year. The Boilermakers went 1-11 with their lone win against FCS Indiana State in a game they only won 20-14. The offense (14.9 points and 345 yards per game) and defense (38 points and 460 yards allowed per game) were dreadful. 2014 was a very good step in the right direction with a 3-9 record and 2015 should continue that trend.

The offense in 2014 had 8 starters back and shot up to 23.8 points and 345 yards per game. There are eight starters back again in 2015 with the quarterback position in the air between freshmen David Blough and Elijah Sindelar and Austin Appleby (1,449 yards with 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions). Running back is not settled with DJ Knox, Keyante Green (199 yards), David Yancey, and Markell Jones all having a chance to win the top duties. Danny Anthrop is back as the top wide receiver after grabbing 38 passes for 616 yards and 4 touchdowns. The offensive line has all the starters back, which is great news for whoever wins the quarterback and running back battles. The offense should be better in 2015 with even better numbers than last year.

The defense was awful in 2013 by giving up 38 points and 460 yards per game. Year two was better with the defense allowing 31.7 points and 416 yards per game. Seven starters return in 2015 including the second through fifth top tacklers from last year. Ryan Watson (17 tackles, 4 sacks, 1.5 tackes for loss) and Jake Replogle (40 tackles, 3 sacks, and 7.5 tackles for loss) return on the line that improved from 235 rushing yards allowed per game in 2013 to 192 yards per game in 2014. That number should drop in 2015. The strength of the defense is at linebacker with the top three starters back. Ja’Whaun Bentley (76 tackles; #2 on team), Jimmy Herman (56 tackles, #4 on team), and Danny Ezechukwu (43 tackles; #8 on team) all back after starting last year. The secondary has three starters back led by Anthony Brown and Frankie Williams at the corner spots. Like the offense, the defense should improve in year three of Hazell’s tenure.

Purdue opens the season on the road at Marshall in a tough game before facing Indiana State, Virginia Tech, and Bowling Green at home. In their division, Purdue will play Minnesota, Nebraska, and Illinois at home while facing Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Iowa on the road. From the East, they will have to play Michigan State (road) and Indiana (home). Purdue is going in the right direction and will probably need two upsets to reach a bowl game.

7. Minnesota Golden Gophers

Jerry Kill has been at Minnesota since 2011 and has made them into a gritty team that is not easy to defeat. After going 3-9 in his first year, the team improved to 6-7 in 2012 and lost by a field goal, 34-31, to Texas Tech in the bowl game. 2013 saw them finish 8-5 and they did the same in 2014 as they had a chance to win the Big 10 West in the final week against Wisconsin. 2015 will be an interesting test for Minnesota and Kill.

The offense for Minnesota is run-based and will have five starters back in 2015. Mitch Leidner threw for 1,798 yards with 11 touchdowns and 8 interceptions while rushing for 452 yards and 10 touchdowns. Backup Chris Streveler ran for 235 yards and 1 touchdown as well. David Cobb has exited after rushing for 1,626 yards and 13 touchdowns leaving a big void at running back. Berkley Edwards (140 yards and 2 touchdowns) and Rodrick Williams (114 yards and 3 touchdowns) will be vying to start at running back. Top target Maxx Williams (36 catches for 569 yards and 8 touchdowns) is gone as well, leaving KJ Maye as the top wide receiver. Maye had 16 catches for 298 yards and a touchdown as the #2 receiver. The offensive line has three starters back, but it will probably be tough for the Gophers to match last year’s production of 28.4 points and 357 yards per game with Cobb and Williams gone.

The defense has been solid for Minnesota the last three years. In 2014, the defense gave up 24.2 points and 368 yards per game and returns seven starters from that group. Theiren Cockran (23 tackles, 4 sacks, and 3 tackles for loss) and Steven Richardson (23 tackles, 2 sacks, and 4 tackles for loss) will be teaming up with the Ekpe brothers of Scott and Hendrick. De’Vondre Campbell (75 tackles, 2.5sacks, 4 tackles for loss, and an interception) and Jack Lynn (57 tackles, 1 sack, and 6 tackles for loss) will be the returning linebackers. In the secondary, three starters are back led by Eric Murray at corner. Murray had 69 tackles, 7 pass breakups, and an interception last year. The defense should be solid once again for Minnesota.

Minnesota opens with TCU at home before facing Colorado State on the road. Kent State and Ohio both travel to Minneapolis to close out the non-conference slate. In division, Minnesota will play Northwestern, Purdue, and Iowa on the road while taking on Nebraska, Illinois, and Wisconsin at home. From the East, Minnesota draws Michigan (home) and Ohio State (road). It will be a challenging year for Minnesota if the offense sputters and will need a couple of upsets to make a bowl game, but they are more than capable of getting those upsets.

Overview

The Big 10’s West division is quite the conundrum with every team having questions. Wisconsin has a new coach and lost a star in Melvin Gordon while Northwestern has some offensive worries. Nebraska is in the same boat as Wisconsin with a new coach and lost Ameer Abdullah. Illinois has worries on defense while Iowa is constantly underachieving. Purdue is still learning Hazell’s system and Minnesota lost a lot of offensive production in David Cobb and Maxx Williams.

We will go with Wisconsin to win the division, but Northwestern or Nebraska could also finish on top. Illinois is likely to make noise with a more veteran team along with Iowa. Purdue and Minnesota will both be close to bowl eligibility and could easily finish higher than predicted, especially the Gophers. Below is the predicted order of finish.

1. Wisconsin

2. Northwestern

3. Nebraska

4. Illinois

5. Iowa

6. Purdue

7. Minnesota

Check back on Friday for a preview of the Big 10 East Division as well as a look at the Big 10 Championship Game prediction.