COMMENTARY – Can the 2013 BYU Cougars beat another BCS-caliber team this season? To most college football enthusiasts nationally, including Vegas oddsmakers, the answer is no. Vegas has BYU as a 7.5-point underdog this week vs. the 21st-ranked Wisconsin Badgers. The question of beating another BSC opponent will be answered and set in stone Saturday at 1:30 p.m. on ESPN. Until then, we can only take a close look at these two solid programs and do mild comparisons of the teams.
Both teams lost two games early in the season and those games could have gone either direction for both programs. These two teams have only met one other time and it was in 1980, where BYU beat Wisconsin 28-3 in Madison.
This week, the Cougars are faced with a huge task as they go into Wisconsin’s famed Camp Randall Stadium to try and get another win over the Badgers after a 33-year delay in a rematch. This giant task even looks bigger when you see that the Badgers have won 28 consecutive games at home vs. non-conference opponents. BYU can break some streaks and perhaps change certain mind sets about both programs with a win. But this potential victory will not come easy, by any stretch of the imagination.
For instance, Wisconsin’s new head coach, Gary Andersen, knows BYU like the back of his hand. For those who don’t remember, Andersen is the former Utah State head coach and was also the University of Utah defensive coordinator for a number of years. This will be Andersen’s 1oth-straight season playing against BYU.
During his time as the DC at Utah, the Utes went 6-5 playing the Cougars. He was quoted this week saying, “It’s amazing, they follow me everywhere I go,” in regards to playing BYU this week. I personally think he would have just liked a break from a team that he knows can beat anyone on any day. On the other hand, I also know he would like redemption over last year’s 6-3 heartbreaking loss in the Utah State-BYU game.
Andersen knows BYU, not just from the defensive side of the ball, but as head coach, too. He had a 1-3 record playing BYU as the head coach of Utah State. But, while some of the players for BYU have changed, Andersen was given a whole new talent level and program as the Wisconsin head coach. There will be no surprises as he gets his athletic team ready to play against the Cougars. His game plan and preparation will include strategies that have helped him previously have good success vs. Bronco Mendenhall and the Cougars. Most coaches don’t change their style, but the player personnel certainly does. I like the idea of these two great coaches battling it out with teams that are so different, but yet so so similar. Mendenhall and Andersen have both made their names on the defensive side of the ball.
Wisconsin is coming off a big win over Iowa and is now 6-2 overall and 4-1 in the Big Ten conference. BYU is coming off a bye after a huge win over Boise State. The Badgers have won three straight Big Ten titles, but are far from perfect this season with losses to both Arizona State and Ohio State by a combined 9 points. BYU has two losses by a combined 10 points. The Badgers did not have any problem beating teams like Massachusetts, Illinois, Iowa and Purdue so far this season, with an average margin of victory of about five touchdowns.
The Badgers’ two close losses have kept them out of the BSC rankings until this week, where they moved into the mix. Now, If BYU wins, we will be able to say the exact same thing for the Cougars by Monday morning. This would be a huge statement game if BYU can go into their Camp Randall and escape healthy and with a win. This potential win would propel them back into the Top 25, as well as opening even more eyes to the success of this program from Provo. It would also show up at a perfect time as college coaches are currently making huge recruiting pushes toward high school players. A little national attention can hurt, as long as BYU shows up and competes like they have all season, especially when it comes to trying to convince the best high school players in the country to look at their program.
Anderson is asking his fans to help out their sixth-ranked defense while it faces BYU, a team that is high tempo and QB driven. “Our crowd can do a lot, and I know they will, to hamper BYU playing as fast as they want,” he said. UW will need both the crowd and tough defense to show up as it tries to keep the pace of Taysom Hill and the Cougars’ now balanced offense.
The Badgers have averaged holding teams to 15 points a game. Chris Borland is, by far, the Badgers stats leader on defense with 57 total tackles and two sacks. He is to the Badgers what Kyle Van Noy is to the Cougars. They both on the watch list for virtually every award in NCAA defensive football. Borland is expected to be back after missing most of last week’s game with a hamstring injury. Wisconsin’s defense does not give up easy touchdowns and has two shutouts so far this season. And their biggest strength is stopping the run (fifth nationally), so it should be an intriguing battle with Hill and Jamaal Williams running against the tough Badgers rush defense.
Starting at QB for the Badgers is Joel Stave, who has passed for 15 TDs and is averaging 203.8 yards per game in passing. He has a very high career average for all passing statistics and makes very few errors. Mendenhall’s defense will need to find a way to get into his face and keep pressure on him in the passing game. If they can keep Stave from hitting his favorite receiver, Jar Abbrederis, it could limit UW to a ground attack only. Abbrederis is by far the first target and leads the team with six receiving TDs and is averaging 97.8 yards per game. I am sure that Wisconsin’s great ground game will score, regardless of the defensive game plan by Bronco and staff, so eliminating the passing game will be huge. To do that, the Cougars must blitz not give Stave time to throw the ball. This, in turn, will put more defensive players in the box, helping to stop the run. Wisconsin could thrive off the defense putting nine players in the box by throwing balls over their heads. So it is critical that BYU get in Stave’s face, hopefully causing inaccurate throws.
Ultimately, the winner of this game may end up being the team that runs the ball better. These two squads have some of the best statistical running games in NCAA football this season. Williams currently averages 104.7 yards per game rushing. Hill is averaging 105.1. For the Badgers, running back Melvin Gordon (who is on the Doak Walker watch list for the best running back in the nation) and James White are both putting up very impressive numbers. Gordon, who has 1,074 rushing yards this season, is averaging a whopping 8.7 yards per carry and is at 134.2 yards a game. Gordon has scored 11 TDs, while White is not far behind, averaging 100.5 yards per game with 9 TDs. Gordon is thought by many to be the best running back in the country, but White is not far behind him with 1012 all-purpose yards. This duel threat combo that BYU is about to face will be the toughest test for the front seven of BYU since I can remember. The Cougars must find a way to keep the reigns on these very talented players if they want to win.
Wisconsin has a fairly easy schedule remaining after the BYU game and many experts the Badgers will win the rest of their games and be awarded a BCS bowl game this season. This, to me, is a challenge and BYU’s program has another opportunity to prove it belongs on the field with any team from any conference.
Also, it would be a sweet victory just for the fact that the Cougars could of keep another giant BCS program out of a BSC bowl game this season. The Cougars will not go to a BCS bowl game, even if they win out this season. But it is their chance to play another BCS-quality team and prove they belong among the Top 25 elite teams.
If the Cougars play a sound game and do not turn the ball over, I see them winning. If BYU turns the ball over, they will fall short in a game of inches. This is set up to be the battle of the year for BYU.
Let’s hope the bye week helped get the Cougars ready.
Scott Young is a sports columnist. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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