An offense hyped as potentially one of the best in University of Wisconsin history needed to work out some kinks in Game 1 against Western Kentucky on Friday night.
The passing game became erratic at times, Jonathan Taylor’s big gains were a bit scarce considering the level of competition and the Badgers were discovering ways to succeed without key players like Zander Neuville, Danny Davis and Quintez Cephus.
One of the unit’s few new faces may have performed as well as anyone, though. Left tackle Cole Van Lanen didn’t start Friday, but he played the entire second half and looked like he belonged with the veteran, All-American linemen beside him.
After rotating throughout the first half, Van Lanen actually replaced Jon Dietzen during a timeout in the middle of UW’s final first-half drive, something I didn’t notice live. Dietzen didn’t see a single snap after that. He called himself “in-season healthy” after the game, but the Badgers at the very least are still limiting the junior’s workload. They may need Van Lanen to play a major role regardless this season, but if he continues performing as well as he did Friday, the sophomore could make the position his before too long.
He showed impressive strength and quickness in the run game, as shown in the two videos below. In the first, he drives the defensive end away from where the run’s intended to go before pancaking him a few yards downfield. In the second, he jumps out of his stance fast enough to, with the help of a slight chip from Michael Deiter, get inside leverage on the defensive tackle before delivering a powerful punch that knocks him to the turf.
Van Lanen shined even more in protection, though. He allowed no pressures in 19 pass protection snaps, per Pro Football Focus, and stifled any defender thrown his way when matched up one-on-one.
Even when it looked like someone may have a step on him, Van Lanen managed to win the battle. Hilltoppers defensive end DeAngelo Malone, quick for the position at 230 pounds, makes an inside move here, but Van Lanen’s able to clear him out of the way and reestablish a clean pocket for quarterback Alex Hornibrook.
On the Badgers’ next drive, Malone baits him into initially shuffling his feet inside, but Van Lanen’s still able to stay with Malone and push him up field. Hornibrook’s given time to find Jack Dunn for a third-and-13 conversion, and UW went on to score a touchdown before the half.
Van Lanen still hasn’t started a game for UW and saw his first extended playing time Friday. There will be some mistakes as he continues developing, but Van Lanen’s athletic enough to make up for a lot of them.
In another third-down video below, Van Lanen’s a little late noticing a defensive line stunt (which really may have been improvisation on the defensive tackle’s part), but watch how quickly he’s able to turn his hips and make up ground.
I don’t want to overreact to one game against inferior competition, but there’s good reason why Van Lanen was a U.S. Army All-American coming out of Bay Port High. If he ultimately earns or is forced into the large majority of snaps at left tackle, his third year with the Badgers could be a big one.
— While we’re on the topic of pass pro, I didn’t expect Garrett Groshek to dominate passing-down snaps at running back ahead of Chris James.
Groshek played 23 snaps to James’ five, per PFF. The Badgers, however, only kept Groshek in to protect four times, a couple of which did not go well. Most probably noticed his part in giving up a first-quarter sack, but he could have surrendered another on the third play of the game if Hornibrook hadn’t gotten the ball out quickly.
Groshek showed last year he’s capable in pass protection, and Friday’s shortcomings were a small sample size. He could have passed up James and simply suffered a couple bad plays in the season’s first game. It’s also possible the Badgers still prefer James in protection but Groshek as a pass catcher. Groshek did, after all, score on an impressive 43-yard screen pass.
The Badgers may have felt they didn’t need a back to help in protection very often Friday, especially since Western Kentucky only blitzed three times on third down. This is something to watch over the next few weeks.
— UW used just three defensive linemen Friday until David Pfaff entered for two snaps with 9:43 left in the third quarter. Other than that short stint for Pfaff, no reserves saw action until the fourth quarter.
Nose tackle Olive Sagapolu played every snap in the first half, 20 of them in a nickel package, and didn’t miss a play until six minutes remained in the third quarter.
Needless to say, it’s probably a good time for defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk, who’s been cleared to play this week against New Mexico, to make his return.
I thought starting defensive ends Matt Henningsen and Kayden Lyles both played relatively well, but Loudermilk should be a game-changing upgrade when he’s at full strength and provide some desperately-needed depth that doesn’t appear to be there at the moment.
— The Badgers gave Jake Ferguson 51 snaps Friday — two more than Kyle Penniston and more than any offensive player besides Hornibrook and four offensive linemen.
Ferguson made the most of them.
The redshirt freshman’s success in the passing game came as no surprise, as he put his receiving skills on display the entire offseason. Not only does he have natural pass-catching ability, but he runs crisp routes, uses his 6-foot-5 frame well against smaller defenders and knows how to use his hands and quickness to get a clean release at the line of scrimmage (see below).
While Ferguson didn’t get the ball thrown his way there, the linebacker had no chance of staying with him. He’ll be a matchup problem for years to come.
The most encouraging part of Ferguson’s game Friday, though, came from his blocking. The Madison Memorial graduate played receiver in high school and didn’t need to block too often, so he’s been a work in progress in that area since arriving on campus last year.
His size and athleticism give him a high ceiling to work towards, though, and he already looked competent in his first career game. Many have probably already seen Ferguson’s big block downfield on Jonathan Taylor’s 47-yard touchdown run in the first quarter Friday. He starts that play as the far man in a tight end trips formation to the opposite side of the run, and he also needs to tiptoe past a backward-moving David Edwards. Still, he’s able to accelerate through the hole just in front of Taylor and make the block 8 yards downfield.
I should note that Penniston makes a key block here as well, and UW wasn’t afraid to use him a lot in the running game with Zander Neuville out.
The consistency’s not quite there yet for Ferguson. In the video below, where he’s lined up off the line on the far side, he looks confused about who he should block, and the man he leaves tackles Taylor for a loss.
All in all, though, Ferguson’s debut couldn’t have been much more encouraging. It’ll be interesting to see if Neuville’s return alters his snap count, but Ferguson appears to be the clear first choice at tight end in the passing game.
— The Badgers predictably kept things pretty vanilla on defense for their first game, but Jim Leonhard called one of my favorite blitz packages on a couple occasions.
From a nickel package, the Badgers drop both outside linebackers and send both inside linebackers on a blitz. Before the line of scrimmage, one inside backer darts behind the other. The interior linemen are already a bit thrown by handing off the two defensive linemen for oncoming linebackers, and seeing those two linebackers switch places at the last second gives them no time to react.
The second occasion may have also resulted in a sack if Griffin Grady hadn’t been severely held.
I’m a big fan of pressures that can create chaos with only four rushers. Western Kentucky even had six blocking four the second time around but couldn’t contain the rush.
Here are a few more things we noticed when re-watching Friday night’s game:
— By my count, Western Kentucky put eight-plus men in the box on more than 65 percent of UW’s offensive snaps and nine-plus on more than 30 percent of the Badgers’ plays.
— Per PFF, the Hilltoppers targeted cornerback Caesar Williams seven times but he allowed just two catches for 17 yards. One of those came on a 6-yard stop route when Williams began the play 9 yards deep.