Wisconsin State Journal reporter Jim Polzin breaks down the matchup between the Wisconsin Badgers and South Florida Bulls in their season opener Friday night at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.
WHEN THE BADGERS HAVE THE BALL
UW junior tailback Jonathan Taylor (above) has rushed for at least 100 yards in 22 of his 27 career games, going over the 200-yard mark eight times. He’s operating behind an offensive line that returns only one starter, junior center Tyler Biadasz, though left tackle Cole Van Lanen, left guard Jason Erdmann and right tackle Logan Bruss have plenty of reps under their belts.
Taylor might have a field day if South Florida’s run defense picks up where it ended the 2018 season. Four teams produced 300-plus rushing yards against South Florida. Only three projected starters on the South Florida defense weigh more than 245 pounds, so UW should be able to use bulk to its advantage.
EDGE | UW
KEY STAT | RUSHING OFFENSE
Led by Taylor, the Badgers ranked sixth nationally with 273.4 rushing yards per game. South Florida, meanwhile, ranked 122nd of 129 teams nationally with 247.8 rushing yards allowed per game.
WHEN THE BULLS HAVE THE BALL
The Badgers’ projected starting lineup on defense includes six sophomores and a redshirt freshman. That group will try to bounce back from a subpar performance in 2018. It starts with doing a better job of stopping the run: UW’s 155.1 rushing yards allowed per game last season were its most since allowing 160.4 per game in 2007.
South Florida has a running threat in senior Jordan Cronkrite (above), who rushed for 1,121 yards last season. It also has a talented passer in senior Blake Barnett, who threw for 2,710 yards last season. New coordinator Kerwin Bell has a history of using three- and four-receiver sets to spread out defenses, so UW may spend a lot of time in its nickel package.
EDGE | SOUTH FLORIDA
KEY STAT | SACKS
The Badgers finished with only 19 sacks in 2018, and 13½ of those were by seniors. Zack Baun is UW’s returning leader in that category with 2½. South Florida allowed 21 sacks during a six-game losing streak to end last season.
UW needs major improvement in this area in 2019. Rafael Gaglianone battled injuries as a senior and went 10 of 17 on field goals, by far his worst campaign as a four-year starter. Former Monona Grove kicker Collin Larsh will take over after winning the job in camp. While senior Zach Hintze lost out to Larsh, he will continue to be a threat on kickoffs. Another talking point for the Badgers during the offseason was getting more out of the return game, where junior Jack Dunn handles punts and sophomore Aron Cruickshank (above) handles kickoffs.
Junior Coby Weiss went 15 of 18 on field goals last season for South Florida, but his longest conversion was from 38 yards.
EDGE | UW
South Florida won 17 of its first 19 games under Charlie Strong before losing six in a row to end the 2018 season. Strong responded to that collapse by making staff changes on both sides of the ball.
UW coach Paul Chryst (above) is 42-12 since returning to his alma mater. Five of those defeats came over the final 10 games of the 2018 regular season, though the Badgers rebounded with an emphatic win over Miami (Fla.) in the Pinstripe Bowl.
EDGE | UW
Strong made it known recently that he’s hoping for a steamy night in Tampa. The forecast from weather.com calls for a high of 90 degrees with 79 percent humidity and a chance of thunderstorms. The UW staff has stressed to players the importance of staying hydrated throughout the week. Still, this will be relatively new territory for a program that hasn’t played a regular-season game in Florida in more than 30 years. The last time? A 23-3 loss at Miami (Fla.) on Sept. 24, 1988.
STATE JOURNAL PREDICTION
South Florida will do everything it can to stop Taylor, so UW will need something from junior quarterback Jack Coan (above) in the passing game to open things up for the offense. The Bulls have plenty of playmakers, but they’ll have trouble holding up physically to the Badgers.