— By Tamira Madsen, The Sports Xchange —
MADISON, Wis. — Western Kentucky coach Mike Sanford Jr. said he isn’t expecting any surprises on offense from No. 4 Wisconsin in the season opener for both teams at Camp Randall Stadium on Friday night.
Wisconsin needs no surprises.
Not only do the Badgers return quarterback Alex Hornibrook and all five starters on their offensive line, but sophomore running back Jonathan Taylor starts the season as a top candidate for the Heisman Trophy.
“Our running back and the run game have always had a lot of focus put on it by opponents,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. “That hasn’t changed. If you’re going to play us, you know that we’re going to run the football, and we’ll always get a lot of attention out of that.”
Taylor, who earned All-American honors as a true freshman, rushed for 1,977 yards and 13 touchdowns last season, finishing sixth in Heisman voting.
“We know that their calling card is always going to be to run the football, so we’ve got to prepare to tackle Taylor with 11 guys,” Sanford told the Bowling Green Daily News. “We’ve got to swarm to the football.
“Their two tackles might be the best in college football and to return their core three inside — those three are really, really good.”
Three of five offensive linemen earned All-America honors last season — redshirt seniors Michael Deiter (left guard) and Beau Benzschawel (right guard), and redshirt junior David Edwards (right tackle). Deiter played at left tackle in 2017, but junior Jon Dietzen likely takes over there. Sophomore center Tyler Biadasz is a rising star.
They’ll be tasked to protect Hornibrook, a junior who threw for 2,644 yards and 25 touchdowns to lead Wisconsin to a 13-1 record in 2017. He was intercepted 14 times, and cleaning that up is an area of focus for this season.
One potential problem for the opener is the absence of Wisconsin’s top two receivers.
Junior wide receiver Quintez Cephus has been suspended indefinitely and faces two charges of sexual assault, stemming from an April 22 incident at his apartment. Cephus faces one felony charge of second-degree sexual assault of an intoxicated victim and a second felony charge of third-degree sexual assault.
Sophomore wideout Danny Davis, who is Cephus’ roommate and was at the apartment during the incident, was suspended for two games by Chryst.
The pair combined for 60 catches, 919 yards and 11 touchdowns during the 2017 season. Cephus broke his right leg on Nov. 4, had surgery and missed the final five games of the season.
“Even without the two wide receivers, Davis and Cephus … it’s a loss for them, but the next guys up they’ll be able to get down the field as well,” Sanford said.
Wisconsin’s defense also presents serious challenges, led by senior safety D’Cota Dixon, a third-year starter, and senior inside linebacker T.J. Edwards, a 2017 All-American and a four-year starter.
Badgers senior nose tackle Olive Sagapolu, a formidable player known for his athleticism at 6-foot-2 and 342 pounds, typically drew double teams last season.
The Badgers finished second nationally in total defense (262.1 yards per game) and ranked third in scoring defense (13.9 points per game) and rushing defense (98.4 ypg).
Although Western Kentucky posted a 6-7 overall record in 2017 during Sanford’s first season at the helm, Chryst said he respects the team, which finished 4-4 in Conference USA last season.
“They play extremely hard and (we) know a lot of those coaches,” Chryst said. “We have a ton of respect for those coaches. When we show the tape to our players, they see good football players. It’s a good team.”
Last week in practice, the Hilltoppers worked on third-down simulations and piped in loud music and crowd noise to mimic what to expect at Camp Randall. Communication among quarterbacks and the O-line also was a focus.
Hilltoppers redshirt senior Drew Eckels and redshirt freshman Davis Shanley will vie for playing time at quarterback, with the departure of standout Mike White. Eckels has played in 16 career games at Western Kentucky.
“Both those guys will tell us what they love both in the pass game and the run game, and I’m looking forward to watching them play,” Sanford said.
Redshirt senior defensive back DeAndre Farris is one player the Badgers will need to keep an eye on. Farris, a Conference USA honorable mention player in 2017, had 14 pass breakups as a junior, and recorded 54 tackles (39 solo, 15 assists).
A Hilltopper to watch on offense is redshirt senior tight end Mik’Quan Deane, who had 11 receptions for 143 yards and one touchdown last season.