September 5, 2009

What to watch for in season opener

MADISON, Wis. - With kickoff to the 2009 season only hours away, there are several areas where the Wisconsin football team has to be sound at. Northern Illinois is coming off a bowl game and seems to be a program on the up-tick in the MAC conference.

The Badgers are favored in this game and shut the lights off at Camp Randall with a win in hand. But, as we all know, that's why they play the game. Here are a few trends worth watching during Saturday's opener.

1.) Dual-Quarterback system:

It is not a trend that the Wisconsin football team is well versed in. So, like everyone watching at the game or on television, there will likely be some mystery as to when the coaching staff decides to sub Curt Phillips in for Scott Tolzien.

Obviously the coaching staff has a plan, but a lot of times, the game will dictate the way the coaching staff goes about deciding who gets to play and when.

"Obviously you have got to be smart about what's going on around you," UW head coach Bret Bielema said. "Paul Chryst and I have had discussions going back almost a week and a half ago and had another one this morning (Thursday) about what our plan is and how it will come about.

"But also some indicators when that would vary. Our goal would be to get him (Phillips) in during the first quarter."

Phillips possesses great speed and great field vision as a runner. He is dynamic and has an adequate arm that can hit a receiver. However, when the lane is crowded or with the pocket breaking down, Phillips sometimes makes poor decisions that come back to haunt him.

Tolzien on the other hand is simply steady. He isn't flashy like Phillips and doesn't possess great speed, but he manages the game well and is able to deliver the ball in a way that allows the receiver to make a play.

How the coaches will split reps will be one of the more interesting developments in this game.

2.) Defensive line pressure:

Last season, there were four players that saw the majority of the reps on the defensive line. While all four brought unique skills to the table, they simply wore down as the game wore on because depth was not there.

This season, the depth of the defensive line is better than it has been in recent years. Although, according to a recent report from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, defensive endLouis Nzegwu may be sidelined with an apparent injury to his arm or shoulder.

Still, even without Nzegwu, there is a stable of at least six players capable of shuffling in and out of the defensive line rotation. And J.J. Watt has great versatility that will help the unit, especially when he plays inside at the tackle position.

Tonight, the line will need to generate pressure to fluster the Huskies quarterback Chandler Harnish. He is a duel threat quarterback that can hurt you in multiple ways. It will be crucial for the Badgers to get an early hit or two on him so he doesn't settle in. Once he does that, he can really impact the way the game plays out.

3.) Special teams:

A season ago, the UW special teams unit was one of the worst in the Big Ten. The kick and punt return units were not nearly as successful as the ones from 2007 and the coverage was not much better.

This season, a new punt formation is in play that seems to be working okay. However, while watching practice there were several times a defensive player could have blocked the punt but pulled off. So, protection will need to be very good because there is not much room for error in the new formation.

Midway through camp there Bielema was shuffling new returners to take a bit of the burden off David Gilreath. The fourth-year head coach had players such as Nick Toon, Aaron Henry, Shelton Johnson and Antonio Fenelus fielding punts at various points through camp.

But when the depth chart was released last week, Gilreath was listed at the top in each of the categories.

4.) Freshman impact:

Bielema noted that a number of freshmen would see game action for sure in the opener. Kraig Appleton, who has been battling hamstring issues off and on throughout camp, is a bit nicked up and remains questionable for Saturday's game.

Other than him though, running back Montee Ball and center Travis Frederick will see playing time. And in Frederick's case, he will get the start if John Moffitt is unable to go.

On the defensive side of the ball Chris Borland will see time as he backs up Mike Taylor at strong side linebacker. Joining him are true freshmen Dezmen Southward and Josh Peprah in the secondary.

5.) Running game:

With Zach Brown listed as the starter, it will be interesting to see how Bielema and Chryst divvy up the carries between him and John Clay. There is no question each will see plenty of reps against a Northern Illinois defensive line that lost its best player to the NFL draft.

Northern Illinois is a hungry team under head coach Jerry Kill, but the defense is not one of the strongest parts of the Huskies machine. So you can expect plenty of running to wear down NIU as the game progresses. If I had to make a prediction, I could see Clay getting more carries than Brown, maybe something along the line of 22 carries-to-15 carries.

Lea's prediction:

The Badgers have been anxiously awaiting the season opener following a blowout loss to Florida State to end 2008. With it being a night game at Camp Randall, there is no question emotions will be running high.

One can expect NIU to hang tough with UW throughout the first half and into the third quarter, but the Badgers will slowly wear down the Huskies defense and start the season off with a win.

27-13 Wisconsin.

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