Wisconsin has an "elite" defense, Purdue coach Jeff Brohm said Monday. And Brohm was just puffing up the upcoming opponent, either: The Badgers rank No. 4 in FBS against the rush, No. 10 in total defense and No. 17 in scoring defense.
The Badgers’ offense, at least in the run game, could easily be tabbed with similar praise. Behind freshman phenom Jonathan Taylor, who just wowed against Nebraska with 249 yards, Wisconsin once again is one of the most productive offenses in the country, ranking No. 16 in the nation in rushing and No. 17 in scoring.
Wisconsin, not surprisingly then, itself also is ranked. The Badgers are No. 7 in the most recent AP poll, and they’re rolling: Taking a 5-0 record into Saturday’s matchup with Purdue in Madison, Wis.
The Boilermakers haven’t beaten the Badgers since 2003, a span of 11 consecutive losses. That 26-23 victory was the last time Purdue won in Madison. It was really the last time Purdue competed at Camp Randall: The last five games there have been decided by an average of about 28 points.
So when Brohm calls Saturday a “challenge,” even that could be an understatement.
But, at least, the first-year coach has led this team into stiff tests already this season, taking No. 16 Louisville to the wire in Week 1 and fighting before fading late to No. 8 Michigan.
“These games are a lot of fun because you’re playing against the best, and it’s a true test. Fans look forward to it. Players do. It’s a great matchup for us to play against such a talented team and to see how we measure and see if we’ve gotten better,” Brohm said Monday during his weekly press conference. “We had our chances in the Louisville and Michigan games, just kind of couldn’t finish at all, and now we’ve got another chance.
“Now, I do believe Wisconsin is the best team we’re going to face, to this point. They’ve proven it. You’re going to have to beat them in order to win. They’re not going to beat themselves. I’d like to find a way to get better. I’d like to find a way to score some points. I’d like to find a way to get better on defense and special teams. … To continue to get better on those small things against great opponents will make our team better, but it will be a difficult task (Saturday).”
Purdue’s defense has developed into a stout one, especially against the run (No. 66 nationally). But it hasn’t played a team quite like Wisconsin this season.
The Badgers, as typical, have a strong, powerful, big offensive line that leads a power run attack. They’ll pull guards to use as lead blockers or they’ll use actual lead blockers. Sometimes, they’ll use two, Brohm said. Sometimes, they’ll use three or, even, four tight ends. The goal: Get into third-and-short situations by grinding early in downs and, hopefully, breaking an occasion big run.
Taylor certainly has been good for that early this season, entering the game with nearly 800 yards rushing and nine touchdowns. Twice, he’s had 200-plus rushing yards in a game this season.
“They are very good at what they do,” Brohm said. “He can run the football, and he's got strength and he can break tackles. They have got big guys ahead of him that can block. They have big tight ends that can do their part, and when he's got a full steam going ahead, he's going to get yards.
“And then they will mix in, some play action off of it that's very good, and they will occasionally move the pocket. And when they have to throw, they can, but that’s not their strength. It would help if we could find a way to get a lead and maybe not make them do everything they want, but it's going to be hard. We are just going to have to hang in there. We are going to have to stop some of the things, even they do well, but they are a power-running football team.”
But finding a way to slow Wisconsin’s offense, though a considerable task, may not be the most difficult for Purdue Saturday.
The Boilermakers have shown glimpses of being a productive, efficient, flashy, creative and aggressive offense. Even against Michigan, a game in which Purdue managed only 10 second-half yards, it was able to create a couple big plays by Brohm scheming them.
That’ll likely have to be the case again against the Badgers, a defense that’s more similar to Michigan’s than any other Purdue has played this season.
Michigan’s cornerbacks pressed Purdue’s receivers at the line and then generated considerable pass rush with its front seven, a disastrous mix for a receiving corps and offensive line that are still works in progress.
How much better have the Boilermakers gotten in three weeks? They’ll soon find out with Wisconsin presenting much of the same.
“They are relentless on defense,” Brohm said. “Their guys go hard and they finish and they tackle and they hit and they wear people down. Especially if you're getting into a situation where you don't have the lead and you've got to do things like be a little pass-happy and not have balance, they are going to be able to tee off. And they just do a lot of different things, give you a lot of different looks. They are very athletic. They stand up their ends. They are two-way-go guys. They are going to run past you, run through you, run around you, fake you and twist, and it's just a very active defense that challenges on the outside and tries not to give up easy completions. So when they get the lead, it's very difficult to do things on them unless you're going to continue to just have great balance and hope that that works.
“We've got to get completions and find ways to move the chains and take care of the ball. I think when you play a team like this, like in the Michigan game, we had too many third-and-longs, and against good teams, you're not going to convert those. So we've got to make sure we do our part to not get in those situations, and sometimes it was penalties in the Michigan game, sometimes it was other things. We've just got to get positive yards, get us in a manageable situation and try to convert and hang in there till the end. And against good teams, if you can't sustain that the entire game, you could be in for a long day.”
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