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ASU Football: The First Look at Wisconsin

The Badgers hold an advantage in size along the offensive line, so Arizona State's defense will have top emphasize stopping the run this week.

James White has impressed in his first two games of the season.
James White has impressed in his first two games of the season.
Mike McGinnis

It's hard to improve on a 45-0 win in the season opener, but that's exactly what the Wisconsin Badgers did in week two.

The Badgers scheduled soft nonconference teams to open the season, but they're about to start feeling the heat when they arrive in Tempe this weekend.

After a dominating victory against Massachusetts to open the season, the Badgers pummeled Tennessee Tech 48-0 on Saturday. Wisconsin has pitched two consecutive shutouts, but now they face an opponent that is tied for the national lead in scoring defense in Arizona State.

Neither the Sun Devils nor the Badgers have faced a true test, which is why Saturday's Pac-12 vs. Big 10 showdown is so intriguing. The Badgers own the No. 20 ranking in the latest AP poll while the Sun Devils sit on the cusp of national recognition as the first team left out of the Top 25.

How tightly matched will Saturday night's primetime affair be? Let's find out.

The First Look

2012 Record: 8-6 (4-4 in Big Ten)

Wisconsin endured a roller coaster season last year which is rarely the way a journey that features a Rose Bowl appearance is described. The Badgers finished in third place in the Big Ten Leaders division but sanctions imposed on Ohio State and Penn State thrusted Wisconsin into the spotlight.

After finishing a mediocre 4-4 in conference play, the Badgers battled Nebraska in the Big 10 Championship game and dismantled the Cornhuskers in a 70-31 victory. With an overall record of 8-5, Wisconsin earned the Big 10 title and a Rose Bowl appearance against the Stanford Cardinal.

Despite an underwhelming record and the defection of head coach Bret Bielema to Arkansas, Barry Alvarez stepped in and the Badgers gave the Cardinal all they could handle before ultimately succumbing 20-14.

2013 Record: 2-0 (0-0 in Big Ten)

In 120 minutes of play in 2013, Wisconsin has scored 93 points and surrendered zero. Though playing significantly outmatched opponents never tells the full story, it's hard to argue with the Badgers' success out of the gates.

Wisconsin began the season ranked No. 23 in the AP poll and ascended to the No. 20 spot after wins over Massachusetts and Tennessee Tech.

Like Arizona State, the Badgers have yet to be challenged and have not revealed much schematically. The Badgers have not been forced to show their hand, so they have kept the ball on the ground throughout both contests. Expect the playbook to open up against Arizona State and for head coach Gary Andersen to find out what his players are truly made of in what should be a tough environment to play in on Saturday night.

Head Coach: Gary Andersen

Overall Record: 32-31 (2003-Southern Utah, 2009-2012-Utah State, 2013-Wisconsin)

At Wisconsin: 2-0

Wisconsin on Offense

Quarterback Joel Stave leads the Badgers' onto the field, but make no mistake, this offense is designed to grind out yards on the ground. The Badgers have amassed 780 rushing yards and each of their top three running backs has rushed for more than 100 yards in both games. Wisconsin's 390 rushing yards per game rank third nationally behind perennial run-heavy teams Navy and Oregon so the offense objective is clear.

Against Arizona State, the Badgers will face a defense that likes to bring pressure and cause problems in the backfield. Wisconsin will counter by running off-tackle plays that allow their massive offensive line to pull and create holes for backs James White, Cory Clement and Melvin Gordon. All three backs have breakaway speed, but White is the feature back and should see the lion's share of the carries against the Sun Devils.

Stave won a three-man competition for the starting job in fall camp mostly because of his accuracy. The Badgers expect Stave to manage the game and carry out his play-action fakes well, which the sophomore has done in his first two starts of the season. Stave has only attempted 46 passes in two games, but he has hit on 33 of those targets. The 6-foot-5 starter struggled in his first outing, but rebounded with 24 completions in 29 attempts against Tennessee Tech.

Stave's favorite target so far is senior Jared Abbrederis who has reeled in 10 passes thus far. Abbrederis does not possess exceptional speed, but he has a knack for creating separation from defensive backs and he will challenge Osahon Irabor and Robert Nelson on Saturday.

Unlike most offenses, the most interesting part of the action takes place up front where all five Badger starters weigh in at more than 315 pounds. Four of the five starters are upperclassmen with the exception being sophomore left tackle Tyler Marz. Plenty of former Badger linemen are sprinkled around NFL rosters so the chances that senior guard Ryan Groy or junior tackle Rob Havenstein get looks from pro scouts are pretty good. The Badgers will ask their linemen, especially their guards, to pull across formations and execute blocks on the move. Whether or not the Badgers' run game is successful relies on how well they contain edge players like Carl Bradford and Chris Young.

Wisconsin on Defense

Two games, two shutouts. So it goes for the Badger defense which features a rugged front seven and a defensive backfield that's waiting to prove itself against top-flight competition.

When Gary Andersen came to Madison this offseason, the Badgers abandoned their traditional 4-3 look in favor of a 3-4 scheme that is similar to the product that Arizona State puts on the field. Six members of the Badgers' front seven are seniors and the experience and versatility of these players has shown in the first two weeks.

Wisconsin has yet to record a sack through its first two games and the Badgers have tallied just five tackles for loss against opponents that have struggled to find any semblance of offensive rhythm. This could mean the transition to the 3-4 has players a step behind where they normally were, which could spell doom against talented running backs like Marion Grice and D.J. Foster. However, we'll air on the safe side and assume that the Badgers' foes resorted to conservative play calling that lends itself to two to three-yard gains.

Inside linebacker Chris Borland is a playmaker that the Sun Devil blockers will have to watch out for. When the Badgers do bring pressure, Borland is the inside backer who accompanies outside linebacker Ethan Armstrong on the rush.

In the secondary, the Badgers have a few question marks that they hope to put to rest against Arizona State. Cornerback Sojourn Shelton is a freshman starting opposite of junior Peniel Jean. Sophomore T.J. Reynard has also seen playing time, but Wisconsin simply lacks the experience in the defensive backfield that they have in the front seven. Taylor Kelly and Jaelen Strong looked dangerous against Sacramento State, and Mike Norvell will surely test the Badgers' pass defense early.

Another problem the Badgers will have to sort out is how they want to defend the Sun Devils when Arizona State uses multiple tight ends. Chris Coyle and De'Marieya Nelson are matchup nightmares and will sometimes require an extra defensive back in the game to account for them. If the Badgers take a gamble and play small, the Sun Devils' hurry-up offense will counter with zone reads and designed runs to create mismatches.

The Badgers have proved they are more than capable, but can they stand up to a vaunted Sun Devil attack?