Wisconsin Football will resume Big Ten play this weekend by hosting a tough Michigan State squad. Who are the 5 Spartans that Badger fans need to know?
Following an unsurprisingly dominant victory over Kent State, the road gets significantly more difficult for Wisconsin Football moving forward. With the possible exception of Illinois (and even that could end up being a tough game, as it is in Champaign), there are no cupcakes left for the Badgers to beat up on moving forward. If this team is going to win the Big Ten West and make it to Indianapolis, it is certainly not going to come easy.
The journey continues this weekend at Camp Randall against a Michigan State squad that is always a tough out. The Spartans currently sit at 4-2 but are coming off a 34-10 beatdown at the hands of Ohio State. After getting embarrassed by the Buckeyes, the Badgers should be fully expecting to get the Spartans’ best effort on Saturday as they look get redemption and stay relevant in the Big Ten East by knocking off a top ten squad in Wisconsin.
For that to happen, Sparty will need some strong outings from their star players. Here are the five that Badger fans should keep a close eye on.
1. Brian Lewerke – Quarterback
2019 stats: 58.5 % passing, 1,543 yds, 11 TD, 2 INT/45 rush, 143 yds (3.2 avg), 0 TD
Coming off of a 2018 campaign in which he struggled mightily while dealing with a nagging shoulder injury, Lewerke has come back with a vengeance in 2019. In fact, the senior signal-caller has probably been the best quarterback in the Big Ten not named Justin Fields to this point in the season, leading the conference in both passing yards and total yards as a true dual-threat under center.
However, Wisconsin is by far the best team Michigan State has faced so far aside from Ohio State, and for the Spartans to come into Camp Randall and leave with a victory over the Badgers, they will likely need a more efficient performance from Lewerke than what he provided in the loss to the Buckeyes last week (20/38, 218 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT/8 rushes, -4 yds). Ohio State does field an elite defense, but of course, so does Wisconsin, so he will have his work cut out for him leading this Spartan offense down the field and sustaining drives with his arm and legs.
Nonetheless, Lewerke is undoubtedly the toughest challenge Jim Leonhard’s defense has had to prepare for in terms of opposing quarterbacks so far this season. Wisconsin has allowed very little production from under center (or anywhere, really) in each of its first five contests: can the Badgers keep it up against the Big Ten’s most productive player?
2. Darrell Stewart Jr. – Wide Receiver
2019 stats: 41 rec, 624 yds (15.2 avg), 4 TD
Stewart has emerged as one of the top receivers in college football this season as Lewerke’s favorite weapon, currently leading the Big Ten in receiving yards and sitting at No. 6 nationally in that category. The senior pass-catcher has complimented that production with a nose for the end zone as well, hauling in four passes for scores so far this season. He’s dangerous as a kick returner as well, though with how wildly successful Zach Hintze has been kicking the ball out of the end zone, Stewart probably won’t be getting many opportunities to hurt the Badgers in that regard.
Similarly to many of his teammates, Stewart is coming off his worst statistical performance of the season against Ohio State. However, 6 catches for 68 yards and a touchdown against a secondary as talented as the Buckeyes’ is certainly nothing to sniff at. Though Donovan Peoples-Jones of Michigan may have something to say about this, Stewart might be the best receiver Wisconsin’s defensive backs have had to prepare for so far.
This Wisconsin secondary has not really been tested much through the first five games. Considering the dynamite connection between him and Lewerke, that seems likely to change this weekend.
3. Joe Bachie – Linebacker
2019 stats: 58 tackles (39 solo), 8.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 1 INT
A first-team preseason All-American by several outlets, Bachie has looked every bit the part so far this season.
Simply put, the senior and team captain is a tackling machine. In addition to leading the Spartans in total tackles, this season and each of the previous two, Bachie currently leads the Big Ten in both solo and total tackles and ranks seventh nationally in the latter category. He’s also gotten to the quarterback plenty as well, racking up 3.5 sacks on the year to lead the team along with Kenny Willekes and Raequan Williams.
Fresh off of an impressive 11 tackle, two-sack performance against the Buckeyes, head coach Mark Dantonio will be counting on Bachie to provide similar production against the Badgers in order to stifle a red-hot Jonathan Taylor and the rest of Wisconsin’s rushing attack.
4. Kenny Willekes – Defensive End
2019 stats: 41 tackles (14 solo), 6.0 TFL, 3.5 sacks
The 2018 Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year and yet another preseason first-team All-American for the Spartans in the eyes of many, Willekes has come back down to earth a bit in 2019.
To be sure, he still has accumulated 3.5 sacks and ranks eighth in the conference in total tackles as things stand today. However, Willekes has not recorded a sack since September 14 in Michigan State’s Week 3 loss to Arizona State and only ranks fourth on his own team in tackles for loss after leading the Big Ten in that category a year ago. There’s no question that Willekes has proven himself to be among the very best defensive players in the entire nation over the course of his career in East Lansing, and the Spartans need Willekes to look like that guy on Saturday against the Badgers.
Like most teams Wisconsin has faced and will face this season, Michigan State is probably going to try loading up the box and forcing Jack Coan to beat it with his arm. Assuming Taylor is held to modest production by his standards, if Willekes can make life difficult for Coan in the pocket, the Spartans will be on the path to victory.
5. Josiah Scott – Cornerback
2019 stats: 31 tackles (24 solo), 2 INT, 2 passes defended
I wouldn’t expect to hear Scott’s name called too much in this one, mainly because the Badgers likely won’t try to test him very often. The junior cornerback and preseason All-Big Ten selection has emerged as a star defender on the outside over the last few seasons and is off to a nice start in 2019. Scott is a particularly reliable player in space, currently sitting at No. 5 in the conference in solo tackles.
The Spartans will look to Scott to lock down one side of the field all afternoon long against Wisconsin. I’d anticipate him to line up across from Quintez Cephus quite a bit, which should produce some great battles to keep an eye on as the game progresses.
All stats courtesy of Sports Reference