BYU football: Cougar offense expected to be tested by Wisconsin's physical, stingy defense
PROVO — During BYU’s current five-game winning streak, the offense has been balanced and productive.
For the season, the Cougars are averaging 511.1 yards of total offense and 32 points per game.
“I would say right now, we’re clicking on all cylinders,” said quarterback Taysom Hill. “Hopefully we can keep that going. I don’t know how you stop that when we’re running the ball as well as we have been, then we get the guys on the outside and our tight ends and slot guys involved as well. It’s tough to stop.”
But when BYU visits No. 21 Wisconsin Saturday (1:30 p.m. MST, ESPN) it will face a stingy defense that is statistically one of the best in the country. Nationally, the Badgers rank No. 5 in rushing defense, No. 7 in pass defense, No. 6 in total defense and No. 5 in scoring defense.
“It’s the biggest test (of the season) so far,” said Cougar running back Paul Lasike. “Their linebackers are very physical. It will be a test for us to see how we match up.”
Wisconsin’s defense is led by senior inside linebacker Chris Borland, who was sidelined for last Saturday’s win at Iowa due to a hamstring injury. He’ll be back for this week’s game against BYU.
Like the Cougars’ star linebacker, Kyle Van Noy, Borland is one of 12 semifinalists for the Butkus Award and one of the 16 semifinalists for the Bednarik Award.
“We all know where the top linebacker in the country plays,” said Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen.“That’s right in our own backyard.”
Borland has forced 13 fumbles in his career, the most in school history and the most among active players. He needs one forced fumble to tie the FBS record of 14.
In a loss at No. 4 Ohio State on Sept. 28, Borland recorded 16 tackles — the most by a Big Ten player in a game this season.
“He’s a great athlete,” Lasike said. “He’s big, physical and fast. He mixes it up, which makes it hard for running backs. You’ve got to be on your toes.”
BYU and Wisconsin implement completely different offensive styles. The Cougars like the hurry-up, up-tempo attack, while the Badgers prefer a slower, steadier pace.
“They are definitely fast. They get up and down the field,” Andersen said of BYU, comparing its style to Arizona State’s, a team Wisconsin lost to earlier this season. “BYU will mix up the pace, so it’s not always pedal-to-the-metal, fast-break every single snap. The key is not to get worn out.”
Wisconsin’s defensive strengths are on third down and in the red zone — two areas that the Cougars have had trouble with throughout much of this season.
Meanwhile, the Badgers are well-aware of Hill’s ability to make big plays with both his arms and legs.
“He’s competitive and tough-minded. His feet are definitely a weapon,” said Andersen, who recruited Hill when he was in high school. “He’s big and he’s strong. He runs the ball at times like a running back. He hurts you bad with his legs in scramble situations. He causes people a lot of issues. He’s made some big plays. He’s a smart young man. You’re not going to trick him.”
The Cougar offense suffered a big blow during the recently completed bye week as it learned it will be without senior team captain and slot receiver JD Falslev, who is out three to four weeks with a fractured hand.
And as good as BYU’s offense has been in recent weeks, it is looking for more consistency in the second half. The Cougars are No. 5 in the country in first-half total offense, averaging about 300 yards over the first two quarters.
“It’s going to be important for us to get off to a fast start,” Hill said. “Hopefully we can get an early lead and take them out of their game plan.”
However, in the second half, particularly in the third quarter, BYU has struggled to match its first-half production.
That’s something Hill knows his team must improve on — especially against a nationally ranked team on the road.
“It’s going to take everything we have to beat (Wisconsin),” Hill said. “We made a push to score in every quarter against Boise State, which we did. Our mindset is that we can build off of that — every time we get into the red zone, we’re scoring touchdowns rather than resorting to field goals.”
That could be a big factor Saturday. Wisconsin has outscored its opponents by a 154-44 margin in the second half this season.
Wide receiver Cody Hoffman said a focus of the offense is “just finishing games. The first half, we come out and really put points on the board. Then I feel like we slow down in the second half when we should be able to put up more points. We’re going to work on that and get better at that.”
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