MADISON — As lopsided matchups on paper go, No. 4 Wisconsin’s season opener against Western Kentucky tonight could provide at least one interesting storyline.
It has nothing to do with whether Badgers running back Jonathan Taylor can start his Heisman Trophy campaign with a 200-yard game, which is possible against an opponent picked to finish fifth in Conference USA’s East Division.
It is how Wisconsin’s new-look secondary will fare against an offense with a history of throwing the ball.
Redshirt freshman Faion Hicks and sophomore Caesar Williams are debuting as the first-string cornerbacks. Another redshirt freshman, Scott Nelson, is playing his first college game as a starter at safety.
The other safety, D’Cota Dixon, provides a veteran presence as a third-year starter. Still, there is a lot of inexperience on a secondary for a team that’s a chic pick to go to the College Football Playoff.
“I need to find out how some of these guys are going to respond in game situations. Right now, I don’t know that and it’s not their faults — a lot of them just haven’t played,” defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said.
The Hilltoppers finished 6-6 last year, third in their division, and lost in the Cure Bowl to Georgia State. They were tied for seventh in passing offense nationally, throwing for 335 yards a game, but they were last out of 130 FBS teams in rushing at about 61 yards per game.
Western Kentucky could to try to air it out against Wisconsin, even if it’s also dealing with roster turnover. Nelson anticipates a lot of motion and spread looks, which differs from the scheme that the Badgers’ defense practices against every day.
“For some young guys who can kind of get into a comfort zone during training camp because they’re seeing one offense over and over, it’s just kind of pushing them out of that box,” Leonhard said.
They’ll be playing against new starting quarterback Drew Eckels, who will be protected by a relatively inexperienced line that could include three sophomores.
“I think it’s important that we, the coaching staff, do everything we can to put Drew in positions to be successful early and not ask him to do maybe what a three-year starter would be doing on the first few series of the game,” coach Mike Sanford said.
On the other side of the ball, it’s time for Taylor’s encore after the dynamic back ran for 1,977 yards last year, an FBS record for a freshman. Taylor added some muscle in the offseason, a good move considering that he’ll be a primary focus for opposing defenses. He could also get more involved in the passing game, throwing another wrinkle into an already dangerous offense.
“People think that he’s a bruiser-type back, but he had some 50-plus runs throughout the 2017 season and he’s impressive. Hopefully, we can control him on Friday night,” Western Kentucky defensive coordinator Clayton White said.
The Hilltoppers are one of the least experienced teams in the country with just 10 seniors on the roster.
About 65 of the 105 players on the roster are freshmen or sophomores.