Q&A: Getting to know the Wisconsin Badgers with Danny Cunningham

Not only is the Big Ten title on the line Saturday night in Indianapolis, but a potential spot in the College Football Playoff may be on the line as well when the No. 8 Ohio State Buckeyes take on the No. 4 and undefeated Wisconsin Badgers. When these two met in the Big Ten Championship in 2014, the Buckeyes surprised the country and embarrassed the Badgers, 59-0. It led to Ohio State somehow making the inaugural College Football Playoff and taking home the national championship with third-string quarterback Cardale Jones leading the way.

With that said, Saturday night’s matchup is expected to be much different. While Wisconsin is undefeated, many believe that it’s solely because of their weak strength of schedule, which is part of the reason why the lower-ranked Buckeyes are favored in the game. The game is expected to be a close, well-fought, game with plenty on the line.

Whether you have or haven’t watched much of Wisconsin this season, I caught up with Cleveland native Danny Cunningham to get to know the Badgers. If his name sounds familiar, Cunningham worked at ESPN 850 WKNR and played football in the Cleveland area and then want on to play at Lake Erie College before taking the job at 850. Prior to this football season, he accepted a job with The Zone in Madison, Wisconsin, where he covers the Badgers, Green Bay Packers, and Milwaukee Bucks.

If anyone knows the ins and outs of the Wisconsin football team this season, it’s him. I was lucky enough to ask him some questions about the Badgers ahead of Saturday night’s showdown. Let’s take a look:

Let’s act like the reader has yet to watch Wisconsin play this season. What are some things they should know about the Badgers?

Wisconsin isn’t the typical top-10 team. They do things a different way than everybody else that seems to have a successful program. The Badgers are built on focus, hard work, and development. That’s not to say that other programs aren’t, but the Badgers aren’t the type of school that attracts a ton of high-end recruits. They currently only have six players in the program that were rated as a four-star or five-star recruit in high school. Several notable players, both currently here or previously graduated, have started their career as walk-ons. This list includes some really notable names like Houston Texans’ DE J.J. Watt, former Cleveland Brown and current defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, and current tight end Troy Fumagalli, just to name a few. The Badgers follow a very simple formula of wearing their opponent down with a very old-fashioned Big Ten style of play that isn’t commonly seen around the conference anymore. The old adage in the conference was “three yards and a cloud of dust.” Wisconsin is really the only program left in the conference that abides by that, and they do it incredibly well.

Although they are undefeated and No. 4 in the latest College Football Playoff rankings, many people don’t think Wisconsin is as good as their record shows because of their strength of schedule. Is that true or do they deserve to be one of the top-ranked teams in the country?

In my opinion, they absolutely deserve to be in the top four. Much is made of their schedule, and rightfully so, but Wisconsin can’t control the strength of the Big Ten West, or the Big Ten as a whole and really suffered from the fact that BYU had been a program that had won at least eight games in 10 of the last 11 seasons but had their first losing season since 2004 this year. At the end of the day, winning every game on the schedule is a really tough thing to do, no matter if the opponent isn’t great week in and week out. On most college football Saturdays anything can happen. Iowa thrashing Ohio State earlier this season is a prime example of that. Wisconsin absolutely deserves credit for navigating through their first 12 games unbeaten for the first time in program history. With that said, the committee got things right this week having Clemson, Auburn, and Oklahoma ranked ahead of the Badgers.

Only a true freshman, running back Jonathan Taylor is one of the main reasons why the Badgers are currently undefeated. While racking up plenty of Big Ten honors this season, he’s averaging seven yards per carry for 1,806 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns on 258 carries. What makes him so good? His athleticism? Quickness? Offensive line?

Jonathan Taylor has benefitted from an offensive line that’s filled with very talented players on it, with four of the five starters being named to the All-Big Ten team in some capacity. That being said, Taylor is special. He’s mature beyond his years. His balance is exceptional and he’s faster than one would think and he gives this offense a true home-run threat. He’s got areas to improve, just as every freshman in America does, but Taylor’s quickly on his way to becoming one of the best backs in college football. Rarely does the running back go down with only one defender doing the job. That’s a big reason for his yards per carry being as high as it is, but it’s also a reason as to why he has lost five fumbles on the year.

Due to Taylor’s dominance, do the Badgers run a lot of play-action plays? With that said, does he run routes a lot or is he strictly a ball-carrier and that’s it?

Yes, the Badgers passing game is built off being able to fool defenses with the play-action pass. If teams are able to force quarterback Alex Hornibrook to be a strict drop-back passer, they’re going to have the edge. Taylor hasn’t really established himself as a pass-catcher to this point in his career. He currently has four catches for 52 yards on the season and I believe all of them have been on screens. Often times on passing downs, running back Rachid Ibrahim will enter the game as a blocker. He’s a transfer that followed head coach Paul Chryst to Wisconsin from his previous stop at Pitt.

Ohio State has struggled at times defending the play-action and tight ends, especially in their two losses. How do you think Wisconsin will take advantage of that with tight end Troy Fumagalli, who leads the team with 38 receptions?

I think that Fumagalli can be an X-Factor for this game. Obviously, he was named the Big Ten Tight End of the Year this week and it was well deserved. He, along with Davis on the outside, have been huge targets on third-down situations. Fumagalli has the most experience as a pass-catcher on the offense and could be a key to the Badgers moving the ball, especially with the suspect play from Ohio State’s linebackers at times. An interesting note about him is that he’s a former walk-on at Wisconsin, which is something that the program has been accustomed to.

Alright, the Taylor train must continue. Who wins the battle between him and Ohio State’s dominant run defense? Keep in mind, the Silver Bullets held Penn State’s Saquon Barkley to just 49 rushing yards on 14 carries and Michigan State’s LJ Scott to just 30 yards on eight carries. The Buckeyes’ defensive line is very, very good, what kind of attributes does Taylor have that can lead to him having a good game Saturday night?

This is the battle I’m most looking forward to watching on Saturday night. I personally believe that Taylor is a better true runner than both Barkley and Scott are, however I think Barkley does everything else better than Taylor. I also think that Wisconsin has a better offensive line than both the Nittany Lions and Spartans. I do think that Taylor will have a better night against the Buckeye defense than both Barkley and Scott did, but I don’t think he goes for anything crazy. Taylor’s running patience could be a key here. He might have three yards per carry for most of the night before cracking a big run, similar to what he did against Michigan. It only takes one of those runs to happen to change the game.

Wisconsin’s dominance on defense has been well documented this season. Is that due in part to their schedule, or are they that good defensively?

I think they’re that good. Sure, you can pick apart their schedule and say that and try and find the flaws, but that can be done for anyone trying to fit their narrative. They’ve been expected to keep teams in check all year and they’ve done exactly that. I think their most impressive outing came against Iowa. The Hawkeyes were fresh off the 55-24 beat down of Ohio State and left Camp Randall the following week with zero offensive points and only 66 total yards of offense. It was probably the most dominating defensive performance I have ever watched in person.

The Badgers lead the country in total defense by almost 20 yards per game over the second-best defense, Alabama. What makes their defense so good at stopping team’s from driving down the field?

Wisconsin does an excellent job at limiting the big play. Rarely, if ever, do you see teams have quick drives for points. They also do an excellent job creating pressure with only four rushing the quarterback, leaving plenty of players to defend the pass. The Badgers mix up their defensive look extremely well and create confusion among opposing offensive lines while not having to sacrifice coverage in the back end.

Wisconsin has second-best third-down offense and seventh-best third-down defense. What makes both sides so good in that situation?

On both sides of the ball they’re really good at staying ahead of the sticks. Offensively, Wisconsin doesn’t face too many third-down situations in which they need to pick up more than five yards. Thanks to Taylor, Hornibrook isn’t in too many obvious passing situations, which is the key to being a successful offense for anyone, not just Wisconsin. Defensively, Wisconsin’s third-down success starts on first and second downs. Keeping teams in third-and-7 or more allows them to know what’s coming and means that the secondary can go to work.

Their defense is among the best in almost all major categories. Are they really that dominant or is part of it due to the competition?

I think it’s a mix of both. If they had a tougher schedule I’m sure the numbers wouldn’t be quite as stellar but they would still be really good. I think Wisconsin cornerback Derrick Tindal had a great quote about this on Wednesday when he said, “people say that we haven’t played great offenses, but I watch these same offenses that we’ve played destroy some people.”

This quote can be taken a number of different ways, but looking into it and knowing him a little bit leads me to believe he’s really pointing at the two-week stretch Iowa’s offense had when facing the Buckeyes and Badgers back-to-back. Keep in mind, as I said previously, after the Buckeyes allowed Iowa to score 55 points on them, they had just 66 total yards against Wisconsin one week later.

Opponents have scored just nine touchdowns on 30 red-zone opportunities against Wisconsin. With Ohio State having so many weapons on offense, both in the backfield and out wide, do the Badgers have enough to continue that dominance in the red zone?

This has been one of the more impressive feats the Badger defense can boast. It’s worth noting that many of these situations have been in sudden-change scenarios, as well. I think this trend certainly can keep up, but if there’s a team in the Big Ten with a good chance of flipping this, it’s Ohio State.

The three-headed combo of J.T. Barrett, J.K. Dobbins, and Mike Weber have combined for the 13th-best ground attack in the country. Wisconsin has the best run defense in college football. Who wins that battle?

Again, this really depends on the health of Barrett. If he’s healthy Ohio State has a good chance of being able to open things up on the ground against the Badgers. If he can’t run as well as normal, I think the Badgers will be able to contain Dobbins and Weber without having the threat of the quarterback taking off and gashing the defense.

From Ohio, you know the criticism J.T. Barrett has taken over the years. After he got hurt against Michigan last week, Dwayne Haskins was able to come in and show off his arm strength and ability to make plays. While the redshirt senior is probable for Saturday, who do you think would perform better against the Badgers’ stout pass defense, second-best in the country, to be exact: The conservative Barrett or the flamethrower Haskins?

All of this depends on just how healthy Barrett’s knee is. If he’s able to run as well as he has in the past that throws a wrinkle into things. I think what Wisconsin does defensively would be tough on either one of the quarterbacks passing wise, but if Barrett is healthy and as mobile as he normally is that would stress the Badgers’ defense in many ways I’m not sure Haskins has the ability to. I’m not too keen on Barrett as a passer for the most part, but I think if he’s unable to get outside the pocket then things could be very rough.

Although the same cannot be said for the Buckeyes due to Alabama losing to Auburn, if Wisconsin wins, they’re in the Playoff. What do you think motivates them more going into Saturday night: Revenging their 59-0 loss in the Big Ten Championship in 2014 or making the Final Four for the first time?

I don’t believe that the 59-0 massacre is in many of the minds of the current players. The Badgers do have some players that were on the field that night, mostly on the defensive side of the ball, but other than that these are two different groups of guys. Obviously, the ultimate goal for this team is to reach the playoffs and this is a vital step in doing so and that’s the easy answer for motivation. With that said, there has been a lot of talk around the team this week about the sour taste they had leaving Indianapolis last year after losing to Penn State in the Big Ten Championship game. I think that has a big motivation factor to it, as well as Ohio State’s overtime win at Camp Randall last year.

If Wisconsin wants to take down Ohio State, who is the most important player on their offense not named Jonathan Taylor?

Hornibrook needs to have a very good game if the Badgers are going to come away with a victory. He has been maddeningly inconsistent not just throughout the year, but in individual games as well. He’s thrown at least one interception in every Big Ten game with the exception of the regular season finale against Minnesota. That being said, there have been times this season where the quarterback has looked really good. Hornibrook’s always responded well to adverse situations and there’s something to be said for that. Part of his struggles can be attributed to the fact that the wide receiver position isn’t in the position that it was expected to be in. Seniors Jazz Peavy and George Rushing were expected to be big contributors and neither of them are currently with the team and aren’t expected back anytime soon. Quintez Cephus was their biggest threat on the outside, but he injured his leg in the Indiana game in October and had season-ending surgery. Wisconsin has relied on sophomore A.J. Taylor, redshirt freshman Kendric Pryor, and freshman Danny Davis at that spot lately. Those three have really started to develop nicely and will be key pieces Saturday night as well. I wrote about the matchup they’ll have to face in cornerback Denzel Ward earlier this week.

If Wisconsin wants to beat Ohio State, what things must happen, both on offense and defense? Whether it’s dominating the trenches, stopping the run, airing it out, etc.?

Wisconsin has to take care of the football. They need to play a turnover free game, which is easier said than done for this team. Hornibrook needs to take care of the ball and have his best game to date if he wants to push his winning streak as a starter to 18 games. They must continue to be as physical as they have been all season long and force Ohio State to become one-dimensional throwing the ball. Obviously, that’s been a frustration of many Ohio State fans in big games. If Wisconsin is able to force Barrett into trying beat them with his arm then they’re in great shape to win this game and advance to the playoffs.