Wisconsin presents Bulls’ toughest challenge

USF’s defense has forced 11 turnovers this season and will need to continue that trend Saturday against the Badgers. 

When the Bulls look up to the stands Saturday in Madison, Wisconsin, they’ll see an all-too-familiar sight: a sea of red. 

The red at Camp Randall Stadium will be comprised of Badger fans who nearly fill the stadium each week with an average attendance of 77,987 this season, rather than the empty red seats that Bulls players are accustomed to at Raymond James Stadium. 

But instead of being intimidated to face a team that leads the Football Bowl Subdivision in rushing yards, the Bulls say this is just like any other away game. 

“Obviously, the stakes are a little bit higher because we’re playing Wisconsin, a ranked team, and that could really boost the morale of this team. It’s a business trip,” redshirt freshman Auggie Sanchez said.

But this isn’t just any other opponent for the Bulls.

Wisconsin will come into Saturday’s game fresh off a 68-17 win over Bowling Green during which it set a Big Ten modern-era record for its 644 rushing yards. 

The Badgers’ unrivaled rushing attack features three players with over 200 rushing yards, including Heisman candidate Melvin Gordon, who has 431 yards and six touchdowns. 

Part of what makes their running game so successful is dual-threat quarterback Tanner McEvoy.

The junior quarterback has had success in both the passing and running games this year, throwing for 445 yards and four touchdowns to go along with 253 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. 

But despite Wisconsin’s accomplishments in the running game this season, the running backs have shown they can be stopped. 

Against Western Illinois, the Badgers rushed for 167 yards on 39 carries, including 38 yards on 17 carries from Gordon. 

Sanchez, the play caller for the defense, said he’s looking forward to playing the Badgers because they don’t employ a spread offense.

“Nothing’s better than a 300-pound lineman coming at you and you can just blast him, blow him up and make a tackle or have a linebacker next to you make a tackle,” Sanchez said. “I like the physical play.”

Stopping the running game is a tall task for the Bulls, but they could have success if they force McEvoy into making hurried throws. 

Through the first three games of the season, McEvoy has thrown four interceptions.

In a loss against LSU, he made only eight completions and was intercepted twice. 

Coincidentally, the Bulls have put an added emphasis on creating turnovers. 

They have forced 11 this season, including four interceptions, and will likely need to create several more to keep the Bulls’ inconsistent offense in contention.

While the Bulls’ defense will have their hands full with Wisconsin’s power offense, the Bulls’ offense will have to score early and often to keep up. 

But the Bulls are less concerned with keeping up and more concerned with playing to the best of their abilities.

“We have to go play our game,” offensive coordinator Paul Wulff said. “We have to do the best we can do and focus on ourselves. We’re not too caught up on what they can do on offense. It’s really, ‘What can we do?’”

But to compete with the Badgers, USF will likely have to establish the running game early. 

“The better we can run the ball, the better opportunity we have,” Wulff said.

USF is 2-0 this season when ever they have a player rush for over 100 yards and Wisconsin is 0-1 when they allowed a player to rush for 100 yards. 

But kick starting the running game against Wisconsin may present a challenge. 

In the only game that Wisconsin allowed at least 100 yards rushing, they held LSU to only 16 rushing yards and six first downs in the first half. 

Outside linebacker Joe Schobert leads the Badgers in tackles for loss (5) to go along with his 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble. 

The players that make up the rest of the linebackers unit are Marcus Trotter and Derek Landisch. Trotter leads all linebackers with 20 tackles and is second only to safety Michael Caputo (21). Landisch has recorded four tackles for loss along with two sacks. 

“The number one thing that sticks out at you is they play extremely hard and they’re versatile,” Wulff said. “They can get to the quarterback when needed and they’re very strong in the support from their secondary in the run game.”

These linebackers, along with Caputo, have led the Badger defense to an impressive start of the season. USF will have to find a way to run through them or will be left to suffer a fate similar to Western Illinois and Bowling Green.