Greg Schiano may have raised a few eyebrows in gushing over the defense his Rutgers Scarlet Knights are about to face head-on.
"One of the hottest teams in the Big Ten, Wisconsin, is coming to town," the Rutgers head coach said to kick off a press conference earlier this week ahead of Saturday afternoon's game in Piscataway. "Best defense in America."
There's that team down Georgia way that might beg to differ. But he's not entirely wrong.
The No. 21 Wisconsin Badgers have put up a wall in winning four straight games, leading the FBS in allowing just 8.5 points and 180.3 yards per game during the roll.
That's pushed them back over .500 at 5-3 (3-2 in Big Ten play) and back into the AP Top 25, where most pundits expect them to live.
"We have guys that care, good leaders, and believe in each other," Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst told ESPN of the bounce-back. "I felt like we had certainly enough talent to give ourselves a chance. Each week, we've had good focus, good work, and preparation and guys put it out there.
"There's not a lot of magic to it."
Indeed, it's mostly hard work from a group of go-getters.
And that's what Schiano is getting from his bunch, as well. At 4-4 (1-4 in conference games), Rutgers is proving to be physical — he hopes Wisconsin-type physical — heading into Saturday's conference clash at SHI Stadium.
"A lot of respect for Greg," Chryst told reporters. "It is a tough team. You can see them play hard. You can see them play well. You can see them doing what they're being asked to do. And you see talented players. You see it coming together. I think he has got a really good staff, and they're playing good football. It is sound football.
"They want to be a physical team, and you see it on film. It's not just talk. You turn on the film and you see a good, well-coached, tough team."
No. 21 Wisconsin at Rutgers
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 6 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV: Big Ten Network
Spread: Wisconsin -13
When Wisconsin Has the Ball
The big difference in Wiscy's recent roll is that the offense is now taking care of the ball.
In last week's win over then-No. 9 Iowa Hawkeyes — a dominant 27-7 decision that marked the best game of their year — the Badgers committed no turnovers.
Credit much-maligned QB Graham Mertz for the turnover turnaround. After tossing six interceptions in the team's first four games — which mired Wisconsin in a 1-3 start — the quarterback has thrown just one in the last four. Sure, he's not lighting the world on fire with his passing — still pedestrian at 96-of-174 for 1,049 yards and three touchdowns — but his ball management is keeping his side in position to win.
The winning is coming courtesy of a rejuvenated run game. In typical Wisconsin fashion, it is run-heavy at 212 rushing yards per game versus 141 via the air. But most of that has come in the last four games, with the Badgers bashing out an average of 261 yards along the ground per contest to go along with 11 rushing TDs.
The main guy blazing a trail is freshman running back Braelon Allen, who has broken the 100-yard barrier — with 104, 140, 108, and 131 — in each of the last four outings. Allen has averaged 7.3 yards per carry.
"You felt confident that he was going to get there," Chryst told ESPN. "He's still learning to play at this level. He's got the ability to be physical, and he's got more than enough athletic ability to have some shiftiness to him as well. And (he's) young, still. We're going to need him to continue to make a big impact for us."
They still need their season-leading rusher, junior Chez Mellusi, to complement that rushing success. Although he's got company in the backfield, Mellusi has 740 rushing yards and four TDs on 158 carries.
And Rutgers is no easy team to run or score against, either.
The Knights have allowed just 21.5 points per game, and in last week's 20-14 road win over the Illinois Fighting Illini, they were successful in slowing down a strong rushing attack, as the hosts managed just Illinois 107 yards on the ground against them.
"If you can be a great tackle team, you can play great defense," Schiano told reporters. "We weren't great tackling (last week), but we were much better than we were a week (before that), and that's what's got to continue to improve.
"We are improving — that's the key," Schiano told reporters. "We're getting better at it. This will be a great test."
When Rutgers Has the Ball
It's always a test when facing the Wisconsin defense. Schiano obviously knows that. But he's got a physical bunch on offense that's getting its share of praise.
It's led by QB Noah Vedral, a guy who can both throw and run. The senior is 136-of-220 for 1,412 yards and seven TDs through the air and is also a pivotal part of the rushing attack with 250 yards on 72 carries.
"Noah is one of the toughest guys, if not the toughest guy, on our football team," Schiano told reporters. "And when your quarterback is that guy, I think it raises everyone's level. I think the respect that he has on our team is as high as it gets. I know it is for me. He answers the bell over and over again."
Vedral certainly got off the mat after missing much of the first half due to injury to throw for 138 yards last week and run for a TD against Illinois.
Fellow backfield mates Isaih Pacheco and Kyle Monangai helped the cause, too. The junior Pacheco rushed 21 times for 91 yards, while the freshman Monangai rolled up 77 yards and a touchdown on 15 hauls. Season-long, the two running backs have racked up 420 and 220 rushing yards, respectively.
Of pass-catchers, receiver Bo Melton leads the way with 412 yards and three scores on 37 catches.
Of course, since they don't exactly light up the scoreboard — averaging 23.6 points per game — Rutgers needs every yard it can squeeze out of that ever-staunch Wiscy defense, which tops the FBS — sorry, Georgia — at allowing just 214.6 yards per game. Again in true Wisconsin style, it allows a paltry average of 17 points per game.
As Schiano is well aware, that unit seems to be getting better with each game. In the last two wins, the Badgers have 13 sacks and 20 tackles for a loss to go along with forcing eight turnovers.
The crew is led by a linebacking trio of Leo Chenal, Jack Sanborn, and Nick Herbig combining for 13.5 sacks and 28.5 tackles for a loss in the two most recent wins — both decisions over ranked teams in Iowa and the then-No. 25 Purdue Boilermakers.
Don't look now, but all this has put the Badgers back in contention for the Big Ten West Division title. That ugly start is, indeed, behind them.
And at 3-2 in Big Ten action — coupled with two key conference victories the last two weeks over the only other 3-2 teams in the division — they've only got the 4-1 Minnesota Golden Gophers standing between in the way of another trip to the Big Ten championship contest.
Plus they've got a perfect run on the road — 2-0 — they'd like to maintain.
Meanwhile, Rutgers is better, no doubt. But Schiano's side is still trying to find its way in the Big Ten, as shown by its 1-4 record in the conference.
Try as they might, the Knights aren't quite ready for prime-time yet. So the trend should continue Wisconsin's way in stretching its roll to five straight.
Prediction: Wisconsin 31, Rutgers 20
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