Know the Badgers foe: Western Illinois
This is the second in a 12-week Friday series looking at the Wisconsin football team’s 2014 opponents.
Wisconsin players and coaches will spend the next four months gearing up for the most important season opener in years, which takes place Aug. 30 against perennial college football power LSU. But regardless of the outcome, the Badgers’ season will go on. And the opponent in Game 2 could not provide a more stark contrast on the field.
Western Illinois finished 4-8 last season in the Missouri Valley Conference, which is in the lower-tier FCS. LSU finished 10-3 last season in the Southeastern Conference, which is the most difficult league in the country.
Taken at face value, one might assume an easy blowout for Wisconsin when the Leathernecks arrive in Madison for the Sept. 6 game. But Western Illinois appears to have enough pieces in place to keep the game competitive. Though Wisconsin has never lost to an FCS team all-time (10-0), there have been a couple of close calls in recent years.
Wisconsin barely edged Cal Poly 36-35 in 2008, and the Badgers defeated Northern Iowa 26-21 in 2012. Will Western Illinois be able to put a scare into Wisconsin?
Personnel: Most of the Leathernecks’ top players from last season are back, and that should help to make the game more interesting than many anticipate.
Quarterback Trenton Norvell started every game for WIU a year ago and completed 195 of 384 passes (50.8 percent) for 2,140 yards with 16 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. All those numbers represented freshman records at WIU.
Running back J.C. Baker, a third-team all-Missouri Valley Conference pick last season, rushed for 1,149 yards with six touchdowns. Backup Nikko Watson also is back after rushing for 503 yards with five touchdowns.
In addition, Western Illinois returns its top three wide receivers from a year ago, led by a pair of talented sophomores.
Wide receiver Joey Borsellino became the only freshman in program history to lead the team in receptions last season after catching 41 passes for 465 yards with three touchdowns. Lance Lenoir also was a freshman a year ago and caught 39 passes for 487 yards with seven touchdowns. He was the first WIU freshman to lead the team in receiving yards.
Hi-C Scott returns for his senior season after catching 32 passes for 458 yards with three touchdowns. Barker added 32 catches for 183 yards.
Defensively, WIU brings back eight of its top nine tacklers. Those eight combined for 474 tackles last season.
Linebacker Kevin Kintzel, the team’s leading tackler a year ago, will be a senior. He tallied 74 tackles with 3.5 sacks and a team-high three interceptions. Senior defensive back David McDaniel was third on the team in tackles with 68 and added two interceptions. And senior defensive back Jonathon Rollins was fourth with 66 tackles and two interceptions.
Linebacker J.J. Raffelson is expected to wreak havoc on opponents in the Missouri Valley Conference. Raffelson played in just six games a year ago before suffering a season-ending elbow injury. He still managed to finish fifth on the team in total tackles (59).
Other leading tacklers include defensive back Dallas Nichols (56 tackles and two fumble recoveries), defensive lineman Gino Durley, Jr. (52 tackles and a team-best four sacks), defensive back Martinez Davis (50 tackles, three interceptions and a team-best 10 pass deflections), linebacker Luke Venegoni (49 tackles with 2.5 sacks) and defensive lineman Chip Holtschlag (42 tackles with two sacks).
Also back is kicker Nathan Knuffman, who handled field goals, punts and kickoffs a year ago.
Goodbye, FCS: With the Big Ten set to eliminate FCS opponents from the nonconference schedule beginning in 2016, Western Illinois represents Wisconsin’s final FCS opponent for the foreseeable future. Over the past five seasons, Wisconsin has outscored its FCS opponents by a combined total of 247-48, an average score of about 49-10.
Team history: Wisconsin and Western Illinois have met just twice before, with the Badgers winning both games. Wisconsin defeated WIU 31-13 in 1991 and 34-10 in 2006.
Early risers: Western Illinois coach Bob Nielson held most of his spring practices at 6:45 a.m. in an attempt to shake things up with his program one year after a 4-8 season. He encouraged players not to schedule class before 10 a.m.
The goal, Nielson told reporters, was to try and galvanize a team that features a roster in which roughly half the players redshirted or weren’t with the program last year.
Prediction: Wisconsin 38, Western Illinois 13
Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter