|No. 9 Wisconsin thinner at linebacker before opener|
MADISON, Wis. -- Wisconsin's resiliency has been tested before the opening kickoff, as the team deals with season-ending injuries at linebacker.
Despite that challenge, the No. 9 Badgers boast strength on offense and veteran leadership in key positions as they prepare for their season opener Friday at 9 p.m. ET against Utah State at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis.
Badgers coach Paul Chryst announced last week that junior outside linebacker Zack Baun is sidelined for the year with a left foot injury. Baun, a reserve expected to log significant playing time, joins senior inside linebacker and co-captain Jack Cichy, who tore his right ACL on August 8.
Chryst said sophomore linebacker Tyler Johnson and freshman linebacker Christian Bell will need to grow and be ready to contribute when called upon.
"(Johnson) has been impressive in the ways he's grown," Chryst said. "You feel bad for Zack, but I think it'll be interesting to see how they (Johnson and Bell) continue to progress, which we need them to do."
The game marks a return to Camp Randall for the Aggies, who posted a solid effort in a 16-14 setback at Wisconsin during the 2012 season under coach Gary Andersen, who departed the program to lead the Badgers for two seasons. In 2015, Chryst replaced Andersen, who is now the head coach at Oregon State.
Two Aggies who are likely to pose challenges for the Badgers are Utah State senior safety Dallin Leavitt and senior quarterback Kent Myers.
Leavitt, a transfer from BYU, posted team highs with 57 tackles (32 solo, 25 assists) and three interceptions in eight games last season.
Kent is versatile. Last season he completed 211 of 361 passes for 2,389 yards, with 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He also had 116 rushes for 448 yards and six TDs.
Chryst said he expects a strong performance from Utah State.
"I think they play with tremendous effort; their schemes challenge you," he said.
"Anytime you're looking at first games, there (are) a lot of the axioms -- it's turnovers and it's being efficient. There are a lot of challenges to every football game, and it doesn't matter who you're playing."
Matt Wells, in his fifth season as Aggies head coach, was Utah State's offensive coordinator when the team played at Wisconsin in 2012.
"Camp Randall Stadium is a tremendous atmosphere, so it will be a major test for our guys and one that we're looking forward to," Wells said.
Utah State will attempt to rebound from miserable performances on offense last season, as the team posted a 1-7 record in the Mountain West Conference and a 3-9 overall mark.
Wells said one of the Aggies' priorities will be taking advantage of Badgers' miscues.
"I can't predict the situation, but are we going to be able to capitalize on a mistake by them, if they make it early?" Wells said. "If we do, that will be a good sign."
Meanwhile, Wisconsin sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook seems poised for a productive season after splitting time last year with then-senior Bart Houston.
Hornibrook completed 108 of 181 passes for 1,262 yards, with nine touchdowns and seven interceptions. A 6-foot-4, 215-pounder, Hornibrook participated in George Whitfield's QB camp in San Diego in the offseason, and he has been the undisputed starter since the beginning of spring camp.
Wisconsin's passing game will have tantalizing targets, most notably senior wide receiver Jazz Peavy (43 catches for 635 yards and five TDs last season) and senior tight end Troy Fumagalli (47 catches for 580 yards and two TDs).
The running game should, as usual, be powerful. Sophomore Bradrick Shaw averaged 5.2 yards per carry last season. He was listed as a co-starter with Pitt transfer Chris James and true freshman Jonathan Taylor, who was excellent in camp.
Junior running back Taiwan Deal hopes to remain healthy after playing in only six games last season. He was hampered by ankle injuries and underwent surgery in January.
Senior left tackle Michael Deiter and junior right guard Beau Benzschawel will anchor the offensive line. They have a wealth of experience, starting all 14 games last season.
Stopping Wisconsin's run game is usually the top priority for opponents.
"(The Badgers) are a very physical bunch on both the offensive and defensive lines," Wells said. "We're going to have to match that and we're going to have to be very physical and play with relentless pursuit on defense and put hats to the ball."