In last season’s opener, the Badgers faced a formidable and nationally renowned football program in LSU. This year, the script is much different.

Utah State, who toiled last season to a disappointing 3-9 record (1-7 conference), serves as a far lighter opponent for the No. 9 ranked Badgers. This is not to say the Badgers won’t have to prepare for a competitive matchup, but a weak non-conference opponent is an ideal way to ease a new and slightly hobbled defense into a Big Ten season.

The Badgers, like any college football program, have lost central competitors on defense from last season. Among them, linebackers T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel, cornerback Sojourn Shelton, and safety Leo Musso all moved on to pursue life in the NFL, while linebackers Jack Cichy and Zack Baun are both out for the year with knee and foot injuries respectively.

However, this is football, and when someone falls, a new man is ready to step up. Linebackers T.J. Edwards, Ryan Connelly, and Garret Dooley will look to fill big shoes left by those mentioned above, while Nick Nelson alongside D’Cota Dixon, Derrick Tindal, and Natrell Jamerson represent an encouraging core to an athletic secondary.

If there’s one aspect of the defense that will confront the most action, the secondary should be tested versus Utah State, a team that relies heavily on mobile QB Kent Myers, who passed for 2389 yards last season while rushing for 449. Last season, the Badgers ranked 58th in passing defense among the FBS, but Utah State should be a less formidable opponent than the slew of top ranked teams the Badgers faced in 2016.

Utah State played only two games versus premier programs last season, one versus USC, and another against Boise State. USC blew out the Aggies 45-7, while Boise State escaped with only a 21-10 victory. It’s games like Boise State that the Badgers hope to avoid, and we can all remember a game versus Georgia State that was a touch too close for comfort. Head coach Paul Chryst feels similarly,

“From what we’ve seen on our film in preparation, you know a lot of good players that are returning,” Chryst said. “I think schematically, we don’t know for sure what they’ll give us, but what they’ve shown on film, I think there’re areas that project from their offense, their defense and even their special teams, that present challenges.”

However, Chryst feels confident in the team’s preparedness, emphasizing how the squad has capitalized on their time thus far,

“I think it’s been a good week of preparation and I think the kids are certainly ready to play and take advantage of the time we have left to make sure that ‘i’s’ are dotted and ‘t’s’ are crossed [so that] the kids [can] go out and start the season.”

The Badgers will play under the Friday night lights this week while the game is broadcast live on ESPN. Stay tuned to learn the new faces of the Badger defense who hope to carry on the pattern of dominant, shutdown, gritty Wisconsin football.