This game will be won as much on the sidelines and on the headset as it will be on the field.
For the Badgers, this should not be foreign.
Assuming Wisconsin’s game at Michigan on Saturday is played — it is currently on track to be — UW will likely be shorthanded. Head coach Paul Chryst, in an interview with the Big Ten Network on Wednesday, said that at least 10 players would be unavailable. The biggest question mark surrounds freshman quarterback Graham Mertz — he first tested positive for COVID-19 on Oct. 24 according to the Wisconsin State Journal, meaning Saturday will mark 21 days. The positive case came just one day after his breakout performance in a blowout win against Illinois.
As part of the Big Ten’s protocols in returning to play, players must undergo a 21-day observation period before they are eligible to play in a game. Players cannot return to practice until day 19 at the earliest, which for Mertz is Thursday.
Backup quarterback Chase Wolf was also reportedly one of the 30 Badgers players and staff to test positive. If Mertz is unable to play, the Badgers will likely turn to third-stringer Danny Vanden Boom.
“What you want to do is to put them in a position that the whole group would be confident in executing, I think that’s key,” offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said Wednesday. “I think as we close out this week, it’ll be really good for us this evening, tomorrow, to really close down on the calls and try to get it tight enough to where everyone feels really confident and comfortable [that] whoever is taking the reins has the skillset and the understanding to be able to execute. I think that’s kind of the key.”
Yes, these types of quotes are expected for a coordinator at risk of playing without his quarterback. But they are also indicative of the type of program Wisconsin is.
The Badgers are well-accustomed to developing their entire roster, not just their highest-recruits. J.J. Watt, Mark Tauscher, current defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, Ryan Ramczyk and Joe Schobert headline a long list of players that entered the program as walk-ons before earning starring roles on the team and enjoying lengthy NFL careers.
More recently, under Chryst, the Badgers have finished the season ranked No. 11 or better in the nation in three of the last four seasons. This is despite the team ranking below almost all of its competitors in recruiting — in the last four seasons, the Badgers have the 35th, 39th, 46th and 29th ranked recruiting classes in the nation according to 247Sports.
This is by design, as well. According to USA Today, the Badgers spent $350,000 on recruiting in 2017, which was one of the lowest numbers in the nation. In the Big Ten, this ranks dead last — Michigan ($1,397,784), Penn State ($1,369,428), Nebraska ($1,250,674), Minnesota ($1,081,075), Ohio State ($944,354), Rutgers ($824, 271), Michigan State ($766,139), ($739,680), Illinois ($739,680), Indiana ($692,972), Iowa ($608,755), Purdue ($555,565) and Maryland ($539,299) — as a private school, Northwestern’s recruiting budget is not public. Despite this, the Badgers have won the Big Ten West twice in the same time span.
Chryst’s opposing coach on Saturday, Jim Harbaugh, is the nation’s fourth highest-paid head coach, raking in $8,054,000 a year. This is nearly-double what Chryst is paid — he makes $4,250,000, good for the 28th-highest in the country.
Despite being at a disadvantage of nearly-double the salary and nearly four-times the recruiting budget, however, Chryst is 2-2 against Harbaugh.
Put simply, overcoming on-field disadvantages has become part of the program’s DNA. The team regularly lines up lower-ranked players than their opponents and expect success. This success come to fruition, too, as the Badgers have been one of the winningest programs in the country under Chryst.
How do you explain this?
The Badgers have some of the best player development in the country. There is perhaps no other team in the country that turns walk-ons and two and three-star recruits into NFL players with the regularity of Wisconsin. It’s why the team has a long history of undrafted players sticking around and making a career in the NFL — Alec Ingold, T.J. Edwards, Corey Clement, and Jonathan Casillas to name a few.
Wisconsin players are consistently some of the best coached and smartest players in the country. Harbaugh gets paid for his name and his brand — despite all the resources at his disposal, he owns a 9-13 record in games against ranked opponents. Only three of those wins came against teams ranked higher than Michigan, and Harbaugh is yet to defeat bitter rival Ohio State.
It is growing increasingly clear that Harbaugh is holding Michigan back, not propelling them forward. Conversely, Chryst and his coaching staff have made a tradition of over performing what they’re given.
The Badgers will certainly be shorthanded against Michigan and face the possibility of playing without their phenom quarterback. But on-field disadvantages are nothing new for the Badgers. They are perhaps the most prepared for this dilemma.
“You get to game day and all of a sudden three guys might get pulled out,” Leonhard said Wednesday. “You never know. You have so many contingency plans. You have to prepare for so much more, which is OK.”