Two games into the No. 10 Wisconsin Badgers’ (2-0) abbreviated 2020 season, much of the talk has been about quarterback Graham Mertz, and rightfully so. The freshman quarterback followed his stellar debut against Illinois with another efficient, turnover-free performance at Michigan, the team’s second blowout victory in as many outings.
However, Mertz’s early success doesn’t change the fact that Wisconsin’s offensive identity is — no pun intended — grounded in the running game. A stunning 13 Badgers have handled a share of the team’s 105 rush attempts for a total of 523 yards, a healthy average of exactly five yards per carry.
In terms of carries, Wisconsin’s top four ball carriers — Nakia Watson, Jalen Berger, Garrett Groshek and Isaac Guerendo — are all running backs, but next on the list is senior wide receiver Danny Davis III.
Defending Davis III was a nightmarish task for Michigan last Saturday night, as the evidently-versatile wide receiver dashed for 65 yards and a touchdown on seven attempts.
Davis III was largely a non-factor in the passing game, with only one 6-yard reception and a frustrating drop in the third quarter, although Paul Chryst still incorporated the 6-foot, 194-pound wideout into the offense with great success.
On several occasions, Davis III lined up on Mertz’s strong side and behind the right side of the offensive line — the spot a fullback typically occupies. At the snap, Davis III would cross behind Mertz to the left in perfect position for a handoff, a modified version of the jet sweep. In the fourth quarter, Davis III recovered from a stumble on one of these runs and scored a five-yard touchdown. He also moved the chains multiple times in the first half from plays in this formation, while the game was still relatively close.
Other times, the Wisconsin offense followed an effective outside run on that play with a play-fake to Davis III and a handoff up the middle to one of the running backs, who enjoyed sizable holes to run through after the decoy Davis III scattered the Michigan defense.
Davis III also ran a couple traditional jet sweeps for large gains, lining up in the slot before motioning across the formation and taking a quick handoff from Mertz. He also gained considerable yardage on an end-around toss from running back Nakia Watson.
Contributions from Davis III, Wisconsin’s stellar offensive line and the running backs allowed the Badgers to run for 341 yards. However, running lanes may be harder to come by this Saturday against No. 19 Northwestern’s (4-0) formidable defense.
The Wildcats have allowed an average of 91.8 rushing yards-per-game, second only to Wisconsin in the Big Ten. Besides their 21-13 victory over Nebraska, in which they yielded 224 yards on the ground, the Northwestern run defense has been practically impenetrable. And, having surrendered only 210 passing yards-per-game, their pass defense should not be overlooked either.
While Northwestern will surely have watched film from the Wisconsin/Michigan game and be more prepared for Davis III’s running capabilities than were the Wolverines, the senior wideout can still be a difference maker against the Wildcats on Saturday, revealing defensive coverage schemes with his pre-snap motion and adding an element of creativity to the ground game.
Regardless of whether last week’s formula proves effective once again — or if Northwestern is wise to his outside running threat and he takes on a more conventional receiving role — Danny Davis III, one of the team’s most experienced wideouts, will have to be a key player in Wisconsin’s offense if they’re planning to have success moving the ball and hand the Wildcats their first loss of the season.