The calendar has turned to December, and we still know shockingly little about the No. 16 Wisconsin Badgers (2-1). The team has played just three games, each one telling a vastly different narrative about the state of the program.
After a resounding win at the Big House a month ago, it appeared as if the Badgers were a bonafide top-10 team. It was ‘death by a thousand cuts’ for Michigan that night, who couldn’t stop a cold, let alone the lineman, receivers, and running backs who played a part in Wisconsin’s 341-rushing-yard performance.
That game told the most believable story for building an identity of this team. Much like the Badgers teams of old, Wisconsin was going to run teams into the ground with tough, hard-nosed football.
That tough, hard-nosed football team was nowhere to be found in Evanston two weeks ago against No. 14 Northwestern (5-1). The Northwestern front swallowed up the Badger backs, limiting Wisconsin to just 3.4 yards-per-attempt. Quarterback Graham Mertz was dismal and finally looked like the freshman he is, tossing three interceptions and losing a fumble. A battered receiving corps didn’t make things easy on him, and the replacements for injured starters Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor failed to make an impression.
The performance against Northwestern begs the question: Who are the real Badgers? Is it the team that cruised past Illinois and Michigan, or is it the team that mustered just seven points against Northwestern?
Saturday’s game against No. 12 Indiana (5-1) will hopefully answer those questions. While no longer the same test now that Hoosiers quarterback Michael Penix Jr. has been ruled out, Indiana is still a top-15 team with explosive playmakers on offense and a defense that leads the conference in interceptions. This game will be no cakewalk.
Much of the focus will be on the offensive side of the ball for the Badgers, who must find a way to be more effective through the air on Saturday. The loss of Davis and Pryor clearly hindered Mertz and the air attack against Northwestern, and Jack Dunn, Adam Krumholz and Stephan Bracey struggled to create separation when thrust into bigger roles. Freshman Chimere Dike shined early, hauling in a 49-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter. After that, however, Dike was limited to just one catch.
Wisconsin will be getting reinforcements this Saturday. Pryor should be available against Indiana, and Danny Davis and Jake Ferguson may play as well. It remains to be known how close the latter two are to full strength, and how effective they’ll be given the opportunity against Indiana.
While the receivers struggled against Northwestern, Mertz shares the blame for the team’s offensive woes. Against the Wildcats, he was indecisive, inaccurate, and made several questionable reads that lead to turnovers. Simply put, that caliber of performance won’t cut it if Wisconsin hopes to knock off another top-15 team in Indiana.
Mertz struggled with pressure against Northwestern, and Indiana is another team that likes to bring pressure early and often. The Hoosiers turned over the usually-flawless Justin Fields three times and sacked him an additional five times, and if not for some backbreaking offensive turnovers would have had a real chance to upset the Buckeyes.
“They do a great job of hiding some and holding their blitzes and then bringing them post snap,” Mertz said of Indiana. “For us it's just trying to find those little things to identify it.”
Part of what helped Mertz settle in against Illinois and Michigan was an effective running game, which disappeared for the most part against Northwestern. Every Badger ball carrier was held under four yards-per-carry bar talented freshman Jalen Berger, who recorded 93 yards on 15 carries against the Wildcats.
Despite being the team’s most effective back, Berger recorded less than half of Wisconsin’s carries against Northwestern. Offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph cannot hold him back in the same fashion this Saturday. While his ability as a blocker has been questioned, Berger looks to be by far the team’s most talented back, and has shown considerably more speed, vision, and poise than Nakia Watson, Garrett Groshek, Issac Guerendo and the rest of the backs involved in the Badgers committee.
"Jalen has been good," Head Coach Paul Chryst said of Berger. "When you ask, 'what are people not seeing?' There's obviously a component of how you prepare mentally for a team, the film study that goes into it, how you approach each practice. Then there's another component to the recovery stage. If you do play in a game, what do you have to do after the game, early in the week to allow yourself to get ready.”
"Jalen's working through that. Each week, we ask him to try and become a little bit better at it,” Chryst added.
Defensively, the team’s main focus will be stopping Hoosiers QB Jack Tuttle, who will be making his first start in the absence of Penix. Tuttle, a four star recruit in the class of ‘18, was a Badger recruiting target before committing to Utah and eventually transferring to Indiana.
“To me the pass game, and the way it’s set up … they’ll get back to it. Penix was playing unbelievable,” said Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard when addressing the Indiana quarterback situation. “I feel for the kid because he’s had an injury a few years now. It’s fun to watch … he can make any throw. To us it’s what do you think they have to change? What do you think they’re going to have to do differently,”
Containing Tuttle will be more difficult without cornerback Rachad Wildgoose, who suffered a shoulder injury against Northwestern and later announced his intention to opt-out of the season to prepare for the 2021 NFL Draft. Wildgoose, an instinctive corner with high-end speed, flashed against Illinois but missed all of the Michigan game and most of the Northwestern game due to COVID-19 protocols and injury, respectively. Cornerbacks Caesar Williams, Semar Melvin, and Donte Burton will have to step up in his absence.
Saturday’s game will be played at 2:30 p.m. at Camp Randall. Wisconsin is a 14 point favorite, but the Badgers won’t be taking anything for granted after their debacle in Evanston.