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Thursday, October 21, 2021
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Gameday V: Badgers should lean on Berger versus No. 12 Indiana

The Badgers may have struck running back gold again in New Jersey.

The state’s fertile recruiting ground has been historically rewarding for Wisconsin, especially in the running back department. Badger legends Jonathan Taylor and Ron Dayne hail from the garden state, as do other highly productive alumni such as Corey Clement and Anthony Davis.  Wisconsin’s recruiting system and playstyle are geared toward producing dynamic backs behind a massive offensive line. Enter Jalen Berger.

Born in Newark, NJ, the six-foot, 210-pound true freshman looks primed to explode onto the scene. A top-50 recruit nationally in the 2020 class, Berger had offers from everywhere – Alabama, Ohio State, Oregon, LSU and Florida, just to name a few. It’s reasonable to think Wisconsin’s history of turning New Jersey products into stars had something to do with his decision, along with the way the Badgers offense is built.

“The O-line is just amazing, so the University of Wisconsin was for me,” Berger said immediately following his verbal commitment to Wisconsin at the 2020 All-American Bowl.  

Following the departure of Taylor to the NFL last spring, Berger has had quiet success so far in a backfield currently lacking in star power. Berger has run for 180 yards and a score with an impressive team leading 6.0 yards-per-carry. Against No. 14 Northwestern, Berger was essentially the lone bright spot offensively. Minus a picturesque touchdown toss to fellow freshman Chimere Dike, Berger’s consistent, hard-nosed running was all Wisconsin had to like on offense. His 93 yards on 15 rushes (good for a healthy 6.2 yards-per-carry) was by far the most on the team, and no other Wisconsin runner came close to his efficiency.

Berger seems to have the trust of the coaching staff, as against Northwestern he doubled the carries of the Badgers’ second most used back, Nakita Watson. What’s more, this showing came on the road versus an undefeated, ranked Big Ten opponent. If Berger had the keys to the ground game in that situation, there’s little reason to think his usage will drop off.

With Indiana, Wisconsin faces yet another talented, ball-hawking defense bustling with playmakers. No. 12 Indiana enters Saturday’s contest averaging three takeaways per game, which ranks second in the nation. They have three defensive backs who each have three interceptions, undoubtedly hungry to force quarterback Graham Mertz into a repeat of his ugly performance against Northwestern.  

During their high-profile showdown with Ohio State, that secondary forced sensational Buckeye quarterback Justin Fields into an uncharacteristic three interceptions and just two touchdowns.  All of this should work in Berger’s favor to be heavily involved in the game script early on.

Establishing the run will be key for Wisconsin to take the Hoosiers’ feisty secondary out of the game and put less pressure on Mertz. With Indiana breakout quarterback Michael Penix Jr. out with a torn ACL, the Hoosiers will need rhythm and efficiency on offense.  By the laws of complementary football, a steady running attack that possesses the ball and eats clock for Wisconsin is just the thing to counteract Indiana’s expected gameplan.  

All signs point to the Jalen Berger show Saturday in Madison. Look for him to run away with it.

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