Two weeks ago, 12th-ranked Indiana (5-1) visiting Madison for a late-season matchup with Wisconsin (2-1) would’ve been considered must-see TV. However, unfortunate developments for both teams last weekend eliminated much of the hype surrounding this Big 10 showdown.
For Wisconsin, an uninspired 17-7 loss at Northwestern washed away the excitement of a promising 2-0 start. Defensively, the Badgers performed well, but with five turnovers, Graham Mertz and the offense might as well have missed the bus to Evanston.
Then, a COVID-19 outbreak in the Minnesota program caused the cancellation of Wisconsin’s game last weekend, thus disqualifying the Badgers from Big Ten West contention. The loss at Northwestern made the Big Ten Championship Game a long shot anyways, as the Wildcats would’ve needed to lose twice for Wisconsin to win the division, but now the Badgers won’t even get the chance to claw their way back up the standings.
Meanwhile, Indiana, perhaps college football’s biggest surprise in 2020, improved to 5-1 with a 27-11 victory over Maryland last Saturday, although a season-ending ACL tear for quarterback Michael Penix Jr. overshadowed the win.
A week prior, the 4-0 Hoosiers competed with third ranked Ohio State for four quarters, ultimately losing 42-35. Despite the loss, Indiana’s performance verified that the 2020 Hoosiers are no fluke. Penix Jr. passed for 491 yards and five touchdowns against the perennially-stellar Buckeyes secondary. Further, Indiana picked off OSU quarterback and soon-to-be first round pick Justin Fields three times. In his second year as Ohio State’s starter, Fields had only thrown three career interceptions entering the Indiana game, so the Hoosiers’ ability to create takeaways cannot be overlooked, final score aside.
Indiana’s defense repeated the three-interception effort last weekend, this time victimizing Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, brother of NFL rookie and former Alabama star Tua.
Offensively, the Hoosiers success was almost entirely dependent on Penix Jr., as the running game has been abysmal thus far in 2020, averaging only 102.3 yards per game and 3.0 yards per carry, 12th and 13th, respectively, in the Big 10.
Senior receiver Ty Fryfogle has excelled this year, with 33 catches for 652 yards and seven touchdowns. Twice, against Michigan State and Ohio State, he compiled over 200 receiving yards with multiple touchdowns. Fryfogle’s gamebreaking potential may be limited without Penix Jr. under center, although he presumes to make life easier for fill-in quarterback Jack Tuttle, especially considering the absence of standout Wisconsin cornerback Rachad Wildgoose.
Any chances of a Big 10 Championship or berth in the College Football Playoff have expired for the Wisconsin Badgers, but that doesn’t render Saturday afternoon’s bout with Indiana entirely meaningless. Some players have the opportunity to improve their profile ahead of April’s NFL Draft. Others, especially Graham Mertz, hope to get some valuable experience against an opponent of Indiana’s caliber, arguably Wisconsin’s toughest matchup of 2020.
Mertz opened the season against Illinois with a hot hand, but was mediocre against Michigan and struggled mightily against Northwestern. These last two games of 2020, assuming they’re both played, will give Mertz a chance to prove he’s the real deal, not a one-game wonder.
The Wisconsin defense is capable of handling Indiana’s depleted offense fairly easily, and hopes to do so when they face-off against the Hoosiers in an empty Camp Randall Stadium at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday.