It isn’t quite the reward the Badgers must have imagined after their impressive 2-0 start, but Wisconsin (3-3) will play Wake Forest (4-4) in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl Wednesday, their 19th consecutive bowl appearance.
The Duke’s Mayo Bowl is a fitting end to what’s been an ultimately disappointing season for the Badgers. After coming out the gate red hot with blowout wins against Illinois and at Michigan, Wisconsin’s offense vanished against Northwestern, Indiana and Iowa, all games the Badgers eventually dropped. While Wisconsin saved their bowl streak and pride with an overtime victory against Minnesota, the Badgers and their fans certainly envisioned a record better than 3-3 after their trip to the Big House.
Wisconsin’s offense has lived and died by the performance of quarterback Graham Mertz. Mertz was outstanding in the opening two games against Illinois and Michigan, but had his confidence shaken in a five-interception loss in Evanston to Northwestern and never seemed to gain it back. Mertz was inaccurate, slow in his decision making, and generally out-of-sorts in the final four games of the season, and while poor receiver depth certainly contributed, Mertz’s performance over the latter half of the season was characterized by erratic overthrows, even when receivers were open.
Mertz suffered a head injury in Wisconsin’s win over Minnesota, but will be available for Wednesday’s game against Wake Forest. Badgers fans are hoping he’ll regain his early season form, but Mertz will once again be without his two best receivers Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor.
Davis and Pryor haven’t been healthy since Wisconsin’s blow out win over Michigan, and while replacements Chimere Dike and Jack Dunn have outperformed expectations, neither have managed to come close to filling the shoes left by Davis and Pryor. Underclassmen A.J. Abbott and Devin Chandler have had chances to step up, but both have struggled to separate thus far.
As one might expect, Wisconsin’s running game has taken a huge step back without Jonathan Taylor. What’s more surprising, however, is the way the carries have been distributed. Nakia Watson, widely expected to be the primary back entering the year, played poorly this season and saw his carry-share drop off steadily as the season progressed. Stepping up in his place has been talented freshman Jalen Berger, who rushed for 5.9 yards-per-carry during the regular season. Berger led the team in carries and ran effectively against Michigan, Northwestern and Indiana, but missed the team’s final two games against Iowa and Minnesota due to COVID-19.
Berger will be back for Wednesday’s game against Wake Forest, which should help open up the running game. Garrett Groshek was outstanding in relief of Berger against Minnesota, but is better suited to be a complementary back than a true workhorse.
Wisconsin would likely be 2-4 or worse if not for the outstanding performance of the team’s defense, particularly the linebacking corps. True freshman Nick Herbig has been outstanding against the run, recording six tackles for a loss. The inside backing duo of Leo Chenal and Jack Sanborn has been equally impressive, with the former earning the Bednarik Defensive Player of the Week award for a 13-tackle performance against Minnesota.
While the defensive line, anchored by nose tackle Keeanu Benton, and the aforementioned linebacking unit have been fantastic, the Badger defensive backs have been up and down this year, especially after Rachad Wildgoose suffered an injury and opted out to enter the 2020 NFL draft. Caesar Williams, the team’s top cornerback, was exposed against Rashad Bateman and co. against Minnesota. The safety tandem of Scott Nelson and Eric Burrell has been rock solid at times and shaky at others, with Nelson in particular struggling with second level tackling.
The Wake Forest offense will look to pick on the holes in that secondary tomorrow, and has the personnel to do just that, as evidenced by offensive outbursts of 40, 42 and 53 points against Virginia, NC State and North Carolina respectively. The Deacons are quarterbacked by talented sophomore Sam Hartman, who has thrown for an impressive 8.1 yards-per-attempt this season. Hartman has thrown for 10 touchdowns against just one interception, and has had particular success throwing to junior receiver Jaquarii Roberson, who has recorded 54 catches for 795 yards and five touchdowns this season.
The team is led on the ground by Christian Beal-Smith, a power back who rushed for 650 yards and four touchdowns this season. He forms an impressive “Thunder and Thunder” combo with big back Kenneth Walker III, who featured in goal to goal situations for the Deacons and scored 13 touchdowns alongside 579 rushing yards. Walker will miss tomorrow’s game, however.
Despite boasting an offense that averaged 37 points a game, Wake Forest has limped to a 4-4 record this season, dropping shootouts against NC State and North Carolina and getting battered by No. 1 Clemson and Louisville. The Deacons do boast one ranked win, a home victory against No. 19 Virginia Tech, but their other two conference wins, Virginia and Syracuse, are ACC bottom feeders.
The Deacons defense has struggled all year long, giving up over 35 points in all four of the team’s losses. Defensive end Carlos Basham is their best defensive player and will be selected in one of the first couple rounds of the NFL draft, but he opted out of playing against Wisconsin to prepare for the NFL draft.
The Deacons have been devastated by COVID-19 all year, and have barely been able to play enough scholarship corners and safeties in several of their games. Wake will be closer to full strength Wednesday, so it will be interesting to see how their defensive unit tomorrow compares to what we saw in the regular season.
In the end, Wisconsin’s offense must take advantage of Wake’s poor defensive talent if they want to win tomorrow’s game. The game presents a golden opportunity for Mertz to regain some of his confidence and generate some momentum for 2021, and we should get to see the best of Jalen Berger, who will have ample opportunities to break off big runs against a Wake Forest defensive line down its best player.
It will also be interesting to see how Wisconsin’s defense will fare against the kind of up-tempo spread offense that is so rare in the Big Ten. Wisconsin has been fantastic against the run in 2020, but Sam Hartman and co. will be looking to test the Badgers secondary far more frequently than Spencer Petras (Iowa), Jack Tuttle (Indiana), and Peyton Ramsey (Northwestern).
Wisconsin is a 10.5-point favorite in tomorrow’s game, although nothing should be taken for granted. The Badgers have failed to cover the spread in four consecutive games, and will need more offensive firepower to reverse that trend and improve to 5-1 in bowl games under head coach Paul Chryst.