Wisconsin will take the field once again at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday, this time under the lights against Eastern Michigan, who beat St. Francis 35-15 last week. To capture their first win of 2021, the Badgers will need a better all-around performance than they displayed in the 16-10 loss to Penn State, but they must place particular emphasis on a few areas of their game.
1. Respect the run
Jim Leonhard’s defense held Penn State to 50 rushing yards on 18 attempts, although they’ll face a significantly more run-heavy offense this week. In their season-opening victory, Eastern Michigan managed 221 yards and five touchdowns on 58 rushing attempts. Their 3.8-yard average was unspectacular, but the sheer volume of their ground game, as well as the fact they attempted only 22 passes, should make crowding the line of scrimmage a priority for Wisconsin. Further, the quarterback duo of Preston Hutchinson and Ben Bryant totaled 15 rushing attempts last Saturday, albeit for a modest 41-yard total. They’re another factor for which the Badger defense will have to account.
Of course, stacking the box to stifle Eastern Michigan’s ground game will expose Wisconsin’s secondary, which badly blew a coverage and allowed Penn State’s Jahan Dotson to easily score a 49-yard touchdown. That said, the Nittany Lions presented a far more threatening passing attack than Eastern Michigan will, and Wisconsin would still be wise to prioritize stopping the run.
2. Score, don’t squander
This is the low-hanging fruit in analyzing Wisconsin’s Week 1 loss, but it’s of paramount importance if Paul Chryst’s squad is going to have any success this Saturday and beyond. Quarterback Graham Mertz opened the second quarter with a one-yard rush that gave the Badgers 1st and goal at the two-yard line. However, Wisconsin failed to score thanks to a false start, three plays that produced no yardage and a blocked, 25-yard field goal attempt.
On his next drive, Mertz lost a fumble at Penn State’s 13-yard line.
Then, with Penn State leading 16-10 in the fourth quarter, the second-year starter led Wisconsin to the one-yard line while running the clock down to 2:38. Two negative runs ensued, the second of which included a fumble on a botched handoff that Wisconsin barely recovered. After an incompletion on the third down and an interception on the fourth down later, the Badgers had squandered yet another excellent scoring opportunity and blown their last legitimate chance at a comeback victory.
3. Downfield to Davis
Wide receiver Danny Davis III was undoubtedly one of the bright spots for Wisconsin last Saturday, hauling in eight passes for 99 yards. Including his two games in 2020, the senior has now totaled 177 yards on his last 11 catches, a 16.1-yard average that suggests he’s a formidable mid-range threat whom Mertz, who’s struggled to push the ball downfield in his brief tenure as Wisconsin’s starter, should continue utilizing.
Although Eastern Michigan limited St. Francis’ quarterbacks to 187 yards, they did allow a hefty 13.4 yards per completion. Wideout Kahtero Summers accumulated 117 yards on five receptions, one of which went for 51 yards.
It’s no coincidence that the Badgers’ two highest-scoring games last season came with Davis on the field. Wisconsin’s offensive identity is rooted in the ground game. Still, Mertz could make the unit far more dynamic by being aggressive on early-down plays and feeding Davis, fellow wideout Kendrick Pryor, and tight end Jake Ferguson with throws beyond the sticks.