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Friday, December 03, 2021
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Red-hot Badgers travel east to take on Rutgers

The Wisconsin Badgers (5-3) will travel to New Jersey for a 2:30 p.m. matchup against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights (4-4) on Saturday. 

A convincing, 27-7 victory over ninth-ranked Iowa extended the Badgers’ winning streak to four games. Rutgers is coming off a 20-14 win at Illinois, which snapped a brutal stretch of four consecutive losses during which they were outscored 124-46. 

Offensively, Rutgers has been very mediocre in 2021. The unit ranks 10th in the Big Ten with 342.1 yards per game and ninth with 23.6 points per game. That number is skewed, however, by their 61-point, season-opening blowout against Temple.

The Scarlet Knights have rushed for 143.8 yards per game, although with an unremarkable 3.6 yards per attempt. Isaih Pacheco has led the way with 420 yards, and having accounted for 58 percent of Rutgers’ carries by running backs, he’s likely to be heavily featured this Saturday. 

Starting quarterback Noah Vedral is also a big part of the running game, as he’s accumulated 72 carries this season and ranks second on the team with 250 yards. 

Neither Pacheco nor Vedral figures to find much running room against Wisconsin’s tenacious front seven, which has held opponents to a mere 49.6 rushing yards per game and a comical 1.7 yards per attempt. Led up front by linebackers Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal, the Badger defensive tackles exceptionally well and, much like in recent weeks, could force Rutgers to abandon the running game fairly early. 

Vedral has quarterbacked a modest passing attack, completing 61.8 percent of his attempts for 1,412 yards and seven touchdowns. Unless Pacheco and the Scarlet Knights establish a rushing attack, Vedral will be dropping back to pass often and exposing himself to a Badger pass rush that recorded six sacks against Iowa. 

Rutgers wide receiver Bo Melton has been Vedral’s top target, catching 37 passes for 411 yards and three touchdowns. The 5’11”, 195-pound senior is certainly a threat, but Wisconsin’s secondary has done well against more accomplished wideouts, namely Big Ten receiving yards leader David Bell of Purdue, and should manage fine against Melton. 

Much like the offense, Rutgers’ defense has been middle-of-the-pack in the Big Ten, ranking ninth with 360.3 yards allowed per game. The unit has yielded a hefty 144.1 rushing yards per game in 2021 and will have its hands full with Wisconsin running backs Chez Mellusi and Braelon Allen. 

Middle linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi has enjoyed a phenomenal season for Rutgers, ranking third in the Big Ten with 79 total tackles. The senior has also tallied 2.5 sacks, so Wisconsin’s offense will have to be aware of #3 in scarlet whether they’re passing or running the ball. 

Wisconsin’s offense figures to attack Rutgers’ defense with its usual, run-heavy approach. Quarterback Graham Mertz was unable to sustain early success against Iowa and struggled for much of the game, so head coach Paul Chryst is unlikely to test his luck with frequent passes. 

Aside from a few big plays by receiver Chimere Dike, Danny Davis and Jake Ferguson have carried the passing game with 23 and 25 catches, respectively, and should once again be Mertz’s primary targets. 

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Mellusi and Allen will likely have an even split of carries once again, with the latter seeking a fifth consecutive 100-plus yard game. 

Because they toppled Iowa, the Badgers now control their own destiny in the Big Ten West. November 27’s Minnesota showdown could determine who plays in the Big Ten Championship Game, but only if Wisconsin takes care of business against Rutgers this week before hosting Northwestern and Nebraska, both of whom currently have losing records. 

Wisconsin’s three losses can’t be erased, although they feel increasingly distant with each successive victory. The Badgers will look for their fifth consecutive victory at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday at Rutgers. 

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