The greatest college football programs typically have an identity – some feature or characteristic that sets them apart from other teams and explains their continued success. For the Wisconsin Badgers, they have made their name on two things consistently: running the ball and playing suffocating defense. As Wisconsin enters this weekend’s game with a below average record of 3-4, it’s fair to wonder how they have started this way.
There are many reasons that can explain the program's slide: subpar quarterback play, an offensive line that is weaker than usual, the inability to consistently establish the running game – the list goes on and on.
However, perhaps the most glaring issue to explain the Badgers’ slow start to the year is the regression of the defense. This year, the Badgers got beat up to the tune of 52 points in Columbus, and gave up 34 a piece to Illinois and Michigan State. Wisconsin’s defense ranks a very mediocre seventh in total defense in the Big Ten this season.
That pales in comparison to Wisconsin’s defenses in 2019 and 2021 – where they finished third and first in total defense, respectively. The Badgers have been hampered by injuries, particularly in the secondary. While the defense is normally strong enough to withstand injury issues, it doesn’t seem to be that way in 2022.
Wisconsin’s offense is normally not potent enough to win a high scoring game, and that is why they typically need their defense to pick up the slack. In all three of their conference losses this season, the defense has not shown up to help the offense finish off or even compete in games. The backslide in Wisconsin’s defensive success has represented a loss in a huge part of their identity, and it partly explains why they sit at the bottom of the Big Ten West standings.
If Wisconsin wants to salvage something from this season, they must defend Camp Randall and beat Purdue on Saturday. The Boilermakers are no slouch. They rank fifth in the conference in total offense – behind only Minnesota, Maryland, and Big Ten powers Michigan and Ohio State. Purdue will definitely challenge the Badgers beleaguered defense.
The Boilermakers are coming off a high-flying 43-37 win over Nebraska last weekend to vault them into a tie for first place in the Big Ten West. Purdue is led by quarterback Aidan O’Connell, who despite missing a game this season, has thrown for 1,950 yards while throwing 14 touchdowns and only five interceptions. O’Connell has also completed 66% of his passes and is averaging 7.2 yards per pass attempt. The 24-year-old signal-caller was named the Big Ten Co-Offensive Player of the Week after throwing for just under 400 yards and four touchdowns against Nebraska.
O’Connell is an experienced quarterback who was named to the All-Big Ten’s Second Team in 2021. He tallied 3,712 yards and 28 touchdowns while also setting a school completion percentage record with a stellar 71.8 percentage. O’Connell is a sixth year senior who has been the team’s starter for three years. He is arguably the best quarterback the Badgers have faced so far this year after Ohio State’s CJ Stroud.
Although, O’Connell surely hasn’t done it alone, as he has been aided by wide receiver Charlie Jones – another sixth-year who transferred from Iowa for this season. Jones has been a revelation for the Boilermakers as he is already near 1,000 yards on the season, averaging 11.9 yards per catch. Jones also has nine touchdowns this year, which is by far the most on Purdue. Jones just annihilated Nebraska’s secondary last week – catching 12 passes for 132 yards and two touchdowns.
The Boilermakers also have TJ Sheffield, who is averaging almost 12 yards per catch, and Payne Durham, who has 310 yards and three touchdowns this year. However, the offense undoubtedly runs through Jones, The Badgers allowed three Michigan State receivers to get over 70 yards last week, most notably Jayden Reed who totaled 119 yards. Wisconsin can anticipate a healthy amount of pass attempts from Purdue this weekend, and they cannot treat Jones the same way the Cornhuskers did.
While the Boilermakers make their name through the air, they are far from a one-dimensional offense. Purdue enters this game averaging 133 rushing yards per game. Their strong rushing attack helps balance the offense, resulting in a more efficient O’Connell-led passing game. Purdue’s rush offense is led by Devin Mockabee, who has rushed for 453 yards while averaging 5.7 yards per carry with five touchdowns on the year. Mockabee also tortured Nebraska’s defense last week – rushing for 178 yards and a touchdown.
Mockabee is helped by his backfield mate Dylan Downing, who has added 249 yards and four touchdowns to Mockabee’s already dangerous attack. The Badgers defense has been particularly weak against the run this season, as they are just ninth in total run defense and are giving up 114 rush yards per game. The Badgers only gave up 64.8 rushing yards per game last year, so it’s clear that Purdue may look to exploit Wisconsin’s deficient run defense.
The Boilermakers have proven they are a very formidable team, with a balanced offense led by a prolific and experienced quarterback. The Badger defense will need to wake up and look like the Wisconsin defense of old if they are to slow down Purdue and get back in the win column on Saturday.