In perhaps the most exciting Wisconsin football game of the year, the new Leonhard-lead Badgers will face the Purdue Boilermakers in a classic Big Ten West matchup. Homecoming games are always an important part of the season experience for students, faculty, fans and alumni.
This weekend will undoubtedly be no different. But, as the Badgers sit at a concerning 3-4 record, this matchup is much more important than a homecoming game. It may prove instrumental in orchestrating a 21st straight bowl game appearance. Or, it could be one of the final nails in the coffin that would break the third longest active college football bowl game streak.
If the Badgers are to have any chance of winning in front of a packed Camp Randall crowd on Saturday, points need to be scored. As we’ve seen throughout the first seven weeks of the season, defense has not exactly been a point of positive emphasis.
With an average of 21.5 points allowed in all games this season (including the shut-out against Illinois State and only seven points for New Mexico State), the defense has left pressure on the offense to win games. In Big Ten play alone, the defense has given up an average of almost 32 points. It is clear offense is shaping up to be the only hope at winning games the rest of the season.
Thankfully for Badger nation, the offense has been capable of providing sparks of hope throughout the season. While most of the gameplay we’ve seen so far has not been winning football overall, examining the potential of the offense — especially the receiving core — provides hope for a win on Saturday.
Averaging 31.3 points a game puts Wisconsin right in the middle of the Big Ten. While every team certainly has their firepower, the Badgers’ potential is still exciting, even seven games in.
Surprisingly, a majority of the potential emerging has been through the air. For many years, Wisconsin has been known for their “smash mouth football.” However, the firing of Paul Chryst may well have marked the end of this era as a whole. Of course, Braelon Allen remains one of the most electric playmakers in the conference, but future success in the Badger offense needs to come from — dare I say it — throwing the ball.
Many people would argue this is not true, the argument being that Mertz is too untrustworthy, especially with the little amount of time he gets in the pocket. What’s promising is who he’s throwing to when he has time to air out an accurate pass.
Unfortunately, the Badgers will be losing one of their top receivers. Just two days after the 34-28 loss to Michigan State, Markus Allen entered the transfer portal. The freshman averaged 13 yards per catch in just six games with a touchdown against Northwestern.
Even with the impending loss of Allen, faith in the rest of the core has not wavered. The other top four receivers can absolutely carry the weight of the drives and scoring.
Regarded as one of the top defensive prospects in the 2018 class, the junior has played an integral part in providing dynamic options for Mertz to find when in need. This is his first career season playing wide receiver, and the decision to switch him to the offensive side of the ball has been beneficial. Since he was a transition player from defense to offense, his aggressive playstyle and physicality serves him well in the air, too. While he hasn’t caught a touchdown yet, his 13 yards per catch prove useful in propelling the Badger offense forward.
Lewis’ first year in Madison has provided the first real flashes of his abilities. After transferring to Wisconsin from UCLA, where he did not record a reception, Lewis has averaged 17 yards per catch with two touchdowns on the season. Now, he is able to demonstrate his quick ability to find separation at the top of his routes — proving himself an integral part of the offense. Adding the sophomore to this year’s squad has clearly been useful, and his continued development will be extremely exciting to watch.
While it’s no surprise Bell has thrived in his first full season for the Badgers, it is still just as fun to watch his play improve with every week. Bell recorded his longest catch of the season last week against Michigan State to add to his 280 yards and three touchdowns on the season. He has a keen ability to find the pockets of space between defenders, settling in as a reliable target for Mertz. There is no doubt Skylar Bell is the future of the Badgers’ receiving core — and this will only further prove true as the season progresses.
The Badgers’ leader in receptions, receiving yards, yards per catch, receiving yards per game, receiving touchdowns and every other receiving category, Chimere Dike has by far been one of the best receivers in the conference. He’s able to find space with shifty routes inside the secondary, and he can also break out and find downfield separation, making him an unpredictable target to cover. With five touchdowns and almost 500 yards on the season, Dike is unarguably one of the brightest stars of the season, and he shows no signs of slowing down.
In all, if a “beat Purdue” sentiment is to be fulfilled Saturday, it has to be through the air, as the run game has become stagnant and predictable against better Big Ten competition. This squad of receivers, plus the backfield catching abilities of Allen, Mellusi and Guerendo, should have no trouble against a Purdue defense ranked 103 best in passing yards allowed.