The Wisconsin Badgers (6-6, 4-5) will face the Oklahoma State Cowboys (7-5, 4-5) on Tuesday at 9:15 p.m. in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl.
With new-look depth charts due to transfers and draft declarations, the teams will meet at Chase Field, home of MLB’s Arizona Diamondbacks, to conclude their disappointing 2022 campaigns.
Those who can stay awake for another late-night bowl game will notice many veteran Badgers missing.
Wisconsin will be without front-seven stalwarts Nick Herbig and Keeanu Benton. The linebacker and the defensive tackle are preparing for the 2023 NFL Draft, where they both figure to receive later-round consideration. According to the Badgers’ Dec. 19 depth chart, sophomore Kaden Johnson and junior Gio Paez will fill Herbig and Benton’s respective starting roles.
The same goes for center Joe Tippmann, who gives way to Tanor Bortolini up the middle. Bortolini will be seeing his first action at center after starting seven games at guard in 2022.
Another notable absence will be running back Isaac Guerendo, who entered the transfer portal following the regular season. Luckily, Braelon Allen and Chez Mellusi are both healthy and playing, but losing Guerendo’s prowess as a kick returner is concerning. Receiver Chimere Dike, listed atop the kick returner depth chart, lacks Guerendo’s speed and explosiveness.
The running backs figure to handle an especially large workload with so little experience at quarterback for the Badgers. Without Graham Mertz, who plans to transfer to Florida, either Chase Wolf or Myles Burkett will start. Wolf, a redshirt senior, appeared in two games and attempted six passes this season after returning from an early injury.
Burkett, a freshman, should get the bulk of the opportunities, perhaps as a glimpse of the future. Planning for next season should be new head coach Luke Fickell’s priority in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl, and giving Burkett a chance on the national stage would be a lot more beneficial for 2023 and beyond than letting Wolf play three quarters.
“These guys understand that it’s just another opportunity for someone else,” Fickell said on Dec. 13 of the bowl game. “When you’ve got the depth in the program, when you’ve done things as well as they’ve done them, that’s just another chance for somebody else to step up.”
Wisconsin’s three leading receivers — Dike, Skyler Bell and Keontez Lewis — will all play, as will most of the starting defense besides Herbig and Benton.
Oklahoma State got off to an impressive 5-0 start in 2022 before losing five of its last seven. Their defense struggled in an offensive-oriented Big 12, yielding 32.6 points per game in that seven-game stretch and 440.1 total yards per game on the season.
The Cowboys surrendered the most passing yards in the conference and the third-most rushing yards. If not for a reliable passing offense — third-best in the Big 12 in yardage — they would have finished much lower than fifth in conference.
That passing attack will be without starting quarterback Spencer Sanders, who completed 57.6%of his passes for 2,642 yards and 17 touchdowns in 10 games. He also ran for 391 yards and eight touchdowns, making him a dual-threat quarterback who Wisconsin’s defense will be happy to avoid. He entered the transfer portal in December.
Starting in Sanders’ place will be Garret Rangel. In three games, the freshman passed for 482 yards (53.6 completion percentage) and threw two touchdowns with three interceptions. Unlike Sanders, Rangel presents no danger as a runner.
In fact, the Cowboys as a team struggle to run the ball — their 131.8 rushing yards per game ranked ninth out of 10 in the Big 12. They may be lucky to achieve their season average of 3.5 yards per carry versus the Badgers, who held opposing rushers to 3.0 yards per attempt in 2022.
Leading rusher Dominic Richardson is unavailable, pushing running backs Ollie Gordon (263 yards, 5.3 per carry) and Jaden Nixon (175, 4.0) into more prominent roles.
Oklahoma State won’t have its leading receiver, either. The 5-foot-8 Brennan Presley accumulated 739 yards on 61 catches, both team-highs, but is now in the transfer portal. Look for wideouts Bryson Green (584 yards, five touchdowns), Braydon Johnson (18.3 yards per catch) and John Paul Richardson (47 catches) to test Wisconsin’s cornerbacks and carry whatever offensive production the Cowboys manage.
Other absences include Oklahoma State’s leading tackler in linebacker Mason Cobb, as well as starting cornerback Jabbar Muhammad. Cobb is especially notable, assuming Wisconsin frequently runs the ball to avoid overworking Wolf and Burkett.
Turning the page
Tuesday marks a soft opening of the new era of Badger football. It’s difficult to remember the last Badger football game without longtime starters Herbig, Benton and Mertz.
Fickell has his hands plenty full this offseason — with recruiting, the transfer portal and earning the trust of veteran Badgers, among other tasks — but he also has a bowl game to coach.
The Guaranteed Rate Bowl figures to be a low-scoring affair, which is a concept foreign to Oklahoma State. While winning a bottom-tier bowl game isn’t crucial, a Wisconsin victory would begin the Fickell era on a positive note and possibly offer a preview of some first-time starters for 2023.
“I think for Coach Fickell it’s a good idea to get an understanding of the players,” Bortolini said on Dec. 2 in a press conference. “I think going forward this is definitely going to help us a lot next year.”
“They look good to me,” Fickell said of his players. “Let’s find out who we’ve got, and let’s find a way to finish this and win.”
Keep an eye on The Daily Cardinal’s website and @cardinal_sports on Twitter for a player-by-player recap of the 2022 regular season, as well as great coverage of all things Badger sports.