During Tuesday's press conference, Nebraska coaches and players learned that Wisconsin’s starting quarterback and redshirt freshman Graham Mertz’s second test for COVID-19 came back positive.
Per Big Ten rules, Mertz must miss not only Saturday’s game against Nebraska, but also Wisconsin’s next two games against Purdue and Michigan.
Mertz’s backup, sophomore quarterback Chase Wolf, also tested positive and probably won’t be playing either. This leaves the Badgers with fourth-string junior quarterback Danny Vanden Boom as their best option on Saturday, and Vanden Boom has attempted just one pass at the collegiate level.
“As a player, it definitely grabs your attention. Now that you’ve seen such a high-caliber player go down like that...it definitely grabs your attention,” sophomore defensive tackle Casey Rogers said in Tuesday’s press conference. “A lot of times, guys feel a little safe inside the bubble we’re in but it’s possible we can still catch the virus and can happen to anyone.”
Make no mistake, Nebraska coaches are not taking the news lightly. One of their first thoughts after Mertz’s second positive test was how Wisconsin would find new ways to beat the Huskers.
One player who received glowing praise from Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander was Wisconsin senior running back Garrett Groshek.
Chinander said that Groshek was a key part of Wisconsin’s offense in the Badgers’ week one victory over Illinois, taking over the feature back role from the now-graduated Jonathan Taylor. With the Badgers looking for any viable option at the quarterback position Chinander mentioned Grosheks’ past as a high school quarterback as a possibility for the Badgers on Saturday.
“Ever since the news broke on Twitter, the first thought popped in my head is that A: they’ll keep the same game plan,” Chinander said in Tuesday’s press conference. “Or Option B:...Garret Groshek will go in as quarterback...They’re definitely going to I assume use him as a quarterback in a wildcat formation.”
Groshek has thrown one pass in his four years in a Badger, but was the Wisconsin Offensive Player of the Year in 2016 at Amherst high school, playing quarterback..No matter the quarterback, the Huskers are focused on stopping the Wisconsin ground game in a matter similar to the Ohio State game last week.
“We did a good job against the run [against Ohio State]. I was happy with those young guys up front,” Chinander said.
The Husker front seven put a lid on the Buckeyes ground game, with the exception of junior quarterback Justin Field’s dynamicism, with a much younger crew up front. Rogers and redshirt freshman Ty Robinson were two younger players that defensive line coach Tony Tuioti were impressed with.
Another component of Robinson and Rogers’ play Tuioti liked was how versatile they were against Ohio State. The two were able to play in multiple spots on the defensive line, a trend that Tuioti wants to take advantage of against Wisconsin.
“Casey Rogers and Ty Robinson give us the ability to be able to stay big and still be able to be athletic whether they decide to run or pass the ball,” Tuioti said at Tuesday’s press conference. “We have enough guys within our group to present different problems for offenses we face.”
With Vanden Boom most likely taking the reins, the Huskers will likely see heavier formations. The heavier formations could involve having six or possibly more offensive linemen on a play or the Badgers using two tight ends on the line of scrimmage and using a fullback in the backfield.
The latter formation is somewhat common for a run-heavy team but when combined with a sixth offensive lineman, could mean that up to nine blockers would be close to the line of scrimmage.
Chinander had similar comments about Wisconsin’s offense, as the Badgers want to dominate opponents on the ground. Unlike Ohio State, Chinander said that Wisconsin’s formation is bubble-like, meaning that the Badgers keep their formations together. Even as Wisconsin moves towards its fourth-string quarterback, the Husker coaching staff doesn’t expect the Badgers’ gameplan to change.
“They’re not going to change much,” Tuioti said. “For us up front, it’s really about controlling the line of scrimmage...If we can’t stop them running the ball, there’s no reason for them to stop running the ball.”
Thankfully for Nebraska fans Taylor, the Badger running back that ran for over 200 yards in each game against Nebraska and averaged just above nine yards a carry against the Huskers, is no longer on the roster. However, this does not mean that the Huskers can take Wisconsin’s running back corps lightly.
The one constant in all of Wisconsin’s wins against Nebraska has been the Badger offensive line. Nebraska’s front seven hasn’t matched the more physical Badgers up front. It will be no different in the Halloween match.
“This game is going to be won in the trenches,” Rogers said. “We’re ready to bang some heads and get dirty in the trenches.”