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For all intents and purposes, Wisconsin football was dead to rights following a 38-17 beatdown at the hands of Michigan on Oct. 2.

The loss dropped the Badgers to 1-3 on the season and 0-2 in Big Ten play — Wisconsin’s worst start to a season since 1990 and worst conference start since 2008. Since then, the Badgers have ripped off six consecutive victories, ascending to No. 19 in the most recent installment of the AP Top 25.

Most importantly, Wisconsin’s six-game win streak placed it on the inside track for a Big Ten West Championship and, therefore, a place in the Big Ten Championship on Dec. 4 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Little separates the top four teams in the Big Ten West, placing an increased importance on the regular season’s final two contests for the Badgers.

Wisconsin’s style of play is distinct and clear. Under head coach Paul Chryst, the Badgers play smashmouth football that relies on a physical offensive line that dominates the line of scrimmage, a hard-hitting and technically sound defense as well as a devastatingly effective running game. 

Wisconsin’s momentum appears to be growing with each passing week, and the Badgers appear to be playing their best football of the season at an ideal time to do so. 

Here are some Badger players to watch out for ahead of a critical game in the Big Ten West race:

Leo Chenal, LB:

Any discourse about Wisconsin’s season thus far begins with its defense, and any discourse about Wisconsin’s defense begins with junior linebacker Leo Chenal.

In short, Chenal has been one of the best linebackers in college football this season. The Grantsburg, Wisconsin native and 2020 Honorable Mention All-Big Ten leads a Badger defense that concedes an FBS-best 216.3 yards per game and an average of 14.6 points per game, which ranks second nationally. 

Chenal, in eight games this season, has recorded 81 total tackles and forced two fumbles. His 10.1 tackles per game rank him No. 10 nationally, and he’s added 6.5 sacks and two forced fumbles. Against Northwestern last Saturday, Chenal recorded 14 total tackles, 9 solo tackles, 3 tackles-for-loss and 1 sack.

On Monday, Pro Football Focus (PFF) pinned Chenal as the football analytics websites’ highest-graded linebacker in college football through Week 11 of the season, a further testament of his impressive season.

Chenal and senior linebacker Jack Sandborn will play a significant part in attempting to slow an inconsistent Nebraska offense down on Saturday, with Chenal leading a linebacker tandem garnering praise as one of the best duos in college football. 

“Those two are playing really high-level football,” Chryst said following the Badgers’ 35-7 thrashing of Northwestern. “And they bring it every day. As good as they’re playing, there’s others around that are also helping that.”

Wisconsin’s defense is an incredible unit, and Chenal is the engine that allows that defense to operate. Nebraska will have its work cut out for it in minimizing Chenal’s impact on Saturday’s contest. 

Braelon Allen, RB: 

Freshman running back Braelon Allen has been one of college football’s best stories this season, and his ascendance to stardom has directly coincided with Wisconsin’s winning streak.

The 17-year-old native of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin was originally a four-star recruit in the class of 2022, but reclassified to join the team ahead of the 2021 season. So far this season, Allen appears to be the next man up in a lengthy lineage of extremely successful Badger running backs.

Over the course of Wisconsin’s winning streak, Allen has eclipsed the 100-yard mark on the ground in each game. He’s averaging over 130 rushing yards per game over his last six outings, and had perhaps the best game of his impressive freshman campaign against Northwestern last weekend.

Allen torched the Wildcats’ defense to the tune of 25 carries for 173 yards and three touchdowns. His physical, bruising style is a perfect complement to Wisconsin’s overall identity and is extremely impressive for such a young running back. That style was apparent on his third and final touchdown against the Wildcats, bowling over multiple defenders before displaying an impressive breakaway speed to find the end zone. 

The Huskers’ run defense has been solid this season, ranking No. 38 nationally, and is no-doubt buoyed by previous strong performances in slowing down Michigan State and Ohio State’s rushing attacks. However, the loss of senior linebacker JoJo Domann could hinder Nebraska’s run defense, and the unit’s ability to slow Allen will ultimately decide who comes out on top. 

Caesar Williams, CB: 

The Badgers’ secondary rounds out an extremely stout defense, allowing opponents to pass for an average of just 155.7 yards per game — the No. 2 mark in the FBS.

That group is led by senior cornerback Caesar Williams who, much like Allen, is in a fantastic run of form that appears to be heating up as the season progresses. Williams has three interceptions this season, each of which have come in the Badgers’ last four games.

Williams’ interception last weekend against Northwestern came at a critical juncture, with the Wildcats inside Wisconsin’s 10-yard line in a 0-0 game late in the first quarter. The interception came as he made a nice play in coverage on a second-and-goal to intercept an underthrown ball from Northwestern quarterback Andrew Marty. 

Heading into the Northwestern game, Williams had the second-lowest passer rating of any Big Ten cornerback according to PFF, further cementing himself as one of the conference’s premier secondary defenders. 

Graham Mertz, QB: 

Things haven’t quite clicked for sophomore quarterback Graham Mertz in the past year since his impressive five touchdown debut against Illinois in October 2020. 

His collegiate career has been rife with inconsistencies and disappointing performances, with fans and local media alike patiently waiting for the former highly-touted recruit to deliver on his potential. Throwing six combined interceptions in early season losses to Notre Dame and Penn State drives this point home, but things have improved for Mertz as of late.

Wisconsin doesn’t ask much of Mertz — he’s completed 11 or fewer passes in five of Wisconsin’s six-game winning streak — but he’s been efficient with those completions in recent weeks. Two Saturdays ago, in Wisconsin’s 52-3 pummeling of Rutgers, Mertz went 11-of-16 for 240 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. 

Against Northwestern, Mertz completed 18-of-23 passes for 216 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. These performances marked just the second time in Mertz’s career that he’s eclipsed the 200-yard mark in his career, an encouraging sign that a corner in his highly scrutinized development has been turned. 

If Mertz can engineer an efficient, turnover-free game against Nebraska, the Badgers’ offense could be primed for another big afternoon.

sports@dailynebraskan.com