Players to Watch-Wisconsin

Nebraska quietly has some hope going up against its divisional rival in No. 9 Wisconsin on Saturday, despite last week’s 52-17 drubbing against Ohio State in which the Huskers performed better than the scoreline suggests.

The hard-working run-oriented Badgers have a number of question marks dogging them heading into the second week of Big Ten play. For the first time in a while, people may be predicting a relatively close match between teams that both won and lost by around 40 points respectively the week prior.

One of the reasons for that is the Badgers players, or lack thereof. These are a few to watch going into Saturday.

The quarterback, whoever they may be:

Redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz wowed in his first appearance for Wisconsin, completing 20-of-21 pass attempts and tossing five touchdowns, but reports emerged in recent days that the young quarterback has tested positive for COVID-19.

It was announced that Mertz tested positive for a second time on Tuesday, meaning he’ll miss Wisconsin’s next three games. Another twist in the saga was revealed on Monday, when it was announced that Mertz’s backup, sophomore Chase Wolf, also tested positive for the virus. This turn of events has felled the top three quarterbacks for the Badgers, with senior Jack Coan, the original starter, undergoing foot surgery in early October. 

Assuming no more bizarre happenstances befall Wisconsin football in the quarterbacking department, junior Danny Vanden Boom is expected to take the reins of the Wisconsin offense on Saturday. Boom has only thrown one pass for the Badgers, though it was a touchdown. In 2018, the then-freshman completed a 3-yard pass in a 45-14 win against New Mexico.

The only other quarterback on the roster for Wisconsin other than Boom is walk-on freshman Daniel Wright. The 6-foot-8 Iowa native was committed to Division-II Sioux Falls before making his way to Madison.

As said, Wisconsin is a program which classically has prided itself on its run game. One would assume, then, that the absence of a proven quarterback may be inconsequential to the success of the team, but after a poor week one showing that's in doubt, too.

The running back crew:  

Last year, now-Indianapolis Colt Jonathan Taylor rushed for 204 yards against Nebraska, notching two touchdowns. In 2014, a young Melvin Gordon III torched the Blackshirts for a then-NCAA record 408 yards. History suggests that Wisconsin running backs like playing against their similarly-red rivals.

However, if week one against Illinois is any example, the Wisconsin running back core is uncharacteristically weak going into the weekend’s game at Memorial Stadium. Running backs senior Garrett Groshek, sophomore Nakia Watson and sophomore Isaac Guerendo combined for only 3.9 yards per carry on 43 attempts against Lovie Smith’s crew, a far cry from Taylor’s 6.3 yards per carry in 2019.

The massive production of Taylor will be sorely missed by the Badgers, especially with the tumultuous quarterbacking situation gripping the team. Wisconsin appears committed to the running back rotation structure it presented in last week’s game, but the offense was carried by Mertz’s superb performance.

Nebraska’s secondary performed poorly against the Buckeyes last week, but in the absence of competent quarterbacking, the run game may provide no answer for Wisconsin. Nebraska performed somewhat admirably in stopping the run game at times against Ohio State, despite the antics of junior quarterback Justin Fields, and Wisconsin’s offense could be defanged through no fault of its own on Saturday.

That being said, Mertz himself was not necessarily expected to hit the ground (or the air, perhaps) running as he did against Illinois, and the Husker secondary did poorly against Ohio State. With him gone, it’s possible that not much will change. The labors of the weak run core could be rectified by the epiphanous emergence of Vanden Boom on Saturday. 

Wisconsin’s defensive line:

Illinois senior quarterback Brandon Peters ran rampant last Saturday against Wisconsin, averaging 10.7 yards on seven carries throughout the night. Peters is not known for being a dual-threat quarterback. In 2019, he averaged only 2.9 yards per carry on 74 attempts, one of those being a 54-yard run which accounts for a large chunk of his 213 yards.

Quarterbacks junior Adrian Martinez and redshirt freshman Luke McCaffrey are known primarily for their running capabilities. Martinez has averaged 4.5 yards per carry in his Husker career and McCaffrey averaged 6.9 yards per carry in his true freshman year. Against Ohio State, the two combined for 164 yards on only 21 carries, good for 7.8 yards per carry.

The picture here is, against a fairly stiff quarterback, the Wisconsin defensive line gave up far more yards than expected. It would only follow, then, that against some of the more quality dual-threat quarterbacks in the country, the defensive line will have little recourse to resist Nebraska. Many expected Ohio State’s defensive line to be quite potent this year, and Nebraska’s successes on the ground in week one does not bode well for Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin secondary did do quite well defending against the pass and, on the line proper, the defensive line did its job. However, on the edge and in quarterback-contain situations, the defensive line had its issues. Perhaps the ability to retool ahead of Nebraska will be a blessing for defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, but one could also imagine Nebraska torching Wisconsin on the ground like it did in the first half against Ohio State.