When No. 9 Notre Dame faces No. 12 Wisconsin at Soldier Field in late September, it Will Likely be the first time the Irish are underdogs in 2021, but the headlines will naturally focus on Notre Dame starting quarterback and former Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan.
Understandably so. All quarterback transfers garner notice and facing one’s old team within a month of helming his new one amplifies that attention.
But the more pertinent storyline will wonder about the Badgers’ return to form after a dismal 2020.
Wisconsin’s 2020 was somehow more interrupted by the pandemic than almost any other program in the country, and yet of the Badgers’ personnel availability problems a year ago, only some of them tied to the pandemic.
After Coan injured his foot in the preseason, sophomore Graham Mertz was assured the starting role he may have won anyway, and Mertz excelled from the jump, completing 20 of 21 passes for 248 yards and five touchdowns in his starting debut, a 45-7 win against Illinois.
Mertz had served notice that he just might be the quarterback Wisconsin has long sought, justifying Notre Dame’s own brief chase of him during the 2019 recruiting cycle — sparked by Cade McNamara’s flip from the Irish to Michigan, but Mertz maintained his Madison commitment, leading Notre Dame to find Brendon Clark, whose currently balky knee led the Irish to need a veteran starter in 2021, otherwise known as Coan.
The Sunday after Mertz lit up the Illini, he tested positive for COVID-19, and in the Big Ten, that meant he could not play for 21 days. Somehow, he did not miss a game in that stretch.
By “somehow,” obviously the answer is the Badgers had a widespread outbreak and had to pause all team activities. When they returned to play at Michigan three weeks later, eight starters were still held out.
The Badgers dominated the Wolverines, 49-11, sparking some national thought they may be able to challenge Ohio State for the Big Ten title, or at least keep things interesting, but the combination of a thinned roster from the coronavirus outbreak and the injuries natural to football wore through Wisconsin too quickly. At Michigan, the top two Badgers receivers both suffered concussions, only one of them making it back for one game the rest of the season.
Suffering a shoulder injury that same day, Mertz fell off without them. The offensive line did not dominate as Wisconsin’s is known to. Freshman running back Jalen Berger did not excel as a Badgers back usually would.
All these things were related, and they all culminated in Wisconsin losing three straight games while scoring a total of 20 points in them, hence a 4-3 record that lowered the public’s 2021 expectations, albeit rashly so.
WHAT WISCONSIN LOST
Not much, along with the rest of the country. The Badgers return 84 percent of their production, above the national average of 76.7 percent.
The bulk of what was lost came from Wisconsin’s defense. Safety Eric Burrell played in 48 career games, finishing last season with 23 tackles and two pass breakups with one interception, and defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk set the edge for the Badgers, with two sacks and three quarterback hurries in the truncated season.
Those stat lines may not be massive, but they are reflective of Big Ten football in general — fewer snaps per game than more prolific leagues — and a mess of a season.
Offensively, the most notable — arguably only, no offense to Coan — losses came along the line. Nonetheless, Wisconsin returns 55 starts across four players and the fifth lineman will be junior left tackle Logan Brown, once the No. 47 player in the class of 2019, so hardly someone to overlook.
Brian Kelly’S PRAISE
Typically, the Irish head coach would not spend time complementing an opposing coach until the week before they meet, but with Coan’s arrival, praising Wisconsin has meant praising the background of Notre Dame’s starting quarterback.
“We took [Coan] because he had battle-tested experience in the Big Ten in a very good program, and quite frankly one that we respect in Wisconsin and coach (Paul) Chryst and what they do,” Kelly said in early August. “A lot of that had to do with where he came from and him being battle-tested.”
Kelly doubled down on those thoughts just before he named Coan the Irish starter, indicating if Coan had come from a less consistent program, then he may not have been Notre Dame’s answer this offseason.
“I knew he was well-coached,” Kelly said. “He comes from a great program. Paul Chryst does a great job at Wisconsin, so we knew what we were getting there. We knew we had a kid that was smart and tough from that perspective.”
Good discussion on ND…
What playmakers will step up on offense?
How will the Irish fare through the stretch of Wisconsin, at VT, USC, & UNC? https://t.co/Py3t4oZw2s
— Tim Murray (@1TimMurray) August 23, 2021
Considering that duo has combined for 166 career catches for 2,013 yards and 16 touchdowns, with only 11 catches for 197 yards and one score coming last season, their returns at full health should be enough to buoy the Badgers past last year’s 25.1 points per game average.
That buoying will start with big plays. Wisconsin had only six plays of more than 30 yards in 2020, notching one on 1.27 percent of its plays, last in the FBS.
Even for the traditionally ground-bound Badgers, that was lackluster. Fairly or not, some of the onus landed at the feet of offensive line coach Joe Rudolph, not because of his line, but because he called plays in 2020, the first time in six years that Chryst turned over that responsibility to someone else.
Chryst will return to calling plays this season, allowing Rudolph to once again entirely focus on the line, which should then also benefit Berger, though he was not a terrible slouch gaining 301 yards on 60 carries in four games, a 5.0 yards per rush average. As a freshman, Berger was not leaned on too heavily, but with only questions behind him in the depth chart, the Badgers will need Berger to pick up the mantle that is the traditional Wisconsin workhorse.
If he can, and if those receivers can stay healthy, Mertz may have more games like that Illinois flash.
As much as 2020 was a struggle for the Badgers, none of that tied to their defense. Wisconsin never gave up more than 28 points last year, keeping three opponents to only two scores and giving up more than 20 points only twice.
It emphasizes how rough the Badgers offense was that even though the defense gave up only 17.4 points per game, they still barely cleared .500.
That defense returns its crucial pieces, led by a pair of veteran linebackers in Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal, who combined for 98 tackles in the shortened season, with four sacks between them. They will provide the stability and run fits for Wisconsin, while cornerbacks Faion Hicks and Caesar Williams will provide the perimeter coverage.
That defensive back duo has started a combined 47 games and gives the Badgers defensive flexibility. As long as they can maintain one-on-one coverage, the rest of the defense can manufacture pressure, all leading to one of the country’s top defenses, ranked No. 2 in SP+’s preseason metrics.
Mertz fell off after his positive test last season, undoubtedly tied to losing his best receivers and compounded by that shoulder injury suffered in the win in Ann Arbor. All that rubbed the shine off his dazzling debut, but this season will bring a chance to restore his luster.
PointsBet sets Wisconsin’s season win total over/under at 9.5, which may be low considering the Badgers may not be an underdog throughout 2021. All lookahead lines make them slight favorites against Notre Dame in Chicago, and the rest of Wisconsin’s worrisome games will be in Camp Randall Stadium (Penn State, Michigan, Iowa).
Based on @_Collin1 power ratings:
Favored all 12 games this year
Favored in 11 of 12
Favored in 10 of 12
San Jose St
— Brett McMurphy (@Brett_McMurphy) July 20, 2021
Even if setting a hard line of a loss to the Irish, the Badgers will simply need to win two of those three to be primed for the over when they get to Minnesota to close the season.
There are no sure things, but Wisconsin should cruise through the season to the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis as usual, though at that point, the usual will presumably occur, as well.
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NOTRE DAME’S OPPONENTS
— Despite influx of transfers, Florida State looking at another ugly season
— With nearly the entire roster returning, Toledo set to rocket
— Purdue’s 2020 slide a sign of worrisome trends