And In That Corner … The No. 18 Wisconsin Badgers present a familiar challenge for Notre Dame

Eastern Michigan v Wisconsin
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A year later than intended, No. 12 Notre Dame finally meets No. 18 Wisconsin, and the questions essentially ask themselves this week. These two top-20 teams might be facsimiles of each other, and not just because their quarterbacks are so familiar to each other.

Irish passer Jack Coan gets the headlines given he led the Badgers to the 2019 Rose Bowl, but it should not be forgotten that Notre Dame aggressively pursued Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz for a couple weeks late in the 2018 recruiting cycle.

Aside from those easy storylines, the Irish big-play struggles on defense can be matched by the Badgers’, as can their difficulties mounting long drives.

To try to distinguish between the two Midwestern powers before they meet at Soldier Field (12 ET; FOX) on Saturday, let’s turn to Colten Bartholomew, the Wisconsin beat writer for The Wisconsin State Journal

DF: My Wisconsin questions seem to largely write themselves. Maybe that is the Wisconsin native in me — originally from La Crosse — as I have some general Badgers awareness without needing to triple down on research.

For example, I know they have been atrocious in the red zone this season. It was 90-some plays against Penn State, right? Yet they scored only 10 points. Let’s go confirm my stats here — yep, 95 plays with an average of 3.8 yards per play, and on the season, Wisconsin has scored only four touchdowns on 10 trips to the red zone, and one such trip actually yielded a touchdown for Eastern Michigan off a 98-yard interception return. To score only three touchdowns on six trips inside the 20 against the Eagles suggests the Badgers’ red-zone problems were more than Penn State being a top-10 team. What have been their issues?

CB: Classic case of shooting themselves in the foot, over and over, to the point I’m not sure the Badgers have a collective foot to shoot anymore. Two turnovers against Penn State, plus an illegal snap, derailed red-zone drives in that game. And then against Eastern Michigan, quarterback Graham Mertz tripped up tailback Chez Mellusi to get the offense behind the sticks and the Eagles made a nice stand on fourth-and-goal from the 1 to turn away the first drive of the game.

The game plan was so vanilla against Eastern Michigan that I’m not sure it’s worth concern yet, because the Badgers didn’t use the play-action passing game in the red zone they’re so good with. Turning red-zone chances into points against Notre Dame will be crucial. Jim Leonhard’s defense is much different and even more aggressive when playing with a lead.

While discussing Wisconsin’s offense, I should delve into junior quarterback Graham Mertz, a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Obviously, both Irish and Badgers fans are inclined to compare him directly to Jack Coan, particularly this weekend, but I would rather ask about Mertz specifically. He had such a wonderful debut in 2020, then tailed off, and now has had a down-then-up 2021. Who is the real Mertz?

The real Mertz is somewhere in between the Illinois game last year and what we saw against Penn State in week 1. The pressure put on him by the Nittany Lions early in the game seemed to rattle him and his footwork hasn’t given his arm a chance to make the throws he can. I think Mertz will find himself soon — realistically this is his fourth career start with a full roster after dealing with the COVID season of 2020. I also hesitate to compare Mertz and Coan, but one difference that’s easy to see is that Coan rarely is undisciplined with his feet and that gives him a chance. Once Mertz find that every-play discipline, he’ll start to reach his potential.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 01 Rose Bowl - Oregon v Wisconsin
Notre Dame fans should recognize that frame and throwing motion. Then and now wearing No. 17, that is current Irish starting quarterback Jack Coan in the Rose Bowl with Wisconsin on New Year’s Day, 2020. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The one comparison between Mertz and Coan I do want clarification on: How much of a competition was there ever between the two? At points I have gotten the sense Coan’s foot injury basically made the decision for Wisconsin’s coaching staff. Did Mertz beat out Coan or did Coan’s injury end the discussion before a resolution?

This is a great point — there never really was a competition. When Mertz enrolled early in 2019, Coan had a massive advantage in terms of playbook knowledge, so throughout that training camp, Coan looked better. Then in the 2020 offseason with everything shut down, Mertz didn’t have much opportunity to show where or if he’d caught up. Then when Coan got hurt, Mertz was the replacement and I believe the Badgers coaching staff said Mertz is the future and he’s got to keep playing to keep getting better.

Speaking of Coan, I know nobody with the Badgers has ever said anything bad about him, maybe literally. What are their thoughts of him? Was there some consternation when he announced he was transferring to a 2021 opponent?

It’s odd — from all accounts I’ve gathered, there’s no ill will on either side regarding Coan leaving. Coan wanted to play, everyone respected that, and both sides moved on. Coan was a guy that everybody seemingly respected because he put the work in, and it sounds like the Irish are seeing that, too.

I’m not sure consternation is the right word because it was known that Notre Dame was going to look for a veteran quarterback to bring in after Ian Book graduated. Adding in his history of being an Irish lacrosse recruit at one point, it was known that when Coan hit the transfer portal, Notre Dame would be an option.

Flipping to Wisconsin’s defense, 13 tackles for loss with four sacks in two games is not overwhelming, but my memory says the Badgers front-seven is the defensive strength. Given the evolving and revolving nature of Notre Dame’s offensive line, how aggressive is that front-seven? How strong is the pass rush?

I’d disagree a bit in that the front isn’t overwhelming when you consider both of UW’s opponents thus far completely abandoned the run game between the tackles because they weren’t getting movement. That said, I expect the front to be particularly aggressive early and try to put Coan and the Notre Dame offense in tough positions. A fast start on either side could swing this game.

The pass rush is improved from last year, with sophomore outside linebacker Nick Herbig showing much better body control around the edge and a better set of moves to get around tackles.

I know linebacker Leo Chanel (three sacks in seven games in 2020, six total tackles for loss) returns this week after missing the first two games due to a positive coronavirus test. How much of an impact might he have?

Assuming he’s able to play in full — Wisconsin says he will be, but we all know recovering from COVID can be difficult — I think he’ll have a big impact, particularly as a pass-rusher. Notre Dame’s tackles have been rough, and a great strength of Jim Leonhard’s defense is creating one-on-one matchups up front. That includes getting a running back on blitzing linebackers. I expect Chenal to be rushing Coan or Tyler Buchner often.

The Irish have gained 28 percent of their total yardage on explosive scoring plays (touchdowns longer than 20 yards), which is a drastic shift in South Bend. If Wisconsin can tamp down big plays, Notre Dame will struggle to put together multiple long drives. Penn State enjoyed a few long passes, including a 49-yard touchdown to open the scoring. How vulnerable is the Badgers secondary?

The secondary is somewhat vulnerable down the field because those players don’t possess elite speed — Penn State’s Jahan Dotson took advantage of that and a miscommunication on the coverage being played to score that long touchdown.

Notre Dame’s big-play ability was a focal point this week for the Badgers, as was eliminating the communication issues that can allow big plays. I do believe part of the game plan this week is to not allow the big completions and see if Coan, Buchner and Tommy Rees can stay patient for long drives.

That thought may be the only reason I don’t anticipate another 16-10 slogfest. With the Badgers favored by 6.5 points, what do you see coming on Saturday?

I do see a slogfest coming, actually. It’s hard for me to envision Wisconsin’s offense becoming a high-flying, high-scoring outfit after an idle week and I also don’t see the Badgers defense allowing too many big plays, which should make it harder for the Irish to put up big points.

I think Wisconsin wins a narrow one that’s led by the defense creating a turnover or two.