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Know your 2020 Northwestern football opponent, Week 5: Wisconsin

The Badgers are arguably the toughest test NU will face all season.

Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual - Oregon v Wisconsin Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

Let’s try this again! After making it through two opponent previews of the previous schedule before the Big Ten’s postponement announcement, we’re back with the final installment of our 2020 summer/preseason guide. We’ll take you through Northwestern’s fall schedule week-by-week, outlining the strengths and weaknesses of each opponent and identifying some key players to look out for. The series serves as a way for us to evaluate and take stock of the team’s upcoming opponents.

After a trip to West Lafayette the week prior, the Wildcats will return home for a date with the Wisconsin Badgers. Despite the departure of star running back Jonathan Taylor, the Badgers offense will be chalked full of weapons and, as always, a stellar offensive line. Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s defense remains stout, and will prove to be difficult for Peyton Ramsey (or another quarterback) to navigate. Last season, Wisconsin finished with back-to-back losses in the Big Ten Championship and the Rose Bowl. This year, they’ll attempt to change course.

The Basics

Returning Production: 72 percent (Offense 62 percent, Defense 81 percent)

2019 record: 10-4 (7-2 Big Ten)

Coach: Paul Chryst

The Stats

The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly and Football Outsiders (and now ESPN!). You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.

2019 S&P+ Overall: 11th

2019 S&P+ Offense: 12th

2019 S&P+ Defense: 14th

2019 Capsule

It’s safe to say the Badgers were impressive last year.

To open the season, Wisconsin travelled down to Tampa where they met USF and promptly handed them a 49-0 shutout. The week after, the Badgers returned home to play Central Michigan, where they won 61-0. Through two weeks, they outscored their opponents 110-0, which vaulted them to No. 14 in the AP poll.

After that, they kept things rolling. In its first five games, Wisconsin’s offense tallied 35 or more points in four of them, with the only exception coming in a 24-15 victory over Northwestern at Camp Randall. The Badgers didn’t falter until their week six game at Illinois, where they lost on a gut-wrenching, buzzer-beater field goal. The week after that, they traveled to Columbus, and Ohio State dissected them 38-7.

Wisconsin did recover, however. In the final four weeks of the season, the Badgers went 4-0, including a 24-22 victory over Iowa and a 38-17 win in the de facto Big Ten West title game against Minnesota. With the tiebreaker over the Golden Gophers, Wisconsin secured a spot in the Big Ten Championship and a rematch with Ohio State. The Baders raced out to an early lead, but Ohio State’s athleticism and halftime adjustments won out as they then cruised to a College Football Playoff berth.

Since Ohio State was headed to the College Football Playoff, Wisconsin claimed the Big Ten’s spot in the Rose Bowl to face No. 7 Oregon. In a back-and-forth affair, future NFL first-rounder Justin Herbert torched them on the ground, scampering for three touchdowns. In the end, Wisconsin fell 27-26 in a thriller. UW had four players selected in the NFL Draft, the most notable being Taylor, whom the Indianapolis Colts selected in the second round.

Offensive Overview

The departure of the aforementioned Taylor, as well as center Tyler Biadasz, means Wisconsin’s offense could look somewhat different in 2020. Its rushing attack ranked 15th in the FBS last year with the two-time Doak Walker Award winner leading the charge, but the Badgers may switch up their points of emphasis just a bit if their backfield can’t fill the gap.

Recently, senior quarterback Jack Coan was ruled out indefinitely with a foot injury. The vibe seems to be that he’ll be out for at least a chunk of the season, if not longer. That means it’s five-star redshirt freshman Graham Mertz who’s taking the reins. Mertz is the highest-rated quarterback recruit in program history, injecting a sense of excitement into those around the program even if they were previously confident in Coan.

Alongside Mertz in the backfield, Wisconsin will need someone to step up to fill the absence of Taylor. Senior Garrett Groshek has the most experience, but sophomore Nakia Watson has serious explosiveness and could be the next great product from a program that just can’t seem to stop churning out quality running backs.

While the departure of Quintez Cephus hurts their passing game a bit, seniors Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor have plenty of experience. Tight end Jake Ferguson will need to take the next step after posting just 409 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns in 2019.

Defensive Overview

The 2019 Wisconsin defense was, per usual, one of the best in all of college football. The Badgers ranked fourth in the country in total defense and allowed an average of fewer than 100 yards on the ground per game.

The stars of Wisconsin’s 2019 defense were their linebackers. Jack Sanborn, Chris Orr and Zack Baun combined for an absurd 233 tackles and 29.5 sacks last season. Orr and Baun are gone, however, which leaves a large gap to be filled. Sanborn remains, but younger players like Noah Burks and Leo Chenal will need to step up in 2020.

Taking a look at their secondary, UW allowed the 12th fewest passing yards in the country last season. Additionally, its entire back end has seen no changes from the season prior, meaning plenty of talent and experience remains. If the ‘Cats try to challenge the Badgers through the air, they may be in for some trouble.

Finally, let’s head to the trenches. Much like their secondary, Wisconsin returns its entire defensive line from last season. As previously mentioned, its defense against the run was extremely good a year ago. Whether or not this talent will remain isn’t really a question, so if Northwestern decides to challenge the Wisconsin defense with a run-heavy offensive scheme, the Badgers will likely be ready. Mike Bajakian will need to get creative if he wants to get some points up on the board in this one.

Three Players to Know

Nakia Watson, RB

Wisconsin’s rushing corps has arguably the biggest gap to fill with Taylor gone. Running backs coach John Settle has already noted that the team may take a by-committee approach to the position this year, but even then, it’s clear Watson will be the back of the future. His 230-pound explosiveness, and the Badgers’ general notoriety for producing great backs, makes him an absolute must-watch talent for UW this year.

Graham Mertz, QB

We should get a peek at the future of Wisconsin football. For how long? That’s unknown. Five-star recruit Graham Mertz is a redshirt freshman out of Overland Park, KS. While we’ve hardly seen him on the field yet in college, he’s got some serious skill. In his senior year of high school, Mertz threw for 3,886 yards and a state-record 51 touchdowns. Normally, backups wouldn’t qualify as a player to know, but with the Mertz train full speed ahead and the season starting in less than two weeks, this could be the beginning of the Graham Mertz era in Madison (or he might redshirt again, in which case I look like a buffoon).

Jack Sanborn, LB

The linebacker position is another place where the Badgers lost a lot of production. With the aforementioned Orr and Baun gone, it’s time for Sanborn to step into the spotlight. Make no mistake, Sanborn is no chump. He led UW in tackling last season with 80 tackles while also picking off three passes and forcing one fumble. To put it simply, Sanborn is one of the best linebackers in the entire Big Ten. Look out for number 57 in white this fall.