The final installment of our 2021 summer guide is the Know Your Opponent series. We’ll take you through Northwestern’s schedule week by week, outlining the strengths and weaknesses of each opponent and identifying some key players to look for. The series serves as a way for us to evaluate and take stock of the team’s upcoming opponents.
Next up are the Wisconsin Badgers, who are the presumptive Big Ten West title favorites due to their combination of talent and experience.
Returning Production: 83 percent overall (Offense 84 percent, Defense 82 percent)
2020 Record: 4-3
Coach: Paul Chryst
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.
2020 S&P+ Overall: 15th
2020 S&P+ Offense: 43rd
2020 S&P+ Defense: 4th
Coming off a 2019 season which featured Big Ten Championship and Rose Bowl appearances, it seemed reasonable to expect more of the same from the Badgers in 2020. This was backed up by their preseason rank of 12th in the AP Poll, and despite the losses of starting QB Jack Coan and RB Jonathan Taylor (who finished 5th in the 2019 Heisman voting), Wisconsin was the early frontrunner in the Big Ten West.
The Badgers opened their 2020 campaign with a resounding 45-7 win over Illinois, in which freshman quarterback Graham Mertz completed 20 of his 21 passes and registered five scores through the air in a scintillating debut. Unfortunately, just a day later, Mertz also registered a positive result on a COVID-19 test, and a COVID outbreak throughout the Wisconsin roster forced them to cancel their next two games. Even though they were allowed to play Michigan three weeks after the outbreak, the Badgers were missing many of their starters, and yet still managed to stomp the Wolverines in a 49-11 rout.
A trip to Evanston was the next stop on Wisconsin’s journey, but injuries to their top two receivers as well as the ongoing COVID issues put them at a real disadvantage, and with Mertz still not at a 100%, the ‘Cats won 17-7 to put themselves in the driver’s seat of the West division, a position they would not relinquish. Wisconsin’s offensive woes carried over into their next two games against Indiana and Iowa, in which the Badgers scored a futile six and seven points, respectively, and lost both.
Now sporting a 2-3 record, the Badgers finished off their regular season against rival Minnesota, who was also dealing with similar issues as Wisconsin. The Badgers pulled out a gritty 20-17 win in overtime, making them bowl eligible. A 42-24 win over Wake Forest in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl prevented them from having their first losing season in almost 20 years.
Wisconsin finished 4-3, winning their 5th bowl game in Paul Chryst’s six years with the program, and had three players selected on Day 3 of the 2021 NFL Draft.
The Badgers were in somewhat of a transition year for their offense in 2020, which is what tends to happen when you lose a senior QB and a 2,000 yard rusher. While they showed their potency at times, injuries and COVID prevented any real consistency on that side of the ball. With almost all of last year’s starters back and recovered, it’s very likely that this group will take a jump in 2021.
Graham Mertz, now a sophomore, will be the starting QB for Wisconsin this season, and his play last season is a paragon for the yin-yang nature of the 2020 Badgers offense. He had a lights out display to open the season against Illinois, but just a month later, he was picked off three times against Northwestern. If he can’t get the job done, Chase Wolf is next in line, and while Wolf doesn’t have Mertz’s arm, his legs could help the Badgers mix things up for opposing defenses.
The running backs are a pretty young and unproven group, so it will be mostly down to Jalen Berger to get things done on the ground this season after his solid true freshman season in 2020. The depth behind Berger is a massive question mark, and there’s a number of players who could snatch the deputy role in the backfield.
Receivers Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor were both granted an additional year of eligibility after concussion issues throughout 2020, and will likely be two of Mertz’s go-to targets. Also in contention for playing time are Jack Dunn and Chimere Dike, who had increased roles last season when Davis and Pryor were out. However, the most important player in this group will likely be All-Big Ten tight end Jake Ferguson, who is Wisconsin’s leading returning receiver, and provides a boost both through the air and on the ground for the offense.
Lastly, a key feature of any Wisconsin football team has always been their offensive line. While this isn’t their most experienced group ever, there is a lot of talent, and a lot of size in this group. The Badgers will likely have an almost unstoppable rushing game again in 2021, and a big part (no pun intended) of that will be this offensive line.
Despite the struggles the offense had last season, the Badgers had an elite defense yet again, as they finished Top 10 nationally in both points and yards allowed per game, and if not for a group headed by former defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz, Wisconsin would have had a claim for the best defense in the conference. With the level of returning production the Badgers have, they will look to be among the best in the country once again.
Along the defensive line, Matt Henningsen and Isaiah Mullens will look to improve on a lackluster pass rush in 2020 from the edges, with Rodas Johnson and transfer Isaac Townsend providing security from the second string. Inside, Keeanu Benton and Bryson Williams will provide size and physicality at the nose guard position.
Moving to the second level of the defense, the Badgers return all four of last year’s starting linebackers, and will be led from the inside by leading returning tackler Jack Sanborn. On the outside, Wisconsin sports a sixth-year in Noah Burks on one side, and a second-year in Nick Herbig on the other.
In the secondary, cornerback Faion Hicks will lead a group that allowed just over 200 passing yards per game last season. Alongside him will be senior Caesar Williams, while Alexander Smith and Dean Engram will get snaps as backups or in the nickel formation. Scott Nelson and Collin Wilder will be the starting safety tandem, and seeing that both have over 15 appearances in the Wisconsin defense, lack of experience shouldn’t be an issue for this group.
Three Players to Know
QB Graham Mertz
The effectiveness of Wisconsin’s offense and the success of the team as a whole this season will come down to Mertz’s play. While the Badgers are traditionally a run-first team, they need someone with poise at quarterback, a responsibility that Mertz seemed to shirk away from at times last season. That could have been due to COVID issues or a nagging shoulder injury, but after having the offseason to recover, he should be back to 100% and able to be what he was against Illinois more consistently, and less like what he was against Northwestern.
RB Jalen Berger
Montee Ball. James White. Melvin Gordon. Corey Clement. Jonathan Taylor. All guys who have been prolific running backs for Wisconsin in the last decade, and Jalen Berger looks to be the next name on that list. While he only rushed for 300 yards as a true freshman in 2020, he split playing time with Garrett Groshek and Nakia Watson and only saw the field in four games. Now fully healthy, and with Groshek and Watson both gone, Berger will be the feature back for the Badgers, and will likely rack up 1,500 yards and double digit touchdowns on the ground in his second year.
LB Jack Sanborn
Sanborn, now a senior, is the leader of what should be an extremely strong Badger defense in 2021. Having someone experienced and productive in the middle of a defense can benefit anyone, as NU fans saw with Paddy Fisher in Northwestern’s defense last season, and Sanborn’s impact will be just as valuable to Wisconsin. He totaled 52 tackles, 4 TFL’s, a sack, an interception and a forced fumble in seven games in 2020, and in a full season with the experience that he has around him, Sanborn will be pushing triple digit tackles and star as a potential All-American candidate.