With kickoff to Northwestern’s season opener in Dublin, Ireland under 20 days away, it’s time to begin examining the Wildcats’ opponents during their 2022 season via the Know Your Opponent series. We’ll be breaking down the teams that NU will face each week, discussing their 2021 campaigns, season outlooks and more.
Next up is Wisconsin, a force in the Big Ten West. The Badgers are coming off a disappointing season by their standards while still making a Bowl trip. However, if there’s one thing that’s for sure about UW, it’s that they always find a way to compete.
Returning Production: 61% (63% Offense, 59% Defense)
2020 Record: 9-4 (6-3 in the Big Ten)
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.
2021 S&P+ Overall: 6th
2021 S&P+ Offense: 60th
2021 S&P+ Defense: 2nd
Wisconsin came into the 2021 season with high expectations, being the favorite in the Big Ten West, and they almost reached those heights. All they had to do was beat arch-rival Minnesota in the final game of the regular season and they would have been the Western representative in the Conference Championship game. But, Minnesota stormed back and spoiled Wisconsin’s chance to compete for the Big Ten title.
Still, the Badgers ascended throughout the 2021 season. After starting 1-3 with losses to Penn State and ranked opponents Notre Dame and Michigan, they won seven straight games before falling to the aforementioned Gophers. Wisconsin reached a point in the season where they were not only beating teams, but blowing them out of the water — they had a four-game span where their smallest margin of victory was 17 points, and two of these games were against ranked teams. After a tough start, the Badgers bounced back until the season finale.
Wisconsin’s season can be summed up like this: terrific defense and mediocre-at-best offense — that is, by Wisconsin standards. The Badger defense was first in the nation in yards allowed per game (239.1) and allowed 900 fewer yards than Georgia, a team with what many say was one of the best college football defenses ever.
But, Wisconsin’s offense let it down in the end.
Wisconsin’s struggles on offense were mostly due to the quarterback, where Graham Mertz put up an underwhelming season in his first full trial at the helm. The sophomore threw for just less than 2,000 yards to go along with 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions — in fact, Mertz completed less than 55% of pass attempts in five of his first eight games. Wisconsin boasted a solid rushing attack and thanks to Braelon Allen, but without Mertz producing it was hard to maintain the element of surprise when opponents knew they needed to be prepared to stop Allen already. This was Wisconsin’s problem.
Despite this, the Badgers still produced points. After October 9, there was only one game where the team scored under 20 points. The Badgers’ rushing attack and the majority of its scoring was led by Braelon Allen, now officially a 2022 Heisman contender. After rushing for over 100 yards a game and 1,268 yards on the season, second in the conference behind Michigan State’s Kenneth Walker III, Allen is poised to run the Badger offense once again.
Now, Mertz has a full season under his belt, arguably the best running back in the country and two receivers in Chimere Dike and Marcus Allen who are ready for breakout years. Pair that with a notoriously successful offensive line, and it looks like the Badgers will be formidable on offense once again.
While the main defensive storyline last season was Georgia’s defense being one of the best of all time, there can be a legitimate case made that Wisconsin’s was better. The Badgers were number one overall in total defense nationally and sixth in scoring defense, and not to mention fourth in opponent third-down conversion rate. The defense was especially dominant against the run, ranking first in the nation at 61 yards per game allowed. They were led by veterans last season and it showed in their defensive production.
Though the Badgers’ defense was exceptional, they were not enough to overcome the offense at times. Both Wisconsin’s offense and defense averaged 1.8 turnovers per game, and this meant that Wisconsin either lost by their offense forcing turnovers or their defense not being able to produce them.
It is important to note this: Wisconsin’s run defense should be the same, being one of the country’s best. Their pass defense should also be improved and together, they will probably be one of the nation’s top units. It goes without saying, but no one will be underestimating this Badger defense any time soon.
Three Players to Know
RB Braelon Allen
It seems like only yesterday Jonathan Taylor was ripping up Big Ten defenses, but Wisconsin has already claimed the next big thing. Allen was the premiere back in the Badgers’ rushing attack, posting 1,268 rushing yards on 186 attempts. He was the only running back in the nation to have under 200 rushing attempts but still be in the top 20 in rushing yards. Assuming he is fully healthy, Allen will be not only the main back for Wisconsin, but one of the players to know in the Big Ten, if not the nation.
LB Nick Herbig
Herbig has already caught eyes across the country and has been nominated as a Preseason First Team All-American. Additionally, he has been placed on the Chuck Bednarik Award watch list, which is given to the best defensive player in college football. Last season, he led Wisconsin in sacks and was third on the team in tackles and tackles for loss. Herbig will be the leader of the Wisconsin defense — one that is destined for success in 2022.
DT Keeanu Benton
Wisconsin ranked first in the nation in rushing yards allowed per game, and Benton was one of the main reasons why. The nose tackle filled up many holes in the trenches for the Badgers, and though his stats do not show it, his teammates and coaches rave about it. Benton leads a Wisconsin defensive line that will look similar to what it did in 2021. The senior will be at the center of the defensive line and will be a force to be reckoned with.