Week 1 started off about as great as you can ask for as the Badgers rolled to a 45-7 victory over Illinois. The new quarterback impressed, the defense looked great and outside of a few small things to clean up it was a strong performance. Well, things took a turn for the worse by Saturday evening as the news broke regarding Graham Mertz and Chase Wolf possibly having COVID-19 and being out for Saturday’s contest at Nebraska. (Editor’s note: see the links below for the latest on Mertz and Wolf.)
That would be, well, a problem. Despite the rumors and the hush hush tones from the coaching staff the show sounds like it will go on Saturday afternoon, so we keep it moving here as well. Here’s what Wisconsin needs to do to win it in Lincoln.
Get a push
A lot was made of the run game’s performance last week and rightfully so as it wasn’t the Badgers prettiest effort. However, I think some of the criticism is a little unfair. Yes, the Badgers only averaged 3.4 yards per carry on Friday night, but in 2019 they only averaged 3.6 yards per carry against Illinois and this result ended up being a lot better than last year’s. A huge chunk of that goes to Graham Mertz, but still. We’ve been spoiled by Jonathan Taylor, but I assure you the run game will pick up this week, because frankly it has to.
If there’s a team for Wisconsin to get right on the ground with it’s Nebraska. In fact, over the last four seasons Wisconsin has had some of their best success running the ball against the Cornhuskers. In 2016 the Badgers averaged 5.9 yards per carry, 7.2 YPC in 2017, 7.7 YPC in 2018, and 7.1 YPC in 2019. Is that good? Yeah, that’s good.
If Wisconsin wants to win at Nebraska on Saturday afternoon the formula is to get a push on the line and run the football the way you want to. Since joining the Big Ten, Nebraska hasn’t shown the ability to stop the run, and Wisconsin has shown their ability to run it down their throats time and time again. Many of those performances were great by the running back standards, but the offensive line really made their presence felt. Whoever is under center on Saturday needs to turn and hand it off and let the big boys get to work like they have time and time again versus the Huskers.
Contain the QB
If we’re talking yards per carry, things weren’t pretty for the Badgers last year against Nebraska either. In fact, Nebraska averaged more YPC last year than Wisconsin did at 7.4 yards a pop. Tailback Dedrick Mills averaged 11.1 YPC on his way to 188 yards on the ground, but the real killer was Adrian Martinez using his feet. Not only did Martinez pick up 88 yards on the ground, but his ability move in the pocket allowed him to extend plays and throw for 220 yards. It wasn’t much better in 2018 as Martinez threw for 384 yards and ran for another 57 against the Badgers in Camp Randall.
If the Badgers want to win, lessening the performance of either QB will be important. Last week Nebraska’s top two rushers were Martinez with 85 yards and backup QB Luke McCaffrey with 80 yards. Whichever QB is out there on Saturday will be testing the Badgers early and often with the read option. The Badgers did a poor job defending that last week, and they’ll face a much bigger test this week with two dual threat quarterbacks.
Control the clock
We can speculate on who will be under center all week, but the truth is we probably won’t know anytime soon. Wisconsin has no reason to tell anyone. We’ll have an answer come 2:30ish Saturday afternoon. Regardless of who it is, controlling the clock will be important in this contest.
Wisconsin almost always wins the time of possession battle and when the do it usually ends up being a win overall. That will be important this week as they look to shorten this game and keep the running QB’s of Nebraska off the field. Scott Frost and company like to go fast, and Paul Chryst and company will likely want to slow it down even by Wisconsin standards if the likes of Wolf or Danny Vanden Boom are under center.
The last thing Wisconsin needs is a game like last year that got into a track meet early. If the Badgers can establish the run and get in a rhythm they should be able to continue their success on third down and move the chains. Last week the Badgers we’re 8-of-14 on third down conversions, and won the time of possession battle 43-16. If they can get even close to that mark again, game over.