The Badgers dominant effort was one of Michigan’s worst home losses in recent program history, and helped Wisconsin remain undefeated at 2-0 overall (2-0 B1G).
Let’s look at some of the primary story lines that rose to the surface from the win.
With a number of key players unable to participate on Saturday due to injury and/or COVID-19 protocols, the Badgers were forced to turn to some younger players to perform.
And boy did they.
At running back, the absence of Garrett Groshek and Isaac Guerendo meant more opportunities for true freshman Jalen Berger. The former 4-star recruit out of New Jersey was a huge win on the recruiting trail last spring, and he dazzled in his first action of the season. A smooth runner that also displayed his pass catching ability on Saturday, Berger led the team with 100 all-purpose yards. The young ball carrier also led the team in carries with 15 and netted 87 yards on the ground, including a pretty 23-yard touchdown run. It is unclear how much he will factor into the rotation once both of the upperclassmen return, but Berger definitely appears to have the talent to add something to the room.
At wide receiver, Chimere Dike saw extended playing time with senior Jack Dunn unable to go. The in-state true freshman was the talk of fall camp, and he displayed his abilities on Saturday. In addition to hauling in two catches for 29 yards, he had a 30 yard run on a double reverse that nearly went for a touchdown. Dike is a playmaker, and should continue to see his opportunities rise after a strong showing against Michigan.
Currently wired from the #Badgers second team offensive line that is compromised of two freshmen five-star OTs, a four-star RS freshman RG and sophomores at center and left guard that the staff is high on.— Matt Belz (@savedbythebelz) November 15, 2020
(L-R) Brown-Furtney-Sampson-Tippmann-Nelson doing work late against MI.
With the Badgers up big late in the game, Joe Rudolph was able to play some of his young offensive lineman as well. The reserves played extremely well, and paved the way for Berger’s long touchdown run. The biggest surprise was seeing true freshman Jack Nelson, a former five-star recruit in the 2020 class, earn playing time so early at right tackle. Wisconsin generally takes a very developmental approach to the offensive line, with players usually only seeing the field after a redshirt season. To see Nelson earning time so quickly is definitely noteworthy for his future at the position.
The young players making an impact was not solely limited to the offense though.
At outside linebacker, freshman Nick Herbig led the team in tackles while the team was without outside linebacker Izayah Green-May who has been listed as a co-starter on the depth chart. Herbig was a menace in the backfield, recording three tackles for loss as well. This performance when paired with a strong showing in the opener against Illinois, definitely make it seem as though Herbig is a difference maker at outside linebacker.
Along the defensive line, regular starting defensive end Garrett Rand was unable to go. After an injury to Matt Henningsen, Isaiah Mullens saw increased time. The 6-foot-4 sophomore held his own against the Wolverines, and made two nice stops. Additionally, true freshman James Thompson Jr. also earned minutes late in the game. While he did not make nearly as big an impact, and would be injured in the game, the fact that he traveled and played snaps is intriguing.
Overall, the 2020 recruiting class was the highest rated group to ever sign with the Badgers in the ratings era. Thus far, the group has lived up to the hype, albeit in a small sample size. With this season having no influence on eligibility, Paul Chryst and his staff seem more willing to let the young players see the field, and to this point it has worked.
The defense keeps rolling
Despite not having multiple starters across all three levels of the defense, the Wisconsin defense had a phenomenal showing.
While Michigan definitely had some severe growing pains at the quarterback position flare up once again, the defense was in place to make plays and take advantage of mistakes. Interceptions by Scott Nelson (thanks Eric Burrell) and Leo Chenal set the Badgers up with a short field twice, both resulting in scoring drives.
Add in a big goal line stand, and holding Michigan to only 55 total rushing yards (2.5 yards per attempt), and the defense was absolutely dominant.
In a conference that has some major swings for prominent teams, Jim Leonhard’s defense has proven to be one of the top units in the conference per usual.
In the opener against Illinois, a lot was made over the struggles of the running game. The offensive line had some missed assignments, the running backs missed some holes and the two jet sweeps that the team ran did not pan out for reasons of their own.
On Saturday night the Wisconsin rushing attack returned to form. The offensive line did a tremendous job of leaning on the Wolverines and opened up some huge holes to run through all night long. Berger and Nakia Watson combined for over 150 yards rushing on only 27 carries, and tallied three touchdowns.
The fullback position was also highly productive in the rushing department, with Mason Stokke recording a rushing score (he also had a touchdown reception), and John Chenal busting a team long 43-yard scamper (Editor’s note: rumble?) through the middle of the defense.
However, the piece of the attack that popped out most was the way in which the Badgers used the jet sweep. Both Danny Davis III and Kendric Pryor recorded carries in that role, and really helped stretch the defense sideline to sideline. Davis yielded the most yardage out of his chances, rushing seven times for 65 yards. The play also set up a 30-yard jet sweep, turned reverse with Dike.
The jet motion consistently worked against Michigan, and also added a nice wrinkle to the offensive attack that was missing in the opener. With the Badgers slated to take on a traditionally tough Northwestern rush defense, it will be important for the Wisconsin rushing attack to keep it going. It was very apparent how much that motion helped slow down the Michigan defense, and the Badgers offensive line took advantage of it from there.
Graham Mertz missed a couple throws that he probably wishes he had better placement, but overall the redshirt freshman played well in his return to action on short prep. With now a full week to prepare for Northwestern, Wisconsin should be getting back to full strength.