The Wisconsin Badgers were able to close out the 2020 season on a high note, taking down Wake Forest in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl 42-28. The win helped secure the Badgers a winning record for the nineteenth season in a row, and pushed Paul Chryst’s bowl record to 5-1 at Wisconsin.
The win marked the second consecutive victory for the Badgers, and gives them plenty of momentum heading into the off-season.
With pleasantries out of the way, lets take a look at the primary storylines that stood out from the bowl win over the Demon Deacons.
The Wisconsin coaching staff and players knew that they would be in for a fast paced game based on the pace at which Wake Forest attempts to run their offense.
On the first two drives, Wake Forest absolutely gashed Jim Leonhard’s defense to take a 14-point lead. The Demon Deacons rattled off 136 yards in six minutes and 25 seconds on only 15 plays. The Badgers struggled not only with the tempo at which Wake was playing, but also the pass-option routes that consistently beat the Wisconsin secondary during those two drives.
From that point forward, Wake Forest was unable to move the ball much and punted on all four possessions during the remainder of the first half.
In the second half, the Badgers intercepted Sam Hartman four times, with three of the interceptions occurring on the same glance routes that gave the team fits during those opening drives.
Pick party in the Duke's Mayo Bowl.. Collin Wilder perfectly jumps this route.. just gotta work on that spin move pic.twitter.com/BcsLMTopaw— George Balekji (@GeorgeBalekji) December 30, 2020
It was very apparent that Jim Leonhard and his defense were able to adjust to covering those man-beating routes. The cornerbacks did a phenomenal job of taking away the outside and funneling the wide receivers in towards the linebackers (hello Jack Sanborn interception), and the safeties were able to creep up and jump the slants and inside routes that Wake Forest attempted to run on repeat.
The Badgers defense has been one of the best units in the entire country all of 2020, and after getting punched in the mouth early, they were able to respond nicely. The defense as a whole helped set up 21 points off turnovers, and deserve the bulk of the credit for the win over a Wake Forest team that had only turned the ball over three times in the previous eight games.
Offensive line shuffle
Coming into the game shorthanded, Wisconsin had to patchwork together their offensive line after Cole Van Lanen and Logan Bruss both were unable to go against Wake Forest. Both players were consistent starters the past two seasons, and their absence was highly notable going into the game with starting center Kayden Lyles already out for the season due to injury.
With three regular starters out of the rotation, Joe Rudolph had to turn to some younger lineman to step in. To start the game the Badgers slid Jon Dietzen out to left tackle, added Josh Seltzner at left guard, sophomore Cormac Sampson got the nod at center and sophomore Michael Furtney earned his first start at right guard, while Tyler Beach maintained his position at right tackle.
As the game progressed, redshirt freshman Logan Brown took over at left tackle a little over midway through the second quarter. The redshirt freshman, and former five-star recruit out of high school, played well in some of the first meaningful snaps of his career.
Logan Brown (#50), ladies and gentlemen pic.twitter.com/QiGZ6CIuDk— Ben Kenney (@benzkenney) December 30, 2020
With Van Lanen and Dietzen each slated to move on after the season, Wisconsin will need some young players to step up and take on a larger role full-time next season. Logan Brown has been listed as the backup to Van Lanen all season long, and appears to be the most likely candidate to replace him in 2021 after a nice bowl game.
Cormac Sampson, Josh Seltzner and Kayden Lyles have now each saw significant playing time and will be front runners for the two other interior spots not locked down by Logan Bruss. Michael Furtney also looked fairly sharp in his first start and will be another key player in the mix at guard as well.
Statistically speaking, the Wisconsin offensive line was far from dominant in the running game against Wake Forest. There were instances in which the Demon Deacons were able to get into the backfield to bring down ball carriers for a loss, resulting in 20 yards of lost yardage, which definitely hurt the overall performance of the offense. However, the unit did not surrender a sack, and played admirably considering how little time this group has had playing together.
While it would have been ideal to have Van Lanen and Bruss available, the ability for Wisconsin to see what some of their young offensive lineman can do should not be overlooked, and could prove valuable next season.
On the #Badgers pregame radio show Matt Lepay just mentioned that the starting offensive line will look a little bit different:— Matt Belz (@savedbythebelz) December 30, 2020
Dietzen-Seltzner-Sampson-Furtney-Beach from left to right.
Jalen Berger is back, but no Davis/Pryor/Loudermilk for Wake Forest.
Remember last season in which special teams doomed the Badgers on multiple occasions? Well the Badgers were much better than Wake Forest in that facet of the game on Wednesday.
Outside of a blocked field goal attempt by Jack Van Dyke, Wisconsin did a great job in special teams, and their work set up two touchdown drives for the Badgers.
Jaylan Franklin was able to block a mishandled punt and give the offense the ball back at the Wake Forest nine yard line. The play represented a huge momentum shift, and helped the Badgers tie up the game at 14 points apiece in the second quarter.
In the second half it was a 59-yard kickoff return by freshman wide receiver Devin Chandler that sprung another touchdown drive moments after a long Wake Forest touchdown drive pushed their lead to 21-14.
TRUE FRESHMAN DEVIN CHANDLER!— Bucky’s 5th Quarter (@B5Q) December 30, 2020
LET'S GET HIM THE ROCK MORE?
Those two plays were absolutely huge, and tilted the field for Wisconsin. The punting unit was not nearly as crisp as they had been in the previous six games, but Jack Van Dyke did a wonderful job with five touchbacks on seven kickoffs as well (we will just forgive that opening kickoff out of bounds).
Wisconsin has had its fair share of special teams mishaps the past few seasons, and while the group was not perfect against Wake Forest, they made some splash plays that ultimately helped out the offense and changed the complexion of the game.
While re-watching the game I came away really impressed with Graham Mertz on the first scoring drive of the game for the Badgers.
On the opening play of the drive he delivered a beautifully thrown ball to Jake Ferguson on a drag route across the field off play-action. Mertz was crushed immediately upon release, but he delivered the ball nicely for a 40-yard gain. The play was negated due to a silly alignment penalty, but Mertz was able to still move the chains a few plays later after a 13-yard hitch route to Jack Dunn and a nice fourth down quarterback sneak to convert.
After obtaining another first down on a defensive holding penalty, Mertz threw a nice ball on the move for a big 27-yard catch and run to Chimere Dike. Mertz would then follow that play up with another beautiful throw on a crosser to Jack Dunn that went for 19 yards.
Heisman finalist Kyle Trask throwing three interceptions in the first quarter with his main wide receivers all out against Oklahoma.— Matt Belz (@savedbythebelz) December 31, 2020
It's almost like not having your starting WRs actually matters.
Graham Mertz dealt with that this season since the Michigan game.
Eventually the Badgers were able to get the ball in to the end zone on a John Chenal dive play to cap to off an 11-play touchdown drive that started at their own 25-yard line.
During that drive the Badgers were only able to muster two net rushing yards, while Mertz was nearly flawless on the drive outside of an errant miss to Chimere Dike on a quick flat route. That score represented the only time that the Badgers had to truly go the length of the field, but it was a much needed shot in the arm for the entire team after Wake Forest jumped out to an early lead.
The drive highlighted above really flashed what Graham Mertz can do when in rhythm and playing confidently. Mertz was far from perfect against Wake Forest, but he had a nice bounce back game and hopefully he can harness the experience he gained this season to improve during the off-season.
Now he just needs to work on not dropping trophies...