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Wisconsin football: key matchup to watch vs. Purdue

Purdue’s pass-heavy attack will test the Wisconsin secondary.


Every college football Saturday is exciting as teams look for matchups to exploit in what traditionally is the game within the game for coaches and players alike.

This year we at B5Q will dive into one pivotal matchup to keep an eye on as the Wisconsin Badgers work their way through their non-conference and Big Ten portions of their 2021 football schedule.

While the battle between George Karlaftis and the Wisconsin offensive line will be crucial, and all of the various phases of a game are incredibly important, the matchup I will be watching closely this week will be Purdue’s David Bell against the Wisconsin secondary.

Purdue v Wisconsin
David Bell hauling in a catch against Caesar Williams back in 2019.
Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The case for David Bell

David Bell has been extremely good this year. He leads the Big Ten in receiving yards per game at almost 140 a contest, he is fourth in receptions and is seventh in touchdowns while only playing in five games due to injury. Purdue lives on throwing the football, and Bell is a big reason why. He accounts for over 20% of Purdue’s receptions this year and has contributed over a third of their receiving yardage on the season.

The tweet below kind of puts his numbers into perspective.

At 6-foot-2, the former basketball player was somewhat overshadowed earlier in his career by Rondale Moore, but with Moore off to the Arizona Cardinals he is the focal point of Purdue’s offense now. In five games, he has accounted for 679 yards with four touchdowns and is averaging 17.87 yards per reception.

A projected early-round draft pick, Bell is a player that Purdue works to get the ball to as much as possible given his talent. As a true freshman in 2019, Bell hauled in 12 receptions for 108 yards and a touchdown against the Badgers in Camp Randall. He is one of the better talents in the conference, and the Wisconsin secondary will need to be at their best to limit his chances.

The case for the Wisconsin secondary

Wisconsin’s defense is one of the best in the country. In terms of total defense, they rank No. 2 (225.8 yards per game), for passing defense they rank No. 9 in the country, and they are No. 20 in terms of passing efficiency.

While they have allowed a few big plays in the passing game this season, in general, Jim Leonhard’s bunch is about as good as it gets.

NCAA Football: Michigan at Wisconsin
Senior cornerback Faion Hicks leads the team with six pass breakups.
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Starting cornerbacks Faion Hicks and Caesar Williams have both played against Bell in the past, and are very experienced. Hicks in particular is having the best season of his career and has six pass breakups in five games.

The Badgers have struggled with communication in the secondary on a few different occasions, most notably against Penn State and Michigan. With both cornerbacks multi-year starters and the starting safety duo of Collin Wilder and Scott Nelson also heavily experienced, they should be up for the task on Saturday.

Purdue loves to throw the ball and relies on their passing game for essentially the entirety of their offense. How the Wisconsin secondary plays against Purdue’s pass-happy attack will be interesting to watch after prepping for Army’s option attack the week prior.

I expect Jim Leonhard to try to get after Purdue quarterback Aidan O’Connell to help out his secondary, but in the end, it will be up to Hicks, Williams, Wilder, Nelson, and cornerback Dean Engram to make plays.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 25 Shamrock Series - Notre Dame v Wisconsin
Safeties Scott Nelson and Collin Wilder will likely help bracket Bell during the game.
Photo by Dan Sanger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Purdue has thrown six interceptions this season, and O’Connell has shown a willingness to just throw it up, trusting that Bell will come down with 50-50 balls. That approach will give the Badgers defense plenty of opportunities to secure takeaways, something they have not done well this year. This would be a big game to change that narrative and start winning the turnover battle.