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 all of the various phases of a game are incredibly important, there are normally a few specific matchups that can make or break a game for a particular side. This weekly feature will highlight one of those matchups in greater detail as we preview the upcoming weekend.
This week the Badgers welcome Big Ten foe Penn State to Camp Randall for the season opener, and no shortage of possible key matchups could determine the outcome of the game.
However, the matchup between Wisconsin’s cornerbacks and Penn State wide receiver Jahan Dotson is the focus of this week’s breakdown.
The case for Dotson
Senior wide receiver Jahan Dotson was one of the better wide receivers in the Big Ten last season. The 5-foot-11 speedster is a former 4-star recruit from Pennsylvania that opted to stay home, and he has flashed his playmaking ability the past two seasons in Happy Valley as not only a wide receiver, but also as a punt returner.
Dotson reportedly runs somewhere around the low 4.3’s in the 40-yard dash, and he is excellent with the ball in his hands after the catch. For his career, he has 92 receptions for 1,575 yards and 13 touchdowns, with a Big Ten leading 884 yards and eight touchdowns of that coming during an abbreviated nine-game schedule in 2020.
He is by far Penn State’s top receiver and his quickness is elite. I would expect new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich to move Dotson around frequently to get the ball in his hands, as he is very good at creating separation. He is not overly large at around 180 pounds, but he is not easy to bring down with his shiftiness.
In addition to being a talented wide receiver, he is a big-play threat as a punt returner. Last season he averaged over 24 yards per return and also recorded an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown against Michigan State.
Dotson is a handful, and he will be one of Penn State’s top players to watch on Saturday.
The case for the Wisconsin cornerbacks
The Badgers have a wealth of experience back in their cornerback room. New cornerbacks coach Hank Poteat has five different players with starting experience, which led to the inclusion of six players on the game-week depth chart.
Faion Hicks and Caesar Williams however are the unquestioned top two, and each possesses a high level of individual experience after starting a combined 47 games (28 for Hicks and 19 for Williams). Hicks has displayed an ability to play both on the outside and in the slot this fall. Given his quickness, and he could be a candidate to shade Dotson throughout the game.
Behind them, Alexander Smith, Dean Engram, Donte Burton and Semar Melvin have all contributed in multiple games and should see playing time come Saturday. How Jim Leonhard and Poteat distribute playing time is still up in the air, but overall the group has talent and depth.
Leonhard mentioned that there is a level of uncertainty about what Penn State will do on offense given their coordinator change, but that he has a plan in place to allow his players to play fast and aggressive. A big part of that plan likely concerns the coverage of Dotson, and the ability to make Sean Clifford uncomfortable using an attacking pass rush. With extra pass rushers usually comes man-to-man coverage in the back end, so Wisconsin’s secondary will need to be on top of their game.
The ability for the Badgers to not only limit touches for Dotson but also to wrap up in the open field when he does get the ball will be crucial. His speed should not be anything new for the Wisconsin secondary, as wide receiver Kendric Pryor possesses a similar blend of size and speed that they go against in practice each day, but can they stop Dotson on Saturday? That will be one of the questions I will be watching.
While many other interesting matchups will be present between the Badgers and Nittany Lions, I think that the team that can pass the ball better (and take care of it) will win. Both teams struggled at times last season with inconsistent play at quarterback, particularly with throwing interceptions. I think that Dotson is an athlete that can tilt a game quickly, and because of that, I think Wisconsin’s cornerback room will have plenty of opportunities to make a play. If the Badgers can get a big turnover or two in the secondary, and/or limit the damage that Dotson can do with big plays, it will play a large role in deciding the outcome.
Regardless of which side wins out in this matchup, the battle between Dotson and the Wisconsin cornerbacks should be fun to watch.