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 will look to obtain their first win over a ranked opponent since November of 2019, in a highly anticipated contest with the No. 12 Notre Dame Fighting Irish. The one matchup I am most interested in watching will be how the Wisconsin linebackers handle Notre Dame’s backfield.
The case for Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree
Notre Dame’s offensive line has not played up to their usual standard, but running backs Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree have still found ways to produce.
Both former heralded recruits, Williams and Tyree are an explosive duo for Brian Kelly’s team. Neither are overly big, each around 5-foot-9 and under 200 pounds, but they are extremely talented.
Williams is the feature back after accumulating over 1,400 yards from scrimmage and 14 touchdowns a year ago while averaging 5.3 yards per carry. He is very strong for his size and runs physically. He also helps out in the return game given his playmaking ability. So far this season he has amassed 400 total yards and four touchdowns.
His running mate, Tyree, is exceptionally fast. He reportedly runs around a 4.3 in the forty-yard dash, and when you put on the tape he can flash. So far this season he has struggled on a per-carry basis (he is averaging 2.9 yards per attempt), but he is dangerous in the open field.
As a team, the Irish are also only averaging 2.9 yards per rush, much of that due to Jack Coan’s sack numbers. However, where Williams and Tyree have excelled this year is generating big plays. The running back tandem has broken off three plays of at least 50 yards and has done so on the ground as well as in the passing game.
While I believe that Wisconsin’s defensive front should be able to limit the Irish running game, Notre Dame has relied heavily on their passing game this season. Coan is more than willing to check the ball down, which has created plenty of opportunities for Williams and Tyree to get involved as receivers.
In fact, Williams currently has the second-most receptions on the team (with 11) and Tyree is right behind him with 10. They have combined for 258 receiving yards and three touchdowns on those 21 catches, which equates to a little over 12 yards per reception. Now those numbers are inflated a bit because of a pair of 55-yard receptions, but the ability for both players to produce big plays has really stood out through three games.
The case for the Wisconsin linebacking corps
Arguably the strength of the Wisconsin defense is their collection of linebackers. Even with starting middle linebacker Leo Chenal missing the first two games of the season due to COVID-19 protocols, the Badgers front only allowed 66 rushing yards on 36 carries.
However, the return of Chenal is critical for Wisconsin’s defense. He was second on the team last year in tackles and led the team in sacks (with three) and tackles for loss (with six). He brings an energy and physicality to the defense that was not replicable, even as Mike Maskalunas played well in his place.
Back to full strength, the starting group of Chenal, Jack Sanborn, Nick Herbig and Noah Burks will have a much different test against Notre Dame’s backfield. In addition to stopping the run and getting after the quarterback, the four linebackers must also account for the Irish’s tailbacks as receivers.
Each of the linebackers, except for Herbig, have recorded an interception in their career though. Sanborn has four, while Burks had a pick-six back in 2019 against Northwestern, and Chenal had one last season against Michigan. The group clearly has ball skills and is capable in coverage, but their ability to tackle in the open field and stick with backs out of the backfield will be challenged this weekend.
Defensively, the ability to stop the run and stifle backs out of the backfield is not limited to the linebackers alone, but this group is so active that the way they play will dictate a lot of what happens on Saturday.
This weekend’s matchup between the Badgers and the Irish is the premier game across college football. There will be a large number of eyes watching, and that presents a huge opportunity for both teams. The return of Chenal is massive for Wisconsin, but he has not yet played this season and might need a series or two to find his legs.
This game is probably going to be a defensive slugfest, which in turn magnifies the importance of big plays. The Badgers need to limit the damage that Williams and Tyree can do with the ball in their hands, and a lot of that responsibility will fall on the linebackers. Wisconsin’s scheme relies on their talented linebackers to do a lot, but this is a game that their play could substantially tilt the game.