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Amid drops from pass-catchers, Badgers WR continuing breakout season

The Wisconsin Badgers are seeing major contributions from their top receiver.

The Wisconsin Badgers compiled together another solid performance in Saturday’s 24-13 victory over the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, improving to 4-2(2-0) on the season ahead of a Week 7 matchup against the Iowa Hawkeyes.

Defensively, the Badgers had their best game of the season, forcing a game-changing turnover from cornerback Ricardo Hallman, while compiling a first-half shutout by taking away Rutgers’ run game, which had averaged nearly 200 yards per contest ahead of Week 6.

However, the offense saw its fair share of ups and downs, especially in the passing game where quarterback Tanner Mordecai completed just 17/31 passes for 145 yards on the day.

On the surface level, those numbers may not look great, but they weren’t indicative of the quarterback’s performance, who suffered from several drops by his pass-catchers.

Through the first five weeks of the season, the hyped pass-catching group for the Badgers is still finding its ground in the new offense, but there has been one standout player who continued a strong 2023 campaign on Saturday: transfer wideout Will Pauling.

Pauling saw a season-high 11 targets, catching eight passes for 68 yards, working the short and intermediate areas of the field, as Rutgers deployed a number of off-coverage concepts to eliminate deeper shots such as the slot fades.

Through five games, Pauling is pacing the Badgers with 22 catches for 243 yards, eclipsing the 55-yard mark in three of those contests.

Entering the offseason, it was unknown who would break out as the Badgers’ top option, given the influx of talent, but Pauling stood out on Day 1 of spring ball with his combination of quick speed, acceleration, hands, and route-running capabilities, which have translated to the field on Saturdays.

Speaking to reporters after the win on Saturday, head coach Luke Fickell reminisced about the decision to bring Pauling with him to Wisconsin, citing him as one of a small handful of players that he felt would be a perfect fit with the Badgers.

“I thought Will was a perfect fit at everything here, just the type of kid he is, you know, his work ethic. And, obviously, his ability. But I think that even is probably one of three that I thought this was, you know, a great and perfect fit,” Fickell said.

While he can never be certain about a player’s progression, Fickell noted how well Pauling has adapted to Wisconsin, highlighting the receiver’s desire to make an impact in as many ways as possible, which included some special teams work on Saturday.

“Now, how guys progress, how guys become, you know, what they become as the offense evolves, you know, you’re never exactly sure,” Fickell said. “But he’s done nothing but continuing to impress everybody, work his butt off. I mean, you saw him more out there on special teams today, as well. And almost had a blocked punt. And he’s just a guy that continues to come to us and say he wants to do more.”

“So they roll time on offense, him and Skyler (Bell) a lot. And he just wants other ways to get on the field and to help us win football games. So we actually used him a bit more. We used him on the punt more today and we used him on block punt today. He’s a guy that’s a ball player.”

Pauling bought in early to what Fickell was doing at Cincinnati, which led to the transfer decision, and has quickly bought into the program as a significant contributor in his first season.

“Hearing someone like Coach Fick (HC Luke Fickell) say that, that’s awesome, because I feel like I really bought into the things that Coach Fick and all the coaches really at Cincinnati were preaching,” Pauling said in regards to Fickell’s ‘perfect fit’ comment.

“And I feel like that’s why I made the transition here so smooth for me, because I was bought in and I knew what they were about. They knew what I was about.”

The Badgers’ skill position players need to improve from their performance Saturday, but it’s important to differentiate Pauling from the mix, who has continued a breakout season in Madison as the top slot receiver.

The next step? Involving the twitchy slot wideout on deeper routes, which means Pauling will have to improve in beating press-coverage.

If Pauling can add that element to his arsenal, he’ll have the mold of a complete receiver, and his contested catch ability may shock some fans in a positive way.