It seems like just yesterday that Luke Fickell’s Wisconsin Badgers were breaking camp and riding a hype wave not seen since at least 2018 when Chryst’s squad returned Jonathan Taylor and most of the other top contributors from a 13-1 Orange Bowl champion.
Then, September happened, and while the Badger fanbase’s support of Fick remains very strong, and optimism levels are firmly north of where they’ve been in recent seasons, anyone who says things have gone as expected is lying.
A series of punchless first-half performances, a “shocking” loss in Pullman (that really isn’t that shocking in retrospect), a leakier-than-expected secondary and offensive line, and a less-than-sterling downfield passing game have all been issues for the team that visits West Lafayette for its Big Ten opener tonight.
But, there have also been several encouraging signs that point to a very good Badger team percolating just under the surface, including some big play ability from the defense, a mostly stout running game, Tanner Mordecai looking very comfortable with his feet and on short to intermediate passes, and several yet-untapped weapons in the WR room.
A breakout from this team would hardly be shocking.
So, let’s look at three possible scenarios for tonight’s game against Purdue: A best-case scenario, a worst-case scenario, and a most likely scenario, to try and make some sense of things.
Best Case Scenario
Rather than waiting for halftime to start playing its game, Wisconsin comes out humming, putting up a pair of 1Q scores, including a deep TD pass to Bryson Green after he sneaks behind the Purdue secondary, to jump out to an early lead.
Not shockingly, Purdue can’t jam the box as they like, leading to Braelon Allen and Chez Mellusi each breaking off a number of robust runs.
The Badger defense pitches in with an INT and two sacks while largely shutting Purdue down, allowing the Badgers to take a 21-6 lead into the break.
There’s zero letdown in the second half from Wisconsin as their suddenly diverse offensive assault on Purdue continues, finally giving Badger fans a look at Phil Longo’s Air Raid in all of its glory.
Mike Tressel’s ball-hawking defensive unit more than holds its own, with two additional sacks and a fumble recovery in the second half after Hudson Card had found his sea legs in a pair of scoring drives.
On the shoulders of Mordecai’s 277 yards and 3 touchdowns, Braelon Allen’s 95 yards and a score, and Jake Chaney’s pair of sacks, Wisconsin swaggers out of West Lafayette with a comfortable 41-17 win over Purdue.
Worst Case Scenario
Death. Taxes. Wisconsin 1st Half Woes.
The Badgers are flat and disorganized on both offense and defense. Card and Purdue’s suddenly potent offense hang three touchdowns and a field on the Badgers before the break, while Purdue’s aggressive defense jams the box and dares Mordecai to beat them through the air, leading to an interception and two Badger field goal drives.
It feels like Pullman all over again, except this time there isn’t a second-half Wisconsin rally.
The frenzied, nighttime Ross-Ade crowd fuels the upstart Boilers all night, and the Badgers, despite a long, late TD drive, fall 30-16, making the Fickell bandwagon noticeably lighter and setting up a troubling week of finger-pointing for a team that was inexplicably outgained by so-so Purdue, 445-272.
Most Likely Scenario
Although Purdue, riled up by an almost two-decade-long losing streak to the Badgers and electric crowd, comes out fired up, the Badgers counter with their best first half of the season by a wide margin with some timely offensive plays and a ball-hawking defense, staking them to a 14-10 halftime lead.
While Card and Purdue move the ball fairly well, a highlight reel Ricardo Hallman INT near the end zone late in the half preserves the lead for Wisconsin.
There is no letdown for the Badgers in the 2nd half, and they parlay two long drives in the third quarter(one ending with a slick Chimere Dike touchdown grab in traffic), into a 24-17 lead heading into the fourth.
A hyped-up Purdue squad doesn’t make it easy for the Badgers and is driving for a game-tying touchdown with 6:00 left, but Card fumbles it after a vicious hit by James Thompson, Jr., and Jordan Turner recovers to give the Badgers the ball back.
A 46-yard Nathanial Vakos field goal on Wisconsin’s subsequent, clock-bleeding drive pushes the lead out to 27-17, before Purdue marches down the field for a touchdown with just over a minute left, the game tightening to 27-24.
But, the Badger hands team holds firm on Purdue’s onside kick and the lads emerge victorious in their most complete performance of 2023, leading to a very happy team plane ride home and a higher-than-usual amount of beer being consumed in Madison Saturday night.