The Wisconsin Badgers looked to be the real deal after stomping Illinois in the opening week of the football season, 45-7. Graham Mertz, who is the highest-rated quarterback to ever commit to Wisconsin, put on a show tossing for 248 yards and 5 touchdowns while throwing only one incomplete pass in his first collegiate performance.
Play like that in the Big Ten’s opening game caught the eyes of even the biggest names in football:
Then, COVID struck Mertz and the program and the Badgers have missed the previous two weeks. Now, it is up in the air if he will play after being one of the positive tests and who may or may not be outcome Saturday.
With that being said, there is one specific player for Wisconsin who could cause some serious problems for the Wolverines in coverage, and that is tight end, Jake Ferguson. Ferguson, a junior, had seven receptions, three for touchdowns, in the Week 1 matchup with the Illini. The 6-foot-5 tight end established himself as Mertz’s favorite target right from the get-go, leading the team in receptions and yards (72) in the win.
In 2019, Ferguson was a consensus All-Big Ten honorable mention at his position and finished the season with 363 receiving yards on 29 receptions with two touchdowns to show for it. He averaged 12.5 yards per reception a season ago and has averaged 10.3 yards per catch this year. Ferguson’s play last year earned him a spot on the 2020 preseason John Mackey award watch list for the country’s best tight end.
He’ll pose a problem to a Michigan defensive group that has struggled to cover anyone over the course of the last two weeks. While it has been most egregious with the outside corners, Michigan’s linebackers have been just as bad, if not worse, in coverage.
Ferguson lined up inline on 58 snaps against Illinois while going to the slot just 9 times. That means his coverage will likely fall on the hands of the Michigan linebacker corps.
Last week against Indiana, the combination of Michael Barrett, Ben VanSumeren, Cam McGrone, and Josh Ross was targeted 18 times by Michael Penix Jr.. Those targeted receivers had receptions on 15 of those passes allotting for 126 yards and a touchdown. To make matters worse, 10 of those receptions were for first downs, extending Hoosier drives.
There is a possibility that Don Brown may put Daxton Hill or Brad Hawkins in coverage. This also poses an issue as it would take Michigan’s safeties away from the deep ball and takes them out of their normal duties, forcing them to play close to the line. Hill is also five inches shorter than Ferguson, standing a 6-foot, while and Hawkins is 6-foot-1. The 6-foot-5 Badger tight end has a clear height and weight advantage over the Wolverines safeties.
In short, Ferguson is a matchup nightmare for a Michigan defense that has done little to stop the passing game all season. If both he and Mertz are healthy, these two will pose the biggest threat to the Wolverines defensively and have a chance of putting on a strong performance come Saturday.