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Behind Enemy Lines Q&A: Wisconsin

Will the home team win yet again in this series, or will the Badgers make it back-to-back wins?

Wisconsin v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

The Michigan Wolverines are now 1-2 and have a home game against the 1-0 Wisconsin Badgers on Saturday night. Wisconsin hasn’t played for a few weeks and could be missing some key contributors due to the coronavirus.

We spoke with Drew Hamm of Bucky’s 5th Quarter, who gave us some needed insight into the current state of the Wisconsin program.

Wisconsin is 1-0, but due to a large number of positive coronavirus cases, the Badgers haven’t played a game for a few weeks. How do you think this will impact them on Saturday?

Based on the media availability we’ve had this week everyone with Wisconsin is saying all of the right stuff about how they’re confident and prepared and all that, but one would have to assume being off for two weeks and missing somewhere north of 10 players will impact the team greatly. The Badgers have done a great job over the past few years of improving the talent, and depth, on their roster but that will be put to the test on Saturday for sure.

Wisconsin seems to have a good RB and OL every season, is that the case again even though they lost Jonathan Taylor to the NFL?

The running game was a disappointment in the game against Illinois. Presumed starter Nakia Watson didn’t have a good game (19 carries, 62 yards) but third down back Garrett Groshek played well (13 carries, 70 yards, 4 catches, 24 yards). As a team the Badgers only averaged 3.4 yards per carry and just didn’t look impressive trying to run the ball. Illinois has, for whatever reason, had Wisconsin’s number in this regard recently because even Taylor would struggle against the Illini. The running game is definitely better than they showed against Illinois but this is one of the worst years for running back talent at UW in a while.

The offensive line has a couple of new starters but they are all veteran guys who have played snaps before. I am far less concerned about the offensive line than I am about the running backs and, I suppose, if the o-line gets better so should the running backs.

It isn’t clear if QB Graham Mertz will be starting or not on Saturday. What does Mertz bring to the table, and is there a steep dropoff in talent if Mertz can’t play?

The Wisconsin coaching staff is being extremely cagey about whether or not Mertz will play on Saturday. He is definitely the most talented QB on the roster, including injured starter Jack Coan, and while he has only played meaningful snaps in one career game he plays with supreme confidence at all times. He can make all the throws that you want a QB to make, although he didn’t get to show off the deep ball much against Illinois, and he’s able to scamper for yards as a rusher but I wouldn’t call him a dual-threat. As a fan, he brought a sense of calm when he dropped back to pass that I hadn’t experienced since the one glorious Russell Wilson year.

Backup QB Chase Wolf is also talented and, by all accounts, competed with Mertz well to earn the original backup job (before Coan got hurt) but there is a dropoff there. Third stringer Danny Vanden Boom is a smart, game-manager type who won’t make any mistakes but also won’t make any “wow” plays. The Badgers have historically won games with guys like Vanden Boom under center, but they usually have a much better rushing attack than this year’s team. If neither Mertz nor Wolf can go the Badgers offense could be in for a long day, even with Michigan’s secondary issues.

What’s Wisconsin’s biggest strength and weakness?

The pass defense (and honestly the defense as a whole) is quite good. The Badgers are able to run about 10 guys deep in the secondary who have starting experience and it showed in the game against Illinois. Two Illini QBs went 8-of-22 for 87 yards and a pick against Wisconsin and Rachad Wildgoose was able to shut down stud Illinois WR Josh Imatorbhebhe. They’ve got guys who can cover and guys who can come up into the box and stop the run and they give defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard a lot of options in terms of pressure packages.

As far as weaknesses go? It kinda depends on who is playing to be honest. The running game didn’t look great against Illinois, but that should hypothetically get better and while Mertz looked amazing, if he isn’t playing there are a whole set of questions at the QB position. The punter, Andy Vujnovich who is a transfer from a D-III school, is also kind of a wild card. He had two amazing punts, including his first one that went 60 yards, and then two decidedly not amazing punts against Illinois, so who knows what we’ll see from him!

Can you give us a couple players to watch out for on both sides of the ball?

On offense keep an eye on junior TE Jake Ferguson, who caught three touchdowns against Illinois, and sophomore RB Isaac Guerendo, a speedster who struggled against Illinois but can make life miserable for a defense with his aforementioned speed.

On defense keep an eye on true freshman OLB Nick Herbig, who started against Illinois and had a sack and an almost interception...he’s a playmaker, and sophomore NT Keeanu Benton, who provides pressure on the QB from the middle of the defensive line while also being stout in run defense.

What’s your prediction? How will this game unfold?

This is such a tough year to make any predictions, even in the week leading up to the game, since we won’t even know who is able to play for the Badgers until shortly before kickoff. I’ve actually watched a fair amount of Michigan these past two weeks with the Badgers being off, so I think I have a moderate understanding of how this game will go. I think Mertz or Wolf will be able to play QB for the Badgers which will allow the offense to take advantage of a struggling Michigan secondary. The Badgers rushing attack also gets back on track against an injury-depleted Wolverines front-seven and UW wins 30-21.