Each week, I’ll dust off the preseason preview of this week’s opponent for the Huskers and provide some updates. Of course, as this was sitting ready for publication, Wisconsin was forced to suspend football activities, cancelling the game. Still, it’s worth taking a peek at what could have been.
Wisconsin started the season with a dominant 45-7 victory over Illinois where freshman quarterback Graham Mertz was the star, completing 20 of 21 passes for 248 yards and five touchdowns. Mertz was named the Big Ten’s freshman and co-offensive player of the week, but now that he’s received a second positive test for COVID-19, he’s unable to participate in football activities for three weeks. With senior Jack Coan still nursing a foot injury and third-stringer Chase Wolf also testing positive for COVID, redshirt junior Danny Vanden Boom (6’5” 207 lbs.) is taking the first-team snaps this week for Wisconsin. Vanden Boom played in three games in 2018, completing his only pass attempt for a three yard touchdown against New Mexico State. (Fun trivia item: Vanden Boom is the cousin of Paul Verlander, a Nebrasketball reserve from 2004-09.)
Mertz’s big game overshadowed a rather un-Wisconsin-like game from the Badger running backs. Sophomore Nakia Watson rushed 19 times for 62 yards, while senior Garrett Groshek rushed 13 times for 70 yards, mostly in the second half. Groshek, an all-state high school quarterback in Wisconsin, could become an emergency backup for Vanden Boom.
Junior tight end Jake Ferguson caught seven passes for 72 yards and three touchdowns, but also had a costly fumble that was returned for Illinois’ only points of the night. Senior receiver Danny Davis caught two passes for 72 yards, one of which was a 53 yard touchdown that put the game away just before halftime.
Senior safety Collin Wilder (5’10” 194 lbs.), senior defensive end Garrett Rand and sophomore inside linebacker Leo Chenal led the Badgers with four tackles each against Illinois. Wilder is replacing junior Scott Nelson, who’s apparently still recovering from last season’s knee surgery. It was a dominant performance by the Badgers defense, who held Illinois to just 218 yards. Illinois had much better luck running the ball, giving up 131 yards on the ground including 75 yards by quarterback Brandon Peters. The Illini were awful trying to throw the ball, completing just eight of 22 passes with an interception.
This game would have been an interesting challenge for Nebraska before COVID-19 cancelled the game. Mertz could have taken advantage of a Nebraska secondary that will be short-handed in the first half due to targeting suspensions. I really would like to see how Nebraska’s improved front seven would handle the Wisconsin running game this season as well. And, of course, I’d like to see if Nebraska can break out a passing game this week on the Badgers’ defense. But that’s not happening now.
Below, you’ll find the summer preview of the Wisconsin Badgers.
When Nebraska joined the Big Ten, the matchup between the Huskers and Wisconsin seemed poised to finally be NU’s replacement for the long lost rivalry with the Oklahoma Sooners. It seemed natural at the time; two big powerful programs in the midwest. Except for one problem: Nebraska has been adrift for most of the last decade. First it was the struggle to adapt from the speed of the fast-paced Big XII to the power of the Big Ten. Then it was Nebraska’s wrong turn at Albuquerque where suddenly a bottom-feeding Pac-12 football program became the model.
Meanwhile, the Badgers just kept doing what the Badgers have been doing. Wisconsin may have changed head coaches twice over the last decade like the Huskers, but they haven’t deviated far from the formula Barry Alvarez put in place 30 years ago. That’s why the Badgers have played in the Big Ten Championship game six of it’s nine years.
In 2020, the Badgers don’t appear to have many holes other than the one at running back. Jonathan Taylor took his 6,000-plus career rushing yards to the NFL early, leaving sophomore Nakia Watson (5’11” 229 lbs.) and senior Garrett Groshek (5’11” 220 lbs.) to fill the void. Watson rushed for 331 yards last season, while Groshek rushed for 194. Keep an eye on true freshman Jalen Berger (6’0” 190 lbs.), a four-star recruit who was pursued by pretty much every big name before putting on a hat with the “W” at the U.S. Army All-American game.
Wisconsin’s receiver corps is in a rebuilding mode as only senior Kendric Pryor (5’11” 180 lbs.) returns as a starter. Pryor was fourth on the team in receiving last season with 23 catches for 278 yards. Senior Danny Davis(6’0” 194 lbs.) has been a spot starter throughout his career, though his numbers have decreased over time; last season, he caught 30 passes for 250 yards and a touchdown. Junior tight end Jake Ferguson (6’5” 246 lbs.) earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors last season, catching 33 passes for 407 yards and two touchdowns. Wisconsin’s passing game has traditionally taken a back seat to their ground game, so perhaps this isn’t as big of an issue.
However, Wisconsin does know who their quarterback is: senior Jack Coan (6’3” 221 lbs.) who pushed Alex Hornibrook so far, he transfered to Florida State. Coan completed nearly 70% of his passes for 2,727 yards and 18 touchdowns with five interceptions. Look for redshirt freshman Graham Mertz (6’3” 215 lbs.) to push him, though. Last season, the five star recruit played in two games completing nine of ten passes .
Wisconsin only returns two starters on the offensive line, but that’s not typically a problem for the Badgers, who churn out linemen like the state’s dairies churn out butter. Junior right guard Logan Bruss (6’5” 310 lbs.) earned honorable mention all-Big Ten honors last season, while senior left tackle Cole Van Lanen (6’5” 312 lbs.) returns as well. Due to injuries, Wisconsin has backups with starting experience to fill the three holes on the offensive line, so we should expect more of the same from the Badgers up front.
In recent years, Wisconsin has also become known for playing stout defense, and with nine returning starters, Wisconsin might have one of the nation’s best. Last season, the Badgers ranked fourth in total defense (giving up 287 yards per game) and tenth in scoring defense (giving up 16.9 points per game). My favorite stat from last season? In Wisconsin’s first six games (four shutouts), the Badger defense scored as many touchdowns (four) as they had allowed.
The entire two-deep returns on the Badger defensive line. Senior ends Garrett Rand (6’2” 279 lbs.) and Isaiahh Loudermilk (6’7” 293 lbs.) have been contributors throughout their career with sophomore nose tackle Keeanu Benton (6’4” 315 lbs.) split time last season with junior Bryson Williams (6’2” 300 lbs.) from Lincoln Southeast. But it’s at linebacker where the two new starters will need to be found. Chris Orr and Zack Baun are off to the NFL, leaving junior inside linebacker Jack Sanborn (6’2” 232 lbs.) to lead the defense. Sanborn lead the Badgers last year with 80 tackles last season. Senior outside linebacker Noah Burks (6’2” 240 lbs.) also returns after totalling 36 tackles last season.
The Badger secondary returns deeper than they ended last season, thanks to the return of junior safety Scott Nelson (6’2” 204 lbs.). Nelson started eight games in 2018 only to suffer a season-ending knee injury in the season opener. Sophomore Reggie Pearson (5’10” 197 lbs.) replaced Nelson and led the secondary with 60 tackles last season. The other three returning starters in the secondary all earned honorable mention all-Big Ten honors last season. Senior free safety Eric Burrell (6’0” 195 lbs.) totaled 55 tackles and three interceptions last season while senior cornerback Caesar Williams (6’0” 188 lbs.) added 35 tackles and 12 total passes defended. Junior cornerback Faion Hicks (5’10” 185 lbs.) chipped in 32 tackles as well.
While the Badgers have question marks at their offensive skill positions, they are proven pretty much everywhere else. There shouldn’t be any question that Wisconsin is a favorite to win the Big Ten’s West division in 2020. Wisconsin always seems to find a great running back and usually just reloads at linebacker. They may not have the talent at receiver, but with a good quarterback, they should be OK. And with that defense, OK should be more than sufficient.