Five keys to a Wisconsin victory over Notre Dame on Saturday

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Only 48 hours now separate the No. 18 Wisconsin Badgers from taking the field against old friend Jack Coan and the No. 12 Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

The game is significant to the narrative surrounding this Badger football team, as a loss in this spot would bring whether the team is good enough to win the Big Ten West into question. On the other hand, a win would give the team valuable momentum heading into next weekend’s showdown with No. 19 Michigan.

The game itself does not affect the Big Ten race. What we see on the field, though, will tell us a lot about where this team stands.

So far this week we’ve gone through Notre Dame’s team preview, five stats that will decide the contest, what Jack Coan said about facing his former team and more.

List

Wisconsin vs. Notre Dame: Numbers to know

Here, now, are the five keys to a Wisconsin victory on Saturday:

Pressure Jack Coan & meet Kyren Williams in the backfield

Sep 11, 2021; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish quarterback Jack Coan (17) runs on to the field as quarterback Tyler Buchner (12) leaves the field in the third quarter at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Wisconsin’s defense can find success against a talented Notre Dame offense if the unit continues its effort up front.

As I outlined in my five stats that will decide the contest, Notre Dame has struggled with injury and poor play at the tackle positions. That weakness presents a golden opportunity for Nick Herbig, Noah Burks, Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal to have massive impacts on the football game.

Thinking back to 2019, we all know what Jack Coan is able to do with the football when he’s protected well. We also know, however, what the former Badger quarterback looks like when he’s thrown off his rhythm and consistently pressured.

FightingIrishWire‘s Nick Shepkowski appeared on the recent episode of LockedOnBadgers and broke down what the offense looks like with Jack Coan under center.

He talked about the offensive line struggling to protect the quarterback at times. He also noted, though, that when Coan is protected well, he’s thrown a deep ball better than Notre Dame has seen since Jimmy Clausen.

Notre Dame allowed four sacks during Week 3’s victory over Purdue, a number that the Badgers have a great chance to top on Saturday.

Going further into the matchup in the trenches, the Wisconsin defense will also need to find ways to meet Notre Dame running back Kyren Williams in the backfield.

Seen below, he’s struggled to find much space running behind that offensive line.

When he has found a lane, though, highlight plays and long touchdowns have become common (that feeds into Key No. 2).

First and foremost for the Badger defense: taking advantage of a favorable matchup in the trenches will be key to winning on that side of the football.

After that, avoid home run plays at all costs

Sep 18, 2021; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish wide receiver Avery Davis (3) runs Into the end zone for a touchdown in front of Purdue Boilermakers safety Chris Jefferson (17) in the third quarter at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

As I outlined in my five stats that will decide the game, Notre Dame’s offense was consistently stopped by an average Purdue defense last Saturday.

What the Fighting Irish were able to do, though, is connect on home run after home run and bail out poor drives by breaking a long touchdown.

Here’s how they scored their touchdowns:

  • Kyren Williams 39-yard pass from Jack Coan for a touchdown

  • Avery Davis 62-yard pass from Jack Coan for a touchdown

  • Kyren Williams carries 51 yards for a touchdown

That’s three total touchdowns that averaged more than 50 yards.

Just like what we saw against Penn State, Wisconsin’s defense has a winnable matchup up front and overall (that’s a credit to Wisconsin’s stellar defense more than anything). How the Badgers can be beat, though, is like what we saw against the Nittany Lions: big plays over the top and chunk plays from the offense’s stars.

If Jim Leonhard’s defense can eliminate plays like are seen above, his defense shouldn’t have trouble putting together an impressive performance.

Keep the ball away from Kyle Hamilton

Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton (14) celebrates an interception during the fourth quarter of an NCAA football game, Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Credit: Nikos Frazier / Journal & Courier-Imagn Content Services, LLC

Wisconsin is 0-4 dating back to last season when QB Graham Mertz throws an interception. That math then adds up to a 5-0 record when he does well protecting the football.

From my five stats that will decide the contest:

Kyle Hamilton will present a scary test for Mertz’s accuracy and decision-making, especially in the red zone. If Mertz can avoid throwing him the football, and throwing away the game, Wisconsin has everything necessary to win the game.

If turnovers continue to plague the Badger quarterback (I’m including fumbles and failed red zone handoffs in this equation), Wisconsin will continue to have a tough time finding a way to win.

Kyle Hamilton is that game-changer on defense that Graham Mertz has struggled against (see: Penn State’s Jaquon Brisker).

Through two games, the star safety recorded 11 tackles, 2 tackles-for-loss and 2 interceptions. His Week 1 interception against Florida State shows all you need to know about his range and playmaking ability.

But Hamilton is also a weapon in the run game, showing that clearly on a 4th-and-1 play against Purdue.

FightingIrishWire‘s Nick Shepkowski also broke down Hamilton’s talent on his recent appearance on LockedOnBadgers:

The key to Wisconsin having a successful offensive performance obviously starts with taking care of the football. For them to do that, Mertz and company will need to keep the ball away from Hamilton at all costs.

Finish drives

Wisconsin Badgers football’s Chez Mellusi (6) scores Wisconsin’s only touchdown of the day against Penn State during their game Saturday, September 4, 2021 in Madison, Wis. Penn State won the game 16-10. Doug Raflik/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

From my five stats that will define the contest:

Through three halves of football (eliminating the second half vs. Eastern Michigan), 9 of Wisconsin’s 18 drives reached the red zone. Only one of the first five were converted into touchdowns (the 1/4 against Penn State obviously deciding that contest).

Wisconsin has shown a great ability to move the ball in between the 20s with both the ground game and easy completions for Mertz. When they’ve reached the red zone, that script has completely flipped.

The Badgers, and Graham Mertz specifically, will need to reverse that course on Saturday if they want to avoid another Week 1-type showing (domination on all fronts but a digit in the loss column).

Wisconsin’s battle with Notre Dame is lining up to be low-scoring (like Week 1 vs. Penn State) and a fight to the end. Turning red-zone possessions into touchdowns will be necessary for Mertz and the offense.

Start fast

Sep 4, 2021; Madison, Wisconsin, USA; Wisconsin Badgers quarterback Graham Mertz (5) throws a pass during the first quarter against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Camp Randall Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

This Wisconsin team is perfectly built to play from ahead, bleed clock, control the football and make timely defensive stops.

What they are not built for is eliminating deficits and scoring in 2 or 4-minute scenarios, that at least until Graham Mertz takes a step forward.

So eliminating Notre Dame’s home run plays, stopping Kyren Williams, pressuring Jack Coan and keeping the ball away from Kyle Hamilton are all necessary to win the football game.

But I don’t think this team has what it takes to come back from a two-score second-half deficit quite yet. Starting fast is the best way to eliminate that scenario.

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