Five keys to a Wisconsin victory over Army on Saturday

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The Wisconsin Badgers and Army Golden Knights are only three nights away from setting the clocks back and giving football fans a taste of what the sport was like before passing was considered normal.

Will it be extremely high-scoring? No. Will it please football fans who love huge plays and long touchdowns? Definitely not.

But it will reflect football at its core: a physical, strategic game where every play is a small war.

Related: The most important and unbelievable stats heading into Wisconsin’s matchup with Army

After shaking off mistakes and dominating last weekend, here is what Wisconsin will need to do on Saturday to come away with a victory:

Early-down success on both sides of the football

Sep 4, 2021; Madison, Wisconsin, USA; Wisconsin Badgers running back Chez Mellusi (6) rushes with the football as Penn State Nittany Lions cornerback Joey Porter Jr. (9) defends during the first quarter at Camp Randall Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Army’s triple-option offense is one of the least efficient teams on early downs of any in the nation (56.4% success rate–125th in the nation), while Wisconsin’s defense is the third-best in that area (53.49% success rate allowed).

Jim Leonhard’s unit getting Army to third-and-long will be pivotal, as we know how rarely they rely on the forward pass (only about six passes per game). If the group can do that, then Army’s offensive wrinkles shouldn’t give the defense much of a problem and the Black Knights will be forced to gain large chunks with an offense without a real passing game.

Moving to the other side of the football, Wisconsin’s offense is middle-of-the-pack on early downs (70.71% success rate–44th in the nation), while Army’s defense is near the bottom of the nation in that area (72.58% success rate allowed–94th in the nation).

We know what Graham Mertz and the offense looks like when they avoid 3rd-and-long situations. The stats say that is more-than-possible on Saturday, we’ll just need to see it happen

So if Wisconsin can continue the trends outlined above, if not improve them, it should have no trouble finding an advantage in this game.

Turnovers

Sep 11, 2021; Madison, Wisconsin, USA; Eastern Michigan Eagles running back Darius Boone Jr. (27) is tackled by Wisconsin Badgers linebacker Jack Sanborn (57) during the third quarter at Camp Randall Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

It’s time we start seeing this defense turn its opponents over.

The group has been the second-best rush defense in the country, has been a more-than-formidable pass defense and would be a great scoring defense were it not for the offense putting them in tough positions against great teams.

But they’ve only forced three turnovers in five games—one which came against Eastern Michigan and the other against Michigan during garbage time.

Jim Leonhard talked about that this week:

Army has only turned the ball over three times, so it won’t be the most favorable matchup in the category. There just reaches a point where one of the nation’s best defenses needs to start creating turnovers.

Wisconsin will win the game if that starts on Saturday. It can lose, though, if Mertz continues to turn the ball over and allow game script and momentum to flip to the Army side of the field.

Stopping the triple-option early, so other wrinkles don't catch the defense off guard late

Army Black Knights quarterback Tyhier Tyler surveys the field while running the triple option offense against the West Virginia Mountaineers during the AutoZone Liberty Bowl in Memphis, Tenn. on Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020. Credit: Joe Rondone/The Commercial Appeal-Imagn Content Services, LLC

Army’s triple-option attack presents a challenge to a defense when all of the wrinkles start working.

When the initial halfback dive works up the middle, defenders start to collapse early. When that happens, the quarterback is able to pitch the ball to the sideline or take the ball himself.

When individual matchups are won (such as: Keeanu Benton, Matt Henningsen and Isaiah Mullens against the Army offensive interior), wrinkles are taken away which means more resources can be sent to the other parts of the field.

That’s just stopping the triple option. Army can then throw the ball out of the same looks and run more traditional offensive plays.

The Badgers stopping the attack in the first quarter will be huge for their chances at stopping it late. The first few series could go a long way towards deciding who wins this football game.

The Offensive line must win up front so we can see a healthy dose of Braelon Allen and Chez Mellusi

Oct 9, 2021; Champaign, Illinois, USA; Wisconsin Badgers running back Braelon Allen (0) runs over Fighting Illini defensive back Kerby Joseph (25) in the first half at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The fewer times Graham Mertz throws the football, the fewer times Wisconsin risks turning the ball over and losing the game. The offensive line needs to win its matchups up front in order to get Allen and Mellusi going downhill against a great rush defense—something which will then take every ounce of pressure off of the quarterback.

While Joe Rudolph’s unit has struggled against good defenses, it has shown an ability to dominate against inferior opponents. They’ll need to build upon a great showing last week and allow Wisconsin to run the football up and down the field. Otherwise, Army can fight and claw in this game until Mertz makes a mistake or two.

Details on special teams

Oct 9, 2021; Champaign, Illinois, USA; Wisconsin Badgers kicker Collin Larsh (19) kicks and extra point against the Illinois Fighting Illini in the first half at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Every point and every possession is pivotal when a game’s over/under is under 40 (Saturday’s is 39). While kicker Collin Larsh has been really good this season, the rest of Wisconsin’s special teams have been a killer.

Opponents have found success in the return game (see: Notre Dame), the Badgers had a kick blocked (see: Penn State) and they muffed a punt against Michigan.

Those mistakes just cannot happen when Las Vegas predicts a game to finish with scores in the teens.

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