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After months of build up to Jack Coan and Notre Dame facing Graham Mertz and Wisconsin, we are less than 24 hours away from the storylines playing out on the field.
On paper, the two teams look close to even as Notre Dame has struggled to their 3-0 record while Wisconsin dropped their season opener to Penn State thanks to poor red zone execution. Both squads, however, have NFL talent on either side of the football while bringing physicality and tough running to Soldier Field in Chicago.
The Badgers have a number of position group advantages, and clear paths to victory. If Wisconsin ends up victorious, some combination of these five elements will likely define the win. Here is a look at five reasons why Wisconsin beats Notre Dame on Saturday:
Wisconsin wins the battle in the trenches
Sep 11, 2021; Madison, Wisconsin, USA; Wisconsin Badgers defensive end Matt Henningsen (92) celebrates after sacking Eastern Michigan Eagles quarterback Ben Bryant (8) (not pictured) during the second quarter at Camp Randall Stadium. Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
On both sides of the football, Wisconsin should have an advantage in the trenches. Notre Dame’s offensive line comes in with questions at left tackle as they are still undecided about Michael Carmody’s availability. The Fighting Irish line simply hasn’t played up to their standards through three weeks.
After being pushed around in Week 1 by Penn State, Wisconsin’s offensive line looked more like the group we are used to seeing against Eastern Michigan. This is the first test since that Week 1 dud, but history and experience favors a positive performance.
Wisconsin’s defensive line has been remarkable through two games. Keeanu Benton and Matt Henningsen have been playing arguably their best football as Badgers, while Isaiah Mullens has filled in admirably in his new starting spot at DE.
Wisconsin needs less out of their QB than Notre Dame does
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. Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Wisconsin needs less out of their QB than Notre Dame does heading into Saturday. Graham Mertz doesn’t need to set the world on fire, but rather needs to make his layup throws and take care of the football.
The Badgers have proven their ability to run the football behind Chez Mellusi, Jalen Berger, and Isaac Guerendo and while Notre Dame has a dynamic RB in Kyren Williams, Wisconsin has shown their strength against the run. To beat the Badgers, you essentially have to do it in the air.
Jack Coan will have to be special while Mertz will have to serviceable in order for their respective teams to pull out a win. That’s advantage Badgers.
So, have you seen this defense play?
Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard is shown during the second quarter of their game Saturday, September 8m 2018 at Camp Randall Stadium, Wis. Wisconsin beat New Mexico 45-14. Mark Hoffman – Journal Sentinel
You can talk about strength of opponent all you want, but to pitch a shutout against a D-1 FBS opponent points to an incredible defensive performance regardless of who you played.
That’s exactly what Wisconsin did against Eastern Michigan. The revelation has been a defensive line with a healthy Matt Henningsen and new starter Isaiah Mullens excelling alongside Keeanu Benton.
Getting Leo Chenal back from COVID-19 to pair with Jack Sanborn at LB will create an even more impressive unit. The only issue has been a few chunk plays allowed to Jahan Dotson and Penn State after coverage busts, but even the secondary has the personnel to be an elite group. Wisconsin will have the better defense on Saturday.
Wisconsin will dominate on the ground
Sep 11, 2021; Madison, Wisconsin, USA; Wisconsin Badgers running back Chez Mellusi (6) rushes with the football during the second quarter against the Eastern Michigan Eagles at Camp Randall Stadium. Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Playing two lesser opponents in Florida State and Toledo, Notre Dame allowed a 120+-yard rusher to both teams through their first two games. Wisconsin has big play ability with not one, not two, but three different backs who all bring something a little bit different.
It’s not secret that the Badgers will try to run early and run often, and despite a better showing versus the run against Purdue, Notre Dame has not shown an ability to slow lesser rushing attacks.
Wisconsin will figure it out in the red zone
Sep 4, 2021; Madison, Wisconsin, USA; Wisconsin Badgers head coach Paul Chryst talks with quarterback Graham Mertz (5) during the third quarter against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Camp Randall Stadium. Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
The glaring stat for this Wisconsin offense comes in the red zone. The Badgers have converted on just five of their ten red zone trips. By converted, we aren’t talking touchdowns. We are talking any points at all.
What have the issues been? The first one is as fixable as anything could be: simply hand the ball off. Mertz and Mellusi have flubbed a pair of handoffs that killed momentum on red zone drives against Penn State and ultimately led to a Badger loss.
The play calling has certainly left something to be desired as has Mertz’s execution and patience. Wisconsin will put it all together on Saturday and finally succeed in the red zone.