Five statistics that will decide the winner of Wisconsin vs. Notre Dame

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The No. 18 Wisconsin Badgers will take the field Saturday against the No. 12 Notre Dame Fighting Irish with a lot to prove.

Notre Dame is 3-0 on the season with some unimpressive wins against poor opponents (see: Florida State and Toledo).

Wisconsin, on the other hand, sits at 1-1 thanks to a Week 1 loss where they thoroughly outplayed No. 6 Penn State.

This contest is a prove-it game for the Badgers. We’ve seen great signs on both sides of the football, but critical errors including red-zone turnovers, penalties and coverage busts are the reason the team doesn’t sit 2-0 and ranked inside the nation’s top 10.

Related: Everything Notre Dame HC Brian Kelly said about Wisconsin on Monday

Yes, there is obviously the storyline of Notre Dame quarterback Jack Coan facing his former team for the first time. But to me, the biggest storyline entering the contest is whether Graham Mertz and the Badger offense can finally start finishing drives and putting real points on the board.

List

The five biggest issues for Wisconsin headed into Notre Dame week

For the Badgers to answer those questions and win the football game, these five statistics will need to go the team’s way:

Quarterback pressures

Sep 11, 2021; Madison, Wisconsin, USA; Wisconsin Badgers defensive end Matt Henningsen (92) sacks Eastern Michigan Eagles quarterback Ben Bryant (8) during the second quarter at Camp Randall Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

This stat will be relevant on both sides of the football, though the focus here is on the Wisconsin defensive front vs. the Notre Dame offensive line. Notre Dame has a real concern at offensive tackle entering the contest, as they have yet to find a consistent starter and left tackle and their right tackle position hasn't performed much better. The Fighting Irish allowed four sacks in their Week 3 win against Purdue---that even with occasionally bringing in a third offensive tackle to help with Boilermaker DE George Karlaftis. The Notre Dame offense has real weapons with running back Kyren Williams (more on him in a bit), wide receiver Avery Davis and tight end Michael Mayer. How can Wisconsin take those players out of the game? Consistently find pressure against quarterback Jack Coan. The Badgers enter the week with only three total sacks through three contests. The front has consistently gotten pressure, though, and they've done so without star inside linebacker Leo Chenal. Any Wisconsin fan knows Coan struggles when the pocket collapses and his timing is disrupted. So why will this statistic define the outcome? Because Notre Dame has some issues along the offensive line and Wisconsin has the front seven (Isaiah Mullens, Matt Henningsen, Keeanu Benton, Nick Herbig, Noah Burks, Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal) to make Coan's day really difficult.

Notre Dame's yards-per-carry

Sep 18, 2021; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish running back Kyren Williams (23) runs the ball on a punt return in the fourth quarter against the Purdue Boilermakers at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Kyren Williams is one of the best backs in the country, that part is undeniable. He enters the contest with 46 carries on the season, 211 yards, 2 touchdowns and 4.6 yards-per-carry. Those numbers are a bit deceiving, though, because a chunk of those yards have come on a few breakaway runs (I'll have more on Notre Dame's big plays later). https://twitter.com/ToddFuhrman/status/1440426342177067013 Stopping Williams on early downs will be key for Wisconsin. Same as when Coan was the Badgers quarterback, Notre Dame looks to push forward on early downs and set up their quarterback in manageable 3rd-and-short opportunities---which Coan is known to excel at. The approach to this game is similar to how the Badgers entered Week 1's contest against Penn State: Wisconsin must eliminate Notre Dame's early-down running game from the contest if they want to then contain the offense's weapons in the second level.

Wisconsin's red zone efficiency

Sep 4, 2021; Madison, WI, USA; Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz benefits from protection by offensive lineman Michael Furtney (74) while making a throw during the fourth quarter of their game Saturday, September 4, 2021 at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis. Penn State beat Wisconsin 16-10. Mandatory Credit: Mark Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

I'm sure you saw this one coming. 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).

Graham Mertz's interceptions (and/or fumbles)

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

Wisconsin is 0-4 in games where Graham Mertz throws an interception since he took over as starter last season. In case you were wondering what that math adds up to, they are 5-0 when he does not throw an interception. 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.

Notre Dame's chunk plays

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

The final stat to watch throughout Saturday's contest: Notre Dame plays of 30+ yards. Check out how Notre Dame scored touchdowns against Purdue last weekend in a game that was a lot tighter than the final score shows: --Kyren Williams 39-yard pass from Jack Coan for a touchdown: https://twitter.com/PFF_College/status/1439311112500039684 --Avery Davis 62-yard pass from Jack Coan for a touchdown: https://twitter.com/PFF_College/status/1439331025826496526 --Kyren Williams carries 51 yards for a touchdown: https://twitter.com/BleacherReport/status/1439344998949040129 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.

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