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2021 Opponent Snapshot: Wisconsin Badgers

What a fun way to start a season!

Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Quick 2020 Recap

The Badgers had a bit of an up-and-down season in 2020, firing out of the gate with a 45-7 win over Illinois, which included the premiere of the air raid offense in Madison: Graham Mertz went off for 20-of-21 passing, 248 yards, and five touchdown passes. After two games were canceled due to COVID, the Badgers smacked Michigan 49-11, before losing three straight to Northwestern, Indiana, and Iowa. A previously canceled game against Minnesota was held during Championship Week, and Wisconsin got the win, propelling them to 3-3, and a spot in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl. The Badgers beat Wake Forest 42-28 to secure a 4-3 record on the year.

Offensive Player to Watch: QB Graham Mertz

Talk about a tale of two players. Mertz, as previously mentioned, went off on Illinois, to the tune of five passing touchdowns. However, for the rest of the season, he was merely so-so, completing 57% of his passes, and tallying just four TDs to five INTs. If Mertz performs like he did in week 1, the Badgers could be a prolific offense, pairing a dangerous passing game with their usual stout run game. If he regresses to the norm, the Badgers may have no choice but to return to their usual plodding ways.

Defensive Player to Watch: DT Keeanu Benton

Here’s the thing when it comes to Wisconsin football: they play good defense. So it’s awfully hard to narrow it down to a single player, but Benton may be the best player on the field for the Badgers. He has All-Big Ten potential, and will look to anchor the front of the defense all by his lonesome in the usual 3-4 defense Wisconsin plays. But realistically, the entire defense should be good. All three levels have solid experience, and the secondary in particular is completely chock full of redshirt seniors. It all starts up front, but in general, this will be a good defense.

Major Changes for 2021

There was a reasonable amount of shuffling for the Badgers this off-season, as DL coach Inoke Breckertfield took a lateral move to Vanderbilt, and QB coach Jon Budmayr headed to Colorado State as OC/QB coach. With the departure of those two coaches, head coach Paul Chryst reconfigured his staff, from strength and conditioning to DL, CBs to DC. Most of the moves were simply reallocating some roles and titles, though Hank Poteat was brought in from Toledo as the CB coach. The hope for the Badgers is that some of this shuffling around will lead to some fresh ideas and innovations, but for the most part, the Wisconsin coaching staff should be fairly similar to years past.

Penn State Wins If:

They come out firing on offense.

It’s no secret that Penn State struggled on offense in 2020, and the hope is that new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich will take the team to new heights in 2021. If Sean Clifford can overcome some of his issues, including happy feet and turnovers, the offense could be pretty good. One game of passing success against a bad Illinois team to start the 2020 season does not an air raid offense make, and I have to like Penn State’s chances if they can get up a couple scores early, causing the Badgers to have to pass the ball to catch up. This would also play into what should be the defense’s strength next season, which is the secondary. A couple quick scores, and I like Penn State to win.

Wisconsin Wins If:

They add a sprinkle of offense to their defensive prowess.

Points always come at a premium when you play Wisconsin - they’re usually quite happy to pull you down into the mud with them, and win games 14-6. If the Badgers can do this to Penn State, it will be a dogfight; if the Badgers can also recapture some of Graham Mertz’s early 2020 glory, it could get ugly. Match up a stout defense with a multi-faceted offense, and Wisconsin could walk off the field with a laugher to start the 2021 season.