Previewing The Enemy: Wisconsin Badgers
The wait is over, folks. Penn State football is here.
The No. 19 Nittany Lions will take on No. 12 Wisconsin at noon eastern Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium. After a strange, fanless 4-5 season, Penn State now kicks off its campaign against a ranked opponent for the first time since 2001.
The anticipation surrounding this game couldn’t be higher, as the Nittany Lions have a chance to prove right off the bat that last year’s season was not a sign of bad things to come. With that in mind, let’s take an in-depth look at Penn State’s upcoming opponent.
Now entering his seventh season as the head coach in Madison, Paul Chryst led Wisconsin to a mediocre 4-3 record last fall. The Badgers opened the season with a promising 45-7 win over Illinois. Then-freshman quarterback Graham Mertz had just one incomplete pass and five touchdowns in that opener, but the season derailed quickly as the next two games were canceled due to COVID-19.
Wisconsin grabbed a convincing win after Michigan following that stoppage, but three consecutive losses and another COVID-19-related cancellation truly halted whatever momentum it might have had.
Similar to the Nittany Lions, Chryst’s group has added experience on either side of the ball thanks to last year’s debacle. As the depth chart is listed now, Wisconsin has seven seniors starting on both offense and defense, plus another three on special teams.
Wisconsin hasn’t beaten Penn State since 2011, and Nittany Lions currently boast a four-game win streak that dates back to 2012. However, the Badgers are considered to be one of the top defenses in the nation entering this season, while Mertz showed flashes of his talent throughout last year’s bumpy campaign.
As noted earlier, Wisconsin’s offense burst onto the scene in 2020. The Badgers totaled 94 points in their first two games last fall and totaled no fewer than 430 yards in both contests. Things took a turn quickly, however, as the group was held to single digits in its next three contests and fell to Northwestern, Indiana, and Iowa.
Sophomore quarterback Graham Mertz is at the center of all of this. He jumped off the screen, along with the rest of the Badgers’ playmakers, to get things going, but totaled just two touchdown passes over the course of the last five games. It was ugly at times, but the former four-star recruit is still considered to be a possible star in the Big Ten, as he was named to the Manning and Davey O’Brien Award watch lists.
To be fair to Mertz, it should be noted that he was one of the Badgers who had COVID-19 during the team’s forced stoppage early in the season. Whether or not it affected his play, the performance he had to open the 2020 campaign should certainly not be forgotten by Brent Pry’s defense.
Wisconsin’s running back situation is interesting entering this season’s opener, as last year’s leading rusher, Jalen Berger, was named the backup behind Clemson transfer Chez Mellusi. Mellusi totaled six touchdowns and 427 rushing yards over the course of two seasons for the Tigers, and Chryst and his staff clearly saw something they liked from the junior this offseason.
As for Berger, he sets up as a capable backup for the offense. He totaled 301 rushing yards in just four games as a redshirt and scampered for 93 in a loss to Northwestern.
Senior wideouts Kendric Pryor and Danny Davis offer plenty of experience as starters this Saturday. Pryor already has 24 starts to his name as a Badger and has totaled 67 catches for 849 yards in his extensive career. Davis, on the other hand, has 99 total grabs as a Badger along with 15 starts under his belt.
Second-teamers Jack Dunn and Chimere Dike also provide threats, as the pair both had double-digit receptions last season and each grabbed a touchdown. Tight end Jake Ferguson could be the biggest name of the group, however, as he led Wisconsin with 305 receiving yards and four touchdowns last season. The senior, who hails from Madison, has totaled at least 30 catches in each of his last three seasons.
On the offensive line, Wisconsin will rely on the experience of three seniors in left tackle Tyler Beach, left guard Josh Seltzner, and right tackle Logan Bruss. Keep an eye out for center Joe Tippmann, who will be starting his first collegiate game at center. The Nittany Lions will likely try to get some pressure early on the 6’6″, 320-pound redshirt sophomore.
While the offense had its glaring inconsistencies, Wisconsin’s defense was a force for all of 2020. The Badgers led the Big Ten with just 299.9 yards allowed per game and averaged just 17.4 points allowed. What’s likely much to the interest of Penn State’s deep running back room is that Wisconsin led the conference with just 96.1 rushing yards allowed per game last year.
Much of that success can be credited to linebackers Leo Chenal and Nick Herbig. The pair led the unit with six tackles for loss each last year, while Chenal also collected a team-leading three sacks. Along with that duo returning, senior Jack Sanborn returns to a starting linebacker spot after leading the team with 52 total tackles last season.
Depth and experience are the names of the game for several defensive positions for the Badgers, including the secondary. The Badgers have seniors starting at each position in the group this Saturday, namely safeties Collin Wilder and Scott Nelson. Wilder, who will be at the strong position, grabbed an interception, defended two passes, and had 30 tackles last fall. Nelson added 21 tackles and two interceptions.
At the cornerback spots, the Badgers will be led by fellow seniors Faion Hicks and Caesar Williams. Hicks had a team-leading four passes defended while Williams had two, and the pair has an impressive 47 starts at cornerback between them.
The amount of experience in the secondary and linebacking core leaves Sean Clifford and the offense with plenty to worry about, while the Badgers’ defensive line also boasts some talent.
Isaiah Mullens and Matt Henningsen got the nod at the defensive end spots. The latter of the pair is a former walk-on who has 16 starts under his belt but played in only two games last season due to an arm injury. However, Henningsen totaled 7.5 tackles for loss over two seasons before that and has experience that could prove costly to the Nittany Lions’ offensive line.
As for Mullens, the former three-star recruit only has five tackles to his name over the course of the 2019 and 2020 seasons. However, he’s been in Madison since his redshirt season in 2018.
The Badgers have seniors at kicker and punter this fall. Andy Vujnovich returns at punter after attempting 33 punts last season, while Collin Larsh returns at kicker. Larsh has 19 games under his belt for the Badgers, and he hit 17 of his 25 field goal attempts last fall. Before that, Larsh went 12-of-18 in 2019.
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About the Author
Nittany Lions old and new have received new jersey numbers ahead of the 2022 season.