When the first month of the 2021 Notre Dame football schedule comes to an end on September 25, the Fighting Irish will be playing at Soldier Field to take on the Wisconsin Badgers. The two teams had been scheduled to meet last season at Lambeau Field, but that highly anticipated matchup ended as yet another pandemic casualty. In the modest history of this series, Notre Dame has an 8-6-2 record, though this will be their first meeting in 57 years.
Paul Chryst starts his seventh season at Wisconsin, building on hi 56-19 mark since arriving from Pittsburgh. Last season’s 4-3 record consisted of a pair of wins at the start and end of the season, with a trio of defeats in between. In those three losses, the Badgers offense went on hiatus, with Wisconsin scoring just 20 points after averaging 47 in their first two wins. Perhaps coincidentally, Chryst will once again be calling plays this season.
Wisconsin Offense: Healthy Bodies are the Right Tonic
In his first full season as a starter, quarterback, Graham Mertz got off to a rousing start by throwing for five scores amid a 20-for-21 passing effort. He then tested positive for COVID, with the combination of that health issue, injuries among his receivers as well as a stagnant running game, any momentum quickly dissipated. Mertz has the potential to be a good one, but to advance into the elite category, he needs help from his teammates.
One indication of how weak the running game can be seen by the fact that the top two Wisconsin rushers combined for only 601 yards in the seven games. Part of that was due to 17 different rushers carrying the ball. For this season, Jalen Berger needs to have a breakthrough campaign and figures to team in the backfield with fullback John Chenal to make that happen.
Back at wide receiver will be the duo of Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor, with both players hoping that the concussions that ruined both of the seasons are a thing of the past. Chimere Dike and Jack Dunn will offer help in this area off the bench, while tight end Jake Ferguson hopes for another big year after leading the Badgers with 30 receptions and four touchdown receptions.
The Wisconsin offensive line has been the school’s calling card for some time, with this year’s edition having tackle Logan Bruss as its centerpiece. He’s shifting from guard, while Logan Brown will battle Tyler Beach for the other tackle berth. One newcomer who may break through the uncertainty this year is true freshman Nolan Rucci.
Wisconsin Defense: Search for Big Plays
Last year’s Wisconsin defense allowed just 17.4 points per game, with this year’s unit losing a pair of starters up front. Likely to fill those holes are Isaiah Mullens and Matt Henningsen, though it wouldn’t come as a huge surprise if Oregon transfer Isaac Townsend takes one of those spots. On the nose will be Keeanu Benton.
Linebacking is the strength of this defense, with inside backers Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal managing to get past the line to make key stops/ The hope is that Noah Burks and Nick Herbig follow in those footsteps and also develop into pass-rushing threats after each collected just a single sack in 2020.
Making big plays last season for the Badgers was uncommon at cornerback, with Caesar Williams and Falon Hicks combining for six pass breakups but no interceptions. Scott Nelson at strong safety and Collin Wilder at free safety each slapped away a pair of passes while Nelson had two pickoffs to his credit.
Wisconsin Special Teams: Kicking Questions
In the kicking spot, the Badgers need a strong leg that can hit from beyond the 40-yard line. If Collin Larsh isn’t able to accomplish that, then Jack Van Dyke will end up handling all the placekicking duties. In his first season last year, punter Andy Vujnovich not only averaged 41.6 yards per boot but also had a knack for putting the ball with the opposing 20-yard-line. For returns, Devin Chandler appears to be the man.
The Last Time Notre Dame Faced Wisconsin
You have to go back to September 26, 1964, for the last meeting between the Irish and the Badgers. Notre Dame historians remember that game well since it marked the beginning of the Era of Ara Parseghian. That memorable run began with a 31-7 victory at Madison, a contest highlighted by the exploits of future Heisman winner John Huarte, who connected for two touchdown passes to Jack Snow. In addition, Huarte threw for a school-record 217 yards. The Irish defense made sure they got noticed, delivering a dominant performance that included -50 net yards rushing for the Badgers and four interceptions on the day.