The Notre Dame Fighting Irish are looking to improve to 4-0 on the year, but face a steep roadblock in the form of the Wisconsin Badgers, who’ve split their first two contests. The two teams will battle at Soldier Field after last year’s scheduled matchup at Lambeau Field was wiped out because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wisconsin is led by head coach Paul Chryst, who’s in his seventh season with the Badgers, entering this game with a 57-20 mark. He’s yet to have a losing season and has had four campaigns with double-digit victories. To give an idea of just how long it’s been since these two teams have met, their last meeting in 1964 came when Brian Kelly was one month away from turning three years old.
Some of the matchups to watch on Saturday include:
QB Jack Coan vs. Wisconsin Defense
While Coan has struggled in recent weeks to get the Irish offense moving, he should have an interesting game against his old teammates. Having regularly gone against them in practice may give him more confidence, but he needs to get off to better starts than his last two contests and also needs better protection from his line.
In their opener against Penn State, the Badgers shut down the offense of the Nittany Lions during the first half but had trouble with their passing game after the break. Still, Wisconsin has only allowed three touchdowns in their first two games and will see linebacker Leo Chenal and two members of the secondary return to this already-strong unit.
Notre Dame Defense vs. QB Graham Mertz
The Irish defense has shown a tendency thus far to give up healthy chunks of yardage before limiting the damage. After fourth-quarter slides that almost cost Notre Dame their first two games, Irish defenders kept Purdue off the scoreboard in the final period. Delivering consistent pressure is a necessity in this clash.
Mertz took over the signal calling last year for Wisconsin after Coan was hurt and held onto the job. However, he struggled in this year’s opener and has yet to throw a touchdown pass. In the loss, he twice drove the Badgers down into the red zone during the fourth quarter and ended up tossing interceptions that stamped out any hopes of victory.
Vyper Isaiah Foskey vs. OT Logan Bruss/Tyler Beach
In his role, Foskey will see action on both sides of the Notre Dame defensive line and looks to continue the early success that was envisioned during the preseason. He currently leads the team in sacks and has also contributed with strong play against the runs. The Badgers have perenially had a strong line but will have a challenge on their hands with Foskey.
Both Bruss and Beach bring different abilities that Wisconsin hopes can neutralize Foskey. Bruss is versatile enough to play multiple positions on the line, thanks to his quickness, and is also an outstanding run blocker. Beach had been recruited by the Irish, in part because of his athleticism that includes a background on the wrestling mats.
RB Kyren Williams vs. ILB Jack Sanborn
Williams had largely been under the radar during Notre Dame’s first two games but was central to the win against Purdue. His pass reception in tight quarters was converted into a touchdown that put the Irish on the board and his 51-yard run gave them another score and some breathing room. Another big game would provide a huge boost to Notre Dame’s hopes of victory.
Sanborn is a major asset to the strongest component of the Wisconsin defense. He knows how to get past the front wall of teams to make a stop, which could be an issue if the Irish line woes continue. His production this year is consistent with his pass play and with Chenal back at the other inside backer spot, Williams will have to find a way, to negate their effectiveness.
SS Houston Griffith vs. TE Jake Ferguson
After coming close to transferring during the offseason, Griffith has had some issues in the early weeks of the 2021 campaign. That’s included getting burned for a touchdown pass against Florida State, as well as missed tackles and getting past blockers. Yet, he does bring experience and has established chemistry with free safety Kyle Hamilton, who’s off to a strong start.
Ferguson might be considered Wisconsin royalty since he’s the grandson of the school’s former head coach and athletic director Barry Alvarez. That pedigree has been enhanced by the fact that he currently leads the Badgers in receptions with 12, though he’s not much of a threat after the catch. That’s due in part to his slight frame. He’s got good hands and should be a regular target in this game.