Wisconsin vs Notre Dame Game Preview
What: #12 Notre Dame (3-0) vs #18 Wisconsin (1-1)
When: Saturday, September 25th, 11 am
The headliner of Week 4 of the college football season goes down in Chicago at 11 am local time this Saturday. There, #12 Notre Dame takes on #18 Wisconsin in a neutral site showdown at Soldier Field. The eyes of the college football world will behest upon Chicago, with ESPN’s College Gameday, Fox’s Big Noon Kickoff, and Barstool’s College Football Show, amongst others, are all traveling to host their respective pregame shows from the Windy City.
How They Got Here
The biggest story of this game is the return of Jack Coan facing his old school. The graduate transfer from Wisconsin has led Notre Dame to a 3-0 record. While they come in unblemished, they have been more than tested. To their credit, they’re undefeated, but coach Brian Kelly’s team has been pushed to the limit on multiple occasions to seemingly weaker opponents. Winning a thriller Labor Day weekend in Tallahassee has turned out to be against a very, very bad Florida State team. Couple that with a near massive upset loss vs Toledo, and an uninspiring victory this past weekend vs Purdue, and the Fighting Irish have a lot of questions left to still answer.
On the opposite sideline, Wisconsin enters this clash already dropping a game, at home in a defensive battle to Penn State. Moreover, coach Paul Chryst’s side hasn’t shown the growth many were expecting offensively. In particular, quarterback Graham Mertz has faced intense scrutiny over his performance in the first two games. Their defense has remained stout under defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, but the offense is looking to click after a bye week to reset. This is a must-win for Wisconsin to stay relevant in the national picture this season.
What To Watch For
As much as Coan has looked good, albeit, vs suspect defenses, this offense still runs through Kyren Williams. The sophomore running back has totaled over 350 yards from scrimmage with 6 touchdowns. Sophomore tight end Michael Mayer has been the favorite target of Coan, leading them in receptions, yards, and touchdowns. Look for the Coan and co to attempt to have a balanced attack, with deep shots testing a susceptible Badger secondary on deep balls.
Moving to the defensive side of the ball, Kyle Hamilton sets the tone for the Irish. The All-American safety already has registered three interceptions and will make plays all over the field. They’ve also registered as a team with over 12 sacks in three games. This isn’t a classic Wisconsin line they’re facing that has dominated upfront. Their athletic advantage over the Badgers here could play a vital role.
On the flip side with Wisconsin, dominating the trenches will be vital to their success. Obviously, the Badgers will be looking to establish the ground game early. Chez Mellusi leads a three-headed attack on the ground and has crossed the 100-yard mark in his first two games as a Badger. With a week off, Chryst and offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph have had more than enough time to put together a creative attack to establish the run, get Mertz comfortable and confident early, and finally get this offense rolling.
Defensively, the Badgers get a big boost. Star linebacker Leo Chenal returns to make his 2021 debut after testing positive for Covid-19 prior to week 1. The return of the junior inside linebacker completes one of the better pairings in the country with Jack Sanborn. Adding that to a defense that has allowed the 2nd fewest yards per game in the nation to date creates the stiffest test for their former leader, Coan, to date. If anyone knows a QB well, it’ll be Chryst and Leonhard with their former starting quarterback. This battle will be fascinating.
What Could Decide The Game
Firstly, the turnovers. The Notre Dame defense lives to force turnovers behind the aforementioned Hamilton. On the other hand, Bucky has struggled to hang onto the ball the first two weeks, losing the turnover battle 4 to 1 so far. If Wisconsin wants to win this game, they will not only have to limit their own turnovers but create some themselves.
Secondly, the pass rushers. Both offensive lines have struggled in pass pro to begin the season. Wisconsin struggled vs what we are learning to be a very stout Penn State defense. On the flip side, Notre Dame has given up at least 4 sacks in every game, against mediocre competition. If they continue to struggle, look for a surging Wisconsin pass rush to take advantage led by sophomore edge rusher Nick Herbig.
Lastly, and of course, it will come down to this… the quarterbacks. While this is Notre Dame vs Wisconsin, the biggest looming battle on the field will be Jack Coan vs Graham Mertz. However fair or unfair it is to both, judgments nationally, and maybe even internally will be made, in particular in Madison-based on the results of this game. Players and coaches will tell you that’s not the case, but it nevertheless is the main headline. Coan has thrived in his new setting, Mertz has struggled to find his footing as a starter. Look for both to hopefully play well, but only one will walk away from Chicago victorious.
This will be a low-scoring, tightly contested affair. The Badgers are six and a half point favorites, but 1-1 against the spread to start the season.