Happy holidays Wake Forest fans! Bowl season is upon us and the Deacs are headed to Charlotte to take on the Wisconsin Badgers in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl this week. The Badgers, much like the Deacs, did not play a full slate this season, finishing the season with 6 games played resulting in 3 wins and 3 losses. I will be the first to admit that I did not watch much Big 10 football this season, but I’m still going to do my best to break down the Badger offense.
With just 6 games played this season, the sample size to judge the Badgers on is some what limited. Wisconsin ran up the score in their first 2 games, scoring 45 and 49 points respectively to easily beat Illinois and Michigan. In their next 3 games, all losses, the Badgers failed to score in double digits, finishing with 7 points against Northwestern and Iowa and 6 points against Indiana. In that 3 game skid, the Badgers converted on just 15 of their 50 third down attempts, for a putrid 30%. Wisconsin finished the season with a 20-17 overtime win over the Minnesota Gophers.
In terms of rankings, the Wisconsin offense ranks 106th in the nation in scoring offense with 22.3 points per game and 95th in total offense with 358.8 yards per game. Of course, those rankings are likely skewed because Wisconsin is traditionally known for running the ball heavily and using a slow, methodical pace on offense. While the Badgers do lead the nation in time of possession with over 36 minutes per game (the Deacs, for comparison, are 101st with 28 minutes per game), they are running the ball on just around 57% of their plays this season—that is down from around 65% over the past 3 years. In terms of overall efficiency, the Badgers rank 102nd in the nation with just 5 yards per play. Surprisingly, Wisconsin was 77th in the nation this season in yards per rush, picking up just 4.1 yards per rush attempt—that’s just 0.2 yards better than Wake Forest. It should be noted that in that 3 game losing streak, the Badgers faced some really good defenses; Northwestern ranks 5th in the nation in scoring defense and 22nd in total defense, Indiana ranks 18th in scoring defense and 37th in total defense, and Iowa ranks 7th in scoring defense and 10th in total defense. Those teams obviously put up a lot more resistance than a Wake Forest defense that gives up over 450 yards per game, which may explain some of the low rankings for Wisconsin this season.
The playmakers for the Wisconsin offense start with redshirt freshman QB Graham Mertz. Mertz started the season off with an insane game against Illinois, completing 20 of his 21 pass attempts for 248 and 5 touchdowns. He went on to complete 56% of his passes for 860 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions over the final 5 games. While it looks like the Illinois game was a 1 game anomaly, with Wake Forest’s pass defense being what it is, there is a chance that Mertz could do something similar against the Deacs. The biggest threat Mertz has in the passing game is junior tight end Jake Ferguson, who finished the season with 29 receptions for 284 and 4 touchdowns. He led the Badgers in all receiving categories and was named 1st Team All Big 10 by the media.
In the ground attack, the Badgers have plenty of depth at the running back position. Senior Garrett Groshek led Wisconsin in rushing this season with 259 yards on 54 carries. Over half of his yards on the season came in the final game against Minnesota, where he ran the ball 24 times for 154 yards and 1 touchdown. Sophomore Nakia Watson led the Badgers with 3 rushing touchdowns this season and finished the with 53 carries for 191 yards. Freshman Jalen Berger was the most efficient back for Wisconsin, rushing for 5.9 yards per carry this season.
The Wisconsin offense obviously isn’t very flashy, but what they do well is control the ball, and no one in the country is better. This game very well could come down to whether or not the Deacs can get off the field on 3rd down, because if they can’t, the offense isn’t going to get many chances to put points on the board.