The teams: The No. 12 Wisconsin Badgers (0-0) vs the No. 19 Penn State Nittany Lions (0-0)
The time: 11 a.m. CDT, Saturday
The place: Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, Wis.
The TV coverage: FOX with Gus Johnson and Joel Klatt in the booth, and Jenny Taft on the sideline.
The last time: Jonathan Taylor ran for 185 yards, but Wisconsin turned the ball over four times in a 22-10 loss at Penn State in 2018.
The series: Penn State leads 10-9
The line: Wisconsin -5.5
THE BREAKDOWN: 5 THINGS TO WATCH
1) Let’s try this again
Graham Mertz burst onto the scene last October by throwing five touchdowns in his starting debut against Illinois. The rest of the year was not so kind as the former four-star recruit would throw just four more touchdowns while leading a Wisconsin offense that scored its fewest points per game since 2004.
If you want, you can make excuses to cover up for his play – he was a first-year starter with no spring practice, he got COVID-19 right after the Illinois game, he played without several of his top weapons and he fought through a shoulder injury. Those excuses are no longer relevant. He’s healthy, they had a full offseason of work, and his most trusted playmakers are ready to go. Saturday could go a long way to defining what the Badgers will be with Mertz under center.
2) Welcome back
For the first time in 691 days the Badgers will play in front of a stadium full of fans at Camp Randall. Not since they beat Purdue in November of 2019 has the facility hosted a football game with actual fans wearing red and white and not cardboard cutouts. Roughly half of Wisconsin’s roster hasn’t experienced what it’s like to run out onto the field with U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” blaring over the loudspeakers and the band coming to life to play “On, Wisconsin.” Yes, most of the crowd will be friendly but it’s still worth watching how players react to that kind of environment after playing in such a sterile one all last season.
3) Welcome back part 2
Wisconsin’s 2020 season was derailed by many things, including COVID, but it’s also very easy to point to the loss of wide receivers Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor after the first two games as a significant reason the Badgers struggled on offense. With Davis and Pryor healthy they averaged 47 points per game in beating Illinois and Michigan. No one will accuse either of those teams as having strong defenses, but Wisconsin went from scoring that with a full complement of receiving threats to not reaching 10 points in the three games after the duo got hurt against the Wolverines.
Davis missed some time in camp with a head injury, but he said this week he feels great, while Pryor didn’t miss a practice open to the media. The two will combine with tight end Jake Ferguson and a plethora of receiving options at running back to give Mertz a very experienced and accomplished group to challenge defenses, including the veteran secondary of Penn State.
4) Information overload
Penn State comes to Madison with its third different offensive coordinator in three years. The latest with the job is former Texas OC Mike Yurchich, who also spent time at Ohio State.
He’s got some talent to work with, as three-year starter Sean Clifford (1,883 yards, 16 TDs, 9 interceptions) returns, along with All-Big Ten wide receiver Jahan Dotson (52 catches, 884 yards, 8 TDs) and a pair of solid tight ends in Brenton Strange and Theo Johnson. The Nittany Lions also have running back Noah Cain available after he missed all but four plays last season due to an injury, and boast several other talented backs, including their leading rusher from a year ago in Keyvone Lee. Those that cover the program also believe they may have the best offensive line of coach James Franklin’s tenure.
However, without any clips of what the offense will look like with Penn State players, Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard has been diving into film from Yurchich’s other stops. He said this week that his goal is to give his guys as much information is possible and then develop a plan to still let them play fast and free. Taking that approach is easier when you return the kind of talent Wisconsin does on the defensive side of the ball, including veteran linebackers Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal.
5) Running game?
When people think of Wisconsin on offense their mind likely goes straight to the offensive line and the running game. It’s been the team’s bread and butter for 30 years, but last season it was far from the dominating outfit so many have become accustomed to. The Badgers averaged 164.7 yards per game and a paltry 3.9 yards per carry. Both figures were the worst since 2015 and it was a bit jarring for fans to watch.
Will it be different this year? Wisconsin believes it will. The coaching staff is putting its trust in an offensive line that has talent and experience at the tackle spots in seniors Logan Bruss and Tyler Beach, while also infusing the group with some of their recent recruiting successes in redshirt sophomore Joe Tippmann at center and redshirt freshman Jack Nelson at right guard. Both are tough, nasty guys that the Badgers can’t wait to get on the field.
They also have what they believe to be a more explosive group in the running back room led by Clemson transfer Chez Mellusi, redshirt freshman Jalen Berger and junior Isaac Guerendo. If they can stay healthy (and that’s a big if), the trio might be a nice upgrade from what Wisconsin played with on a regular basis last season.
With some of the talent Penn State has along the defensive line and at linebacker, the Nittany Lions could provide a good litmus test on whether the Badgers were right to be confident about fielding a successful run game once again.
NUMBERS TO CONSIDER
* After a year of letting offensive line coach Joe Rudolph call plays, coach Paul Chryst will return to that role this season. In his time as a play-caller at UW, whether as offensive coordinator or head coach, Chryst has overseen five of the top 10 scoring offenses in school history, including in 2011 when the team averaged a school-record 44.1 points per game.
* As a freshman, Berger led the team in rushing with 300 yards but never carried more than 15 times in a game. When asked if they were limiting his carries for any reason, Chryst denied they were and said there is no such thing as a pitch count in football. However, Berger revealed to The Athletic in fall camp that he suffers from Osgood-Schlatter disease, a painful but not debilitating knee issue. With that in mind, his usage will be among the more interesting aspects to watch Saturday and the rest of the season.
* Wisconsin has six super seniors — guys that took advantage of a waiver from the NCAA to get an extra year of eligibility due to the pandemic. The group consists of several important pieces to the team, including wide receivers Kendric Pryor and Jack Dunn, linebackers Noah Burks and Mike Maskalunas, cornerback Caesar Williams and safety Collin Wilder.
* The Badgers have won 25 straight home openers. Their last loss came against Colorado in 1995 when they got blown out 43-7.
Zach Heilprin’s prediction: Wisconsin 24, Penn State 21 Ebo’s prediction: Wisconsin 28, Penn State 17 Nelson Raisbeck’s prediction: Wisconsin 31, Penn State 24 RJ Brachman’s prediction: Wisconsin 21, Penn State 17 Ben Kenney’s prediction: Wisconsin 30, Penn State 26