The teams: The No. 18 Wisconsin Badgers (1-1) vs the No. 12 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (3-0)
The time: 11 a.m. CDT, Saturday
The place: Soldier Field, Chicago, Ill.
The TV coverage: FOX with Gus Johnson and Joel Klatt in the booth and Jenny Taft on the sideline.
The last time: Notre Dame scored a 31-7 win in Madison in 1964.
The series: Notre Dame leads 8-6-2
The line: Wisconsin -6.5
TE Jack Eschenbach
CB Faion Hicks
S Tyler Mais
S Collin Wilder
THE BREAKDOWN: 5 THINGS TO WATCH
1) Hello again
Wisconsin will see a familiar face under center for the Irish come Saturday. Jack Coan, who started 18 games for the Badgers over two seasons, transferred to Notre Dame in January and earned the starting job. Coan, as well Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst and a number of his players, downplayed the drama around the game.
“Certainly, there’s a story line, but it’s important that it’s Wisconsin vs. Notre Dame,” Chryst said.
That is true but you can be sure Coan is fired up inside to show his old school what it is missing. The New York product has done a decent job of doing that already in the first three games by throwing eight touchdowns and just two interceptions, as the Notre Dame offense is averaging 33.3 points per game.
The competition does take a step up this week in the form of a Badgers’ defense that ranks second in the country in yards allowed and can get after the quarterback. And while Coan is familiar with the defense having gone against it so many times in practice, the reverse is true as well.
2) Under a microscope
Coan is at Notre Dame because of Graham Mertz. After Coan broke his foot in preseason camp last year, Mertz took his starting job and proceeded to throw five touchdowns in his debut against Illinois, essentially sealing Coan’s fate even though the former 4-star recruit struggled for much of the rest of the season.
Those struggles carried over into the opener this year in an ugly 16-10 loss to Penn State and he has now thrown just one touchdown and four interceptions in his last six starts. That has left many to question whether he will reach the heights expected of him as the top-ranked quarterback recruit in Wisconsin history.
The Kansas native failed his first opportunity to prove himself in the loss to the Nittany Lions, turning the ball over three times, including twice inside the 5-yard line. He was better against Eastern Michigan, but that did not shut any of his critics up. Notre Dame, on the other hand, provides a perfect chance to silence them, especially with Coan standing on the opposite sideline. If Mertz plays well and wins, the hope for his career will be reignited among the fanbase. If Coan outplays Mertz and Wisconsin loses, the concern surrounding the quarterback and his future will only intensify.
3) Getting after the QB
Only four schools are giving up more sacks per game than Notre Dame’s 4.67. Coan has constantly been under pressure and sacked at least four times in each of the Irish’s first three games. That included six times against Toledo in which Coan lost a fumble and threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown. And it’s not just keeping Coan upright where the Irish are struggling. They also rank 115th in the country in rushing and 122nd in yards per carry.
Those numbers are largely due to the once vaunted Notre Dame offensive line being a shell of itself to this point. Part of that is losing four guys to the NFL from last year and some of it is injuries, especially at left tackle where the group is down to its third-string option.
Now comes a Wisconsin front seven that has been dominant through two games, ranking first in the country against the rush, constantly getting pressure on the quarterback and producing four sacks.
This is one area the Badgers have a huge advantage, and it is one they must capitalize on.
After missing the first two games of the season due to a positive COVID-19 test, linebacker Leo Chenal returns to the middle of Wisconsin’s defense. The second-leading tackler a season ago, Chenal combines with Jack Sanborn to form one of the better inside linebacking duos in the Big Ten.
He can also be a threat in the opponent’s backfield, racking up team highs in tackles for loss (6.0) and sacks (3.0) in six games last season. The emotion, physicality, and toughness he plays with also rubs off on the rest of the unit that is looking forward to getting him back.
“Leopold’s just different presence when he’s out there,” defensive Matt Henningsen said. “He plays a million miles per hour every play, there is no doubt about that. He will fly around the field; he will be crazy when he is out there. He will make plays, he will fly around, he will make big hits. It is great having him behind you because you know he is going to commit and those double teams are not going to be hanging on too long, because if they hang on too long, they are going to get blown up. That’s something that we’re really fortunate to have back when he’s on the field.”
5) Making a statement
Wisconsin has lost its last six games to ranked teams dating back to the 2019 season. Not since the Badgers went on the road to beat Minnesota in the season finale that year have they come out of a game against a ranked team with a win. Notre Dame presents that opportunity, but it also allows for even more.
With the lack of marquee games on the college football schedule this weekend, all eyes will be on Chicago. ESPN’s College GameDay is in town, as is Fox’s Big Noon Kickoff. A win over a blueblood program like the Irish might allow the narrative that Wisconsin is only a perennial top-20 team because it plays in the Big Ten West to subside at least momentarily. It is the type of a win that the Badgers need to get if they want to compete for a berth in the College Football Playoff and it’s the kind of win that has eluded Chryst to this point in his career.
In the moment, the 2016 wins over a top-5 LSU team and a top-10 Michigan State team looked like program-defining victories. But those two teams combined to go 11-13 that season. Chryst has beaten the likes of USC, Miami (x2) and Michigan (x2), but the best win in his seven years may be that Big Ten West-clinching victory against the Gophers in 2019. That is not going to make many people turn their heads when he’s also 0-7 against Ohio State and Penn State, 5-11 against higher-ranked teams and 10-15 overall in ranked matchups.
A win Saturday will not change everyone’s opinion about Wisconsin’s ability to consistently play and beat the most talented teams in the country, but it would be a good start.
Notre Dame WRs and TEs vs Wisconsin secondary
Wisconsin’s defense has been lights out through the first two games save for three big plays by Penn State. The plays were not the result of physical mistakes. Instead, it was mental errors that allowed the Nittany Lions to beat the Badgers deep.
Eastern Michigan did not test Wisconsin two weeks ago, but the Irish definitely will. Coan has six completions of 30 or more yards and two hits of 50 or more yards this season. Notre Dame’s top two wide receivers – Kevin Austin Jr. and Avery Davis – are averaging 18.9 yards per reception on their 16 combined catches.
Tight end Michael Mayer was held in check against Purdue last week, but he put on a show in the first two games. The sophomore caught 16 passes and three touchdowns, including a 41-yarder in the opener against Florida State.
With points likely to be at a premium for both sides, the Badgers can’t give up the same game-changing big plays they allowed against Penn State.
NUMBERS TO CONSIDER
— Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton has three interceptions this season, tied for the most of anybody in the country. A second-team AP All American last year, Hamilton can turn a game on its head and Wisconsin coaches on both sides of the ball are very aware of it.
“Everything that he’s generating as far as buzz around him is earned,” UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. “It’s fun to watch a guy like that play. Very instinctual on the back end, which is half of the battle. It is cool to watch. I hope he doesn’t make any plays this week, but there’s a high likelihood that he’s going to be somewhere around the football.”
— Much of the focus this week has been on how Notre Dame will handle the Wisconsin pass rush, but the Irish are going to present problems of their own for the Badgers offensive line. Notre Dame ranks fifth in the country in sacks (13) and will be a big test for a Wisconsin line that struggled to protect Mertz against Penn State.
— Coan starts for Notre Dame, but it is likely the Badgers will see Tyler Buchner in the backfield quite a bit, assuming he’s recovered from a hamstring injury that limited him last week. Buchner has the ability to throw the ball (3-for-4, 78 yards, one TD), but the Irish really like to use him in the run game (10 carries, 92 yards).