The teams: The Wisconsin Badgers (3-3, 1-2) vs the No. 25 Purdue Boilermakers (4-2, 2-1)
The time: 2 p.m. CDT, Saturday
The place: Ross-Ade Stadium, West Lafayette, Ind.
The TV coverage: The Big Ten Network with Brandon Gaudin and Matt Millen in the booth, and Rick Pizzo on the sideline.
The last time: Jonathan Taylor ran for 222 yards and a touchdown in Wisconsin’s 45-24 victory in 2019.
The series: Wisconsin leads 50-29-8
The line: Wisconsin -3.5
THE BREAKDOWN: 5 THINGS TO WATCH
1) A path opens
Wisconsin has been given a second life in the Big Ten West race thanks to Purdue. The Boilermakers upset of then No. 2 Iowa last week left the division wide open to take.
Several players said the Hawkeyes losing gave the team a bit of a kick in the butt and there was a noticeable change within the locker room. Are those just words and have they given up on the season just like a lot of fans? Or will the Badgers rally from an ugly first half of the season to take advantage of the situation they are in? The preparedness and energy they show on Saturday will give us a clear picture of where exactly their heads are at.
2) Was that the real Purdue?
The Purdue squad everyone saw last week in Iowa City was not the one most had seen in a 3-2 start that included losses to Notre Dame and Minnesota. Yes, the defense had been solid, but they had forced two turnovers the entire season going into last week. Then they went and picked off Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras four times.
The offense has always had a star in David Bell, but they were far from setting the world on fire before last week. It is a group that is averaging 16.6 points per game in Big Ten play.
So, how did they beat Iowa? Well, they flipped the script on the Hawkeyes, who had won all year by not turning it over while their defense had forced a bunch. In the game last week, Purdue was +3 in turnover margin.
Can the Boilermakers repeat that effort against the turnover prone Badgers? You are probably screaming “yes” at your screen, but very little of what Purdue did last week was any kind of season long trend.
3) Dealing with stars
If Wisconsin is going to keep its division hopes alive, it will have to slow Purdue’s stars on both sides of the ball.
On offense, there is Bell. The junior wide receiver was nearly unstoppable against Iowa last week. He finished with 240 yards receiving on 11 catches and one touchdown. It was his fourth game with at least six catches and 120 yards this season. He is averaging 17.9 yards per grab and has the full attention of Wisconsin’s defensive backs and coaching staff.
“Extremely impressive in everything he does,” defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. “He plays with great patience. He attacks the football. He understands concepts and space and time. He’s really fun to watch. The way they use him, the way they move him, create targets for him and he shows up week in and week out and produces for them. He’s impressive. I love the way he plays.”
Wisconsin faced Bell in 2019 and he had 108 yards receiving, but it took him 12 catches to get there. The starting cornerbacks that day were Faion Hicks and Caesar Williams, the same two guys that will lineup for the Badgers on Saturday. If they, along with nickel back Dean Engram, can handle Bell in a similar fashion, it should be considered a win. Wisconsin’s pass rush could help in that respect, especially against a Purdue offensive line that is allowing 2.5 sacks per game.
Perhaps an even bigger priority is dealing with George Karlaftis. The junior’s stats do not necessarily jump off the page – three sacks, 5.5 tackles for loss – but his presence is felt every game. Just ask Iowa, which had no answer for the defensive end. According to Pro Football Focus, he ended up with 10 quarterback pressures, the most a Hawkeyes line had allowed to a single player since PFF started keeping track.
In the past, Wisconsin has not taken a ton of special measures in dealing with elite defensive linemen. Take Ohio State’s Chase Young for example. In 2019, left tackle Cole Van Lanen was often left to face him one-on-one and the Badgers even inexplicably left tight end Jake Ferguson to block him at times. It resulted in Young racking up four sacks and five tackles for loss.
There may have been a belief going into that game that the offensive line would hold up – the group did end up allowing a total of just 20 sacks that season. But Wisconsin’s line this year has struggled to keep the quarterback clean, especially against good competition. Whichever way Paul Chryst and the offensive staff want to treat him — whether it is keeping extra guys in to block or having a tight end chip him on the way out on a pass route – they cannot let Karlaftis be the one that beats them.
4) Run, run, run
After a slow start to the season, the Wisconsin running game seems to have found a little bit of momentum the last two weeks. While it is worth noting the competition was not the greatest, they put 391 yards on Illinois and 198 yards on an Army team that came in allowing 64 yards per game.
But Purdue will provide a stiffer challenge for Chez Mellusi, Braelon Allen and their blockers up front. This is not the same Boilermakers defense that has given up an average of 265 yards per game to the Badgers in their last 14 meetings. Under new co-defensive coordinator/play caller Brad Lambert, teams are averaging 114.7 yards per game and 3.4 yards per carry.
This is obvious, but Wisconsin must have success on the ground for any chance to win the game. Getting into third-and-long situations will almost certainly prove disastrous for a Badgers offense that struggles to protect the passer, fails to convert on 68% of their third down opportunities and cannot stop turning the ball over.
5) Need the pass game
Wisconsin needs its passing game to be serviceable at least if it is going to make a run for the division title. Is there any hope it can be? The evidence this season does not inspire confidence.
The Badgers come into the game with the second-fewest pass plays of 30 or more yards (4) in the country and they have just one completion that went for 40-plus yards. But it is not just the chunk plays they are struggling on. Wisconsin’s nine pass plays of 20 or more yards ranks 125th in the nation.
The blame for those struggles can be put a number of places, though quarterback Graham Mertz and the offensive line must take the brunt of it. Against some of the better teams Wisconsin has played, Mertz has not had time in the pocket to throw, often being hit as the ball is coming out. Other times, Mertz has had a clean pocket and just straight up missed throws a quarterback for the Badgers needs to hit.
Purdue presents a new opportunity, though with the Boilermakers pass rush and a secondary flying high after four interceptions last week, it is not exactly an ideal situation to expect things to turn around.
NUMBERS TO CONSIDER
— The Badgers have won 14 straight games over the Boilermakers, the longest streak for either team in the series. Purdue has not beaten Wisconsin since Oct. 2003, about three months before UW running back Braelon Allen was born.
— Wisconsin is averaging 2.5 turnovers per game. It is the highest per game average since Barry Alvarez’s first team in 1990 was at 2.7 per game.
— Wisconsin’s defense is allowing 225.8 yards per game, the second-best mark in the nation. It is also the best number by a UW defense since 1951.
— The Badgers have allowed a total of three touchdowns in the first three quarters of games this season. Taking away three interceptions and a kickoff returned for scores, the defense has given up six touchdowns in the fourth quarter