The teams: The No. 21 Wisconsin Badgers (5-3, 3-2) vs the Rutgers Scarlet Knights (4-4, 1-4
The time: 2:30 p.m. CDT, Saturday
The place: SHI Stadium, Piscataway, N.J.
The TV coverage: Big Ten Network with Brandon Gaudin and James Laurinaitis in the booth, and Rick Pizzo on the sideline.
The last time: Jonathan Taylor ran for 208 yards and three touchdowns in a 31-17 win for Wisconsin in 2018.
The series: Wisconsin 3-0
The line: Wisconsin -13
THE BREAKDOWN: 4 THINGS TO WATCH
1) Here they come
Wisconsin has never made it much of a secret that it wants to run the ball down your throat, but that has especially been the case the last four weeks. The Badgers have averaged 50 carries and 263 yards per game in that stretch, which just so happens to coincide with a four-game winning streak. Nearly all that damage has come from Chez Mellusi and Braelon Allen. The duo has combined for six 100-yard games, including four from Allen.
The Rutgers defense will present a challenge, though. It has allowed just two FBS teams to average better than 3.6 yards per carry and is giving up 143 yards per game on the ground. Wisconsin must account for playmaking linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi (11 TFLs) and aggressive defensive back Christian Izien (seven TFLs) to keep the train of recent success going.
2) Do it again
Georgia’s defense is probably the best in the country, but the Badgers cannot be too far behind. Over their last four games the unit is allowing 180.3 yards per game and 3.3 yards per play. For the year, no team has come close to its season average in rushing when facing Wisconsin and the group is on pace to allow the fewest rushing yards per game (49.6) in school history. It is also currently giving up just 214.6 yards overall per game, which ranks first in the country and second all-time in UW’s record book.
But what they have done in the past will not matter come Saturday and they know that. It is why you will hear defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard implore them to “do it again” after a big play, while players constantly repeat that message to themselves and their teammates on the sideline during games.
The task in front of them on Saturday is stopping a Rutgers offense that has not scored more than 20 points in Big Ten play and is averaging just 13.8 points per game against FBS teams not named Temple. Quarterback Noah Vedral has been solid (61.8%, 7 TDs, 3 INTs) and could provide a test with his feet at times. Still, the matchup sets up another opportunity for Wisconsin’s defense to dominate and continue one of the best seasons by the unit in school history.
3) Consistency from the pass game
Graham Mertz has gotten off to great starts the last three weeks but has been unable to sustain them. The quarterback started 6-for-7 against Army and finished 8-for-15. Against Purdue he went 5-for-5 and did not complete another pass over nearly the final three quarters. And against Iowa he opened 10-for-12 and then missed on nine of his last 10 attempts.
Those early numbers show progress from the redshirt sophomore and finding consistency throughout the game is the next step for him. Some of that is on Mertz, but it is also on coach Paul Chryst to determine what is working well early on and figuring out ways to keep that going even when teams adjust.
4) We meet again…maybe
Wisconsin does not have a ton of guys that are a threat to score a touchdown anytime they touch the ball, but they could potentially see one on the other sideline for Rutgers and he will be a familiar face. Wide receiver Aron Cruickshank, who spent his first two years at Wisconsin, transferred back home to the New York area prior to the 2020 season and has played a bigger role offensively for the Scarlet Knights. After catching four passes for the Badgers, he has 57 grabs and a couple of touchdowns for Rutgers, while also still being a dynamite return man (two kick returns, one punt return for TDs).
Cruickshank has not played since getting injured against Michigan State on Oct. 3 and Rutgers coach Greg Schiano said it would be close as to whether he plays this week or not. If he does, you can be sure he will be a focus of Wisconsin’s defense and specials teams with his big play potential.
NUMBERS TO CONSIDER
— Wisconsin is allowing 49.6 yards per game on the ground, which is tops in the country. If you take away the sack yardage included in that total, the Badgers would be giving up 69.8 yards per game. That number would still lead the nation.
— Wisconsin is 3-0 against Rutgers all-time, with all those wins coming since the Scarlet Knights entered the Big Ten in 2014. In those games, the Badgers are averaging 274.7 yards per game on the ground.
— The Badgers had a turnover margin of -11 through the first six games of the year, which was last in the country. After forcing eight turnovers and turning it over just twice in the last two games, Wisconsin is now -5. Last week’s turnover free game against Iowa snapped a streak of 12 games with at least one turnover.