The teams: The No. 18 Wisconsin Badgers (0-0) vs the Illinois State Redbirds (0-0)
The time: 6 p.m. CDT, Saturday
The place: Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, Wis.
The TV coverage: FS1 with Tim Brando and Spencer Tillman on the call
The last time: First meeting
The series: N/A
The line: Wisconsin -33
THE BREAKDOWN: 5 THINGS TO WATCH
Saturday will serve as Bobby Engram’s debut as offensive coordinator. Coaches and players have largely been silent in talking about changes to the offense and only four practices this fall were open to the media. That means our first chance to see what is truly different from past years will come against the Redbirds. How will Engram call the game? What staples of the offense will he lean on? How much of coach Paul Chryst’s influence is still recognizable? There are ton more questions and all probably won’t be answered in the first game, but it’s a starting point.
2) Graham Mertz: Year 3
For a third year it will be Graham Mertz under center for the Badgers. If Wisconsin is to compete for a Big Ten title, it will need Mertz to be a better version of himself. He threw more interceptions than touchdowns last season and especially struggled in the biggest games – Penn State, Notre Dame, Michigan, Minnesota. The junior appeared to make some strides this offseason but everyone needs to see it in a game to believe it. Illinois State won’t give us confirmation that he’s taken the necessary steps but it will be a good indication whether he’s on the road there.
3) Braelon Allen: Zero2K
Braelon Allen went from fourth string to star last season as a freshman. What does he have in store for an encore? Is 2,000 yards a goal or a possibility? He’s definitely got the ability to do it, but for the Badgers to be their best, a fresh Allen would serve them well. A healthy Chez Mellusi and Isaac Guerendo will go a long way towards making that happen. Allen will be the bell cow, but Saturday night should give us a good idea of how they will split carries between the three.
4) The defense
The last time Wisconsin lost this many starters from one year to the next was in 2018. That proved to be the “worst” year under defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, with his unit finishing 29th nationally in total defense and 34th in points allowed. You shouldn’t expect a repeat of that despite losing eight starters off the No. 1 defense in the country. Outside linebacker Nick Herbig and defensive tackle Keeanu Benton are poised for big seasons, while fans will get an introduction to the next group of stars in the likes of outside linebacker Darryl Peterson, inside linebacker Jordan Turner and safety Hunter Wohler.
5) Backup quarterbacks
Chase Wolf appeared set to serve as the No. 2 quarterback for a third straight season before a knee injury last week that will sideline him for an extended period. It left redshirt freshman Deacon Hill and true freshman Myles Burkett to battle it out for the backup job. Coach Paul Chryst was unwilling to say which guy will go in if Mertz gets hurt or the game is out of reach, though reports indicate Burkett had pulled ahead in the competition. No matter which guy gets the call, it would be extremely beneficial for him to see the field for the first time against an FCS opponent and not in a Big Ten game.
NUMBERS TO CONSIDER
1 – That is how many starting offensive linemen return in their same spots from last year. In total, Wisconsin brings back three starters, with Jack Nelson moving from right guard to left tackle, Tyler Beach moving from left tackle to left guard and Joe Tippmann staying put at center. Senior Michael Furtney will get the start at right guard, while redshirt freshman Riley Mahlman will make his first career start at right tackle. The group also has a new coach in Bob Bostad, who returned to the offensive line after spending the last five years coaching inside linebackers.
38.5 – That is the over/under on the game. It’s the fifth time in the last nine games the Badgers have played that the number is under 40. That’s after it being above 40 in 21 of their previous 22 games.
1995 – That’s the last time Wisconsin lost its home opener against a non-conference team. That was also the last time it had lost a home opener prior to last year’s 16-10 loss to Penn State.