Indiana is playing Wisconsin in football this week, which ... *groans* ... ought to be something.
To help us gain a better understanding of what this Badgers team brings to the table, we asked Drew Hamm of Bucky’s 5th Quarter to swing by and answer some questions. Take it away, Drew:
— It feels like a weird time to evaluate a freshman quarterback, especially when Graham Mertz’s practice time has been limited and his top receivers have been absent. But even so, what’s the general feel of where he is (strengths, weaknesses) three games into his career?
So after his first career start against Illinois where he threw for five touchdowns and only had one incompletion, I’m pretty sure multiple statues were commissioned of Mertz to be placed around Madison in places of honor. However, he has certainly come crashing back down to earth, as a freshman does, and had one of the worst games a Wisconsin quarterback has had recently against Northwestern (three picks, one fumble lost). Mertz is very clearly a talented and confident dude. You can see the talent on his tape and hear the confidence in his voice when he talks, but he’s still a redshirt freshman playing in the Big Ten.
For strengths: he can make all the throws. Wisconsin has rarely (Russell Wilson’s one season excluded) had a guy who can do that and it’s honestly kinda crazy to watch, as I’ve been watching Wisconsin football in some capacity for almost 30 years now. He can run a little but is by no means a dual-threat guy. He’s smart and eager to learn, but still has a long way to go before he makes all the correct reads. Which brings me to weaknesses: his timing is off with his receivers sometimes, although he hasn’t had the same group to throw to in any of the three games they’ve played, and his timing is sometimes off with his feet and his arm so his throws can be slightly off target, hence the three picks against Northwestern.
Mertz will be a very good quarterback for the Badgers and potentially an all-B1G one, but right now he’s just a young, talented guy finding his way through the conference.
— Is true freshman running back Jalen Berger now The Guy, or might we still see some sort of committee approach at the position?
If you look at the Wisconsin depth chart, which is about as useful as trading in all of your money for Iraqi dinar (hi Kyle!), Berger isn’t even listed. Nakia Watson and Garrett Groshek are listed as the starting running backs with the “or” designation between them and, as far as I can remember, have been all season. Berger has been the most electric tailback this season and was the only guy who could get anything going against Northwestern. If I were in charge he’d be the starting running back the rest of the way but alas, Paul Chryst has not asked for my opinion. It’s doubtful that Berger gets that start on Saturday but he will probably be the guy who ends up with the most carries. He’s not quite “The Guy” but is knocking on the door to get there.
— Jim Leonhard seemed to be feeling pretty good about Wisconsin’s secondary depth coming into the season. Now that Rachad Wildgoose is gone, how do folks feel about the players still in the picture?
The depth that the Badgers have in the secondary is impressive. Heading into the season I believe they had 10 players who had started a game before. While I don’t think any of them were (in Wildgoose’s case) or are (in everyone else’s case) heading towards an all-B1G season, they are all talented and tough and can get the job done against most wide receiving corps. Indiana’s wide receiving corps, unfortunately for the Badgers, isn’t like most other teams’ though, so UW will be tested early and often against Ty Fryfogle and Whop Philyor. The Badgers don’t have a corner as talented as either of those two wideouts, but what Wisconsin does have is a lot of bodies. They can throw a bunch of different players at Fryfogle and Philyor and see who has the hot hand. Faion Hicks and Caesar Williams should get the start, but you’ll probably see Donte Burton, Semar Melvin and Dean Engram line up at corner too. It will help that IU is breaking in a new starting quarterback but I expect Indiana’s top two WRs to “get theirs.”
— Who is a less-heralded player that IU fans should keep an eye on this week?
I mentioned him above, but redshirt freshman cornerback Semar Melvin could play an important role in trying to slow down Indiana’s passing attack. He got into a few games last season, including against Minnesota, and after getting burned early on a touchdown in Minneapolis, he came back and helped keep Rashod Bateman and Tyler Johnson under wraps for the rest of the game. He has good ball skills, and despite his slender frame, he isn’t afraid to stick his nose in and help in run support. A bonus player to keep an eye on is true freshman wideout Chimere Dike who is from nearby Waukesha, Wis. People in and around the Wisconsin program are high on him and, in limited snaps, he has one rush for 30 yards and four catches for 81 yards and a touchdown.
— What’s your prediction for how Saturday afternoon will unfold (including score)?
My wife insisted on answering a question so I gave her this one: “I think Wisconsin will win but only by three. I’m having a hard time knowing if it’ll be high or low scoring but I think our defense is pretty good so I’ll say 17-14. What do you say?” I answered by saying I thought the score was going to be 20-13 Wisconsin. Both defenses are top tier, both quarterbacks have some questions and both running games have potential but haven’t quite lived up to it. Should be a real low-scoring December Big Ten slog.