The weekend we’ve all been waiting a long time for — well, at least since August 7th when our fearless leader pissed off a whole state — has finally arrived.
That’s right, your #12 Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team — barely 3-0 but still 3-0 nonetheless — will travel to good ole Chicago, Illinois to take on the #18 Wisconsin Badgers at Soldier Field in a primetime 11 AM local time blockbuster match-up.
The Irish, as you well know, are hot off a 27-13 home victory over the Purdue Boilermakers that featured Bellyman, Avery Davis, and Kyle Hamilton (among others) absolutely crushing it while some (but not all!) of the same struggles from weeks 1 and 2 reared their ugly heads once again.
Still, it was an improved effort over the near-losses to FSU and Toledo, which is good news considering Wisconsin — no matter your opinion of them after seeing them fumble away the season opener vs. Penn State and then crush Eastern Michigan — is absolutely the best team the Irish have played to-date.
Led by a typically-strong running game and that usual physical, stingy defense the Badgers always seem to employ, Wisconsin is certainly not an opponent to overlook as the Irish play the toughest stretch of their schedule over the next 5 games.
So, out of an abundance of caution and understanding that knowledge is indeed power, I reached out to Drew Hamm, the head honcho over at Bucky’s 5th Quarter (our Wisconsin sister site), to ask him all of the most critical questions about this Badgers football team.
Let’s get to it, folks.
1. After a tough loss in the season opener (to what now looks like a very solid Penn State team) and an annihilation of a MAC opponent in Week 2, what’s your take on the outlook for Wisconsin the rest of the way? What’s their ceiling for 2021?
Drew Hamm: The Badgers ceiling is still winning the Big Ten. With how wide open the conference looks, any number of teams are now in serious contention that may not have been considered during preseason. Tbh, I don’t see the Badgers winning the conference nor making the Playoff (obviously), so that’s why I have their “ceiling” there.
This Saturday’s game is a pretty solid litmus test for how the rest of this season will go for UW. They are playing a team that is, at worst, their equal and if they can’t win this could be a season where they top out at 7-8 wins.
However, if the Badgers beat the Irish, then another 10-win season is on the table with a Big Ten West title in their sights as well. The defense is championship level, so it’s all on the offense to raise their game and the Notre Dame defense, which is tough, is a great measuring stick.
2. What does Graham Mertz bring to the table as starting QB for the Badgers? Also, regarding Paul Chryst’s decision to go with Mertz that caused Jack Coan to grad-transfer: are there things Mertz can do that Coan cannot, or was it more about starting the younger guy with the higher ceiling and planning for the future?
Drew Hamm: Being the most highly touted quarterback prospect that the Badgers have ever recruited out of high school means that I have been talking about Mertz for, what seems like, two decades. He is, undoubtedly, a talented player. He looks the part, he says the right things and his teammates seem to like him; however, outside of the Illinois game last season we haven’t really seen his play on the field live up to his hype.
To be fair to Mertz, he got COVID last year and had a shoulder injury (that we didn’t know about until spring ball this year) and, well, nothing really went right for the Badgers in general in 2020. One could make an argument that THIS year is Mertz’s real freshman year, even though he obviously played a bunch last season.
Mertz brings more athleticism (though not that much more) to the table than Coan, he has a bigger arm (although he hasn’t shown it much this year), and just generally has a higher ceiling than Coan. Now, and this argument has been made throughout Badgers Twitter, if Coan were under center, Wisconsin probably wins the Penn State game this year. I think most, if not all, Wisconsin fans respect and like Coan and hope he has a great season outside of Saturday’s game.
3. Per usual, it appears Wisconsin’s got a solid running game with a couple talented backs — how does this rushing attack compare to recent years, and do you think it’s strong enough to wear down an ND defense that is, even after a decent showing against Purdue last week, still questionable at best this year?
Drew Hamm: Coming into the season, everyone thought that Jalen Berger (who flashed as a freshman last year) would be the lead ball carrier for Wisconsin, with a couple of backups splitting the rest of the carries. It has been way different than that though.
Clemson transfer Chez Mellusi got the start in Week 1 and has acquitted himself quite nicely so far with 265 rushing yards (5.2 ypc) and two touchdowns in his first two games in a Badgers uniform.
Berger didn’t play at all in Week 1. No reason was given but theories have been thrown out that he was involved in an altercation between two freshmen running backs who are no longer on the team — but he was back against EMU and ran for 62 yards and a touchdown in a backup role.
Speedster Isaac Guerendo is a player to watch out for. He had an 82-yard rush for a score against Eastern Michigan and is a threat to take it to the house every time he touches the ball. Freshman Braelon Allen is a human battering ram, but I doubt he sees many, if any, carries against Notre Dame. Garrett Groshek is also still around and hasn’t seen much playing time despite being a useful third-down back.
To answer your original question: this rushing attack is different than previous years as there is no Jonathan Taylor or Melvin Gordon type. Mellusi has gotten a bulk of the carries, but you are likely to see a minimum of three guys get eight or more carries on Saturday. I think the Badgers could wear down Notre Dame’s front but a lot will depend on how the offensive line plays (duh) as o-line coach Joe Rudolph has been experimenting with different combinations through the first two games.
4. How’s the Badgers defense looking so far — which position groups stand out as strengths, and are there any weaker components that the Irish could potentially exploit with their numerous weapons at the skill positions?
Drew Hamm: Wisconsin’s defense is excellent again this year. There are no real “weaker components” of this unit. However, as noted in the question below about injuries, there are a pair of starters in the secondary who are questionable.
Wisconsin has depth in the secondary, so there won’t be a huge drop off, but there also aren’t any stars in the secondary to begin with. They are more of a “whole is greater than the sum of their parts” group.
I don’t think the Badgers have anyone who will be able to cover Michael Mayer effectively and I also think that Kyren Williams catching the ball out of the backfield could result in some positive things for the Irish. However, if Wisconsin can get to Coan against a patchwork ND offensive line, a lot of that might be moot.
5. FAN QUESTION:
Will Wisconsin be at full strength Saturday against ND?— Cheryl Russo (@CherylR01091480) September 19, 2021
Drew Hamm: Starting ILB Leo Chenal, who missed the first two games of the season due to COVID protocols, is back, but a pair of starters in the secondary (CB Faion Hicks and S Collin Wilder) are listed as questionable after missing the game against Eastern Michigan. They are, however, both listed as starting on the two-deep.
6. Questions related to the Great Purdue Drum Controversy of last week:
Do they have a big drum they wanna bring?— Curmudgeonly Hopeful (@Domer94) September 19, 2021
Drew Hamm: The drum isn’t even that big.
Should ND roll the Donda house out of the Visitor's entrance?— The Other Side of the Pillow (@Pasotti4) September 19, 2021
Drew Hamm: Only if Brian Kelly comes out dressed like Kim Kardashian at the Met Gala.*
*Pat Rick Note: I had to do this, I’m so so so sorry:
7. FAN QUESTION:
Jack Coan has found some success at ND as a 1-year transfer. If you could transfer to another team’s website, or to any website for 1 year, where would you go?— Pat C (@iamthetweeter) September 19, 2021
Drew Hamm: As a Way Too Online Weirdo, I always admired what the original crew at Crimson Quarry used to do, but they aren’t around anymore.
Honestly, I’d probably pick to do a one-year immersive internship as a moderator at some absolutely bonkers message board like Hogville or TexAgs. The shit you probably see there? Hoooo boy it would be amazing.
8. FAN QUESTION:
How do they feel about being reciprocal with Minnesota?— Pwagon (@PWagon60) September 19, 2021
9. FAN QUESTION:
If ND wins, do they get all the cheese curds a rivalry trophy? If Wisconsin wins, do they get all the Catholic guilt?— Hayden Adams (@HaydenAdamsZ) September 20, 2021
Drew Hamm: Hmmm, I suppose if Notre Dame wins y’all can have SOME of the cheese curds and I’ll even throw in some Spotted Cow (our WORST beer hahahahahaha).
As one of the most Lutheran states in the union, Wisconsin will not indulge (nailed it) any of this Catholic guilt nonsense.
10. FAN QUESTION:
In his song “Can’t Believe It” T-Pain implies that he can set a woman up with a comfortable life by putting her in a mansion somewhere in Wisconsin.— Pat C (@iamthetweeter) September 19, 2021
I’d like your best guess- to where in Wisconsin is T-Pain referring?
Drew Hamm: Minocqua or Lake Geneva would be my best guesses, depending on if the lady in question wanted to be in the northwoods on a lake or on a lake with a bunch of loathsome Cubs fans.
11. Alright let’s just get down to it — who wins this game, what’s the final score, and why?
Drew Hamm: I’ve been struggling with this game for weeks. I haven’t been particularly impressed with the Wisconsin offense so far this year and I don’t really think Notre Dame’s offense is that good either.
What should define this game is how much better Wisconsin’s defense is vs. the Irish offense than Notre Dame’s defense is vs. UW’s offense. The Irish shouldn’t be able to run the ball against Wisconsin, especially with the return of Chenal, but if the Badgers secondary isn’t at full strength, Coan could have 275+ passing yards easily.
I don’t think the Badgers win by more than 5.5 points (which is the current line) but I do think, coming off a bye week with a more creative offensive game plan than we’ve seen so far, Wisconsin wins 24-21.
BONUS: Are you related to Theodore Hamm, founder of Hamm’s Brewery and the greatest beer of all-time, Hamm’s Premium? If not, please lie to me and say that you are.
Drew Hamm: Sadly, despite asking my dad many times to look at our family tree, I am not related to the family that brews beer from the land of the sky blue waters. In fact, I actually pronounce my last name differently (Hahm, would be a better spelling) which caused much confusion on the first day of school every year.
I mean, uh, yes! I am a direct descendant and can get you as much free beer as you’d like!
I wanna give a huge shout-out to Drew for his time and all his exceptional, hilarious responses to even our most inane questions. That “indulge” pun was a work of art, y’all.
Make sure you head over to Bucky’s 5th Quarter before Saturday to ingest all the insights and analysis you’ll ever need about the Wisconsin Badgers, including their own ND/Wiscy Q&A with some idiot-boy named Pat Rick.
Additionally, I highly encourage you all to give both Bucky’s 5th Quarter and Drew some follows on Twitter for all the best tweets about the Badgers you could ever hope to consume — they’re the types of accounts you don’t unfollow after Saturday’s game.
That’s all for this week, folks — as always, Go Irish!