Wisconsin football: 3 reasons the Duke's Mayo Bowl is worth watching for Badgers fans
Wisconsin will close out what has been a mostly disappointing 2020 football season this Wednesday, Dec. 30.
High expectations were raised even higher early in the year as the Badgers started 2-0, but instead of being a part of a New Year’s 6 bowl or a College Football Playoff semifinal, Wisconsin will settle for the Duke’s Mayo Bowl against Wake Forest.
It certainly isn’t the fun, exciting finish to the season Badgers fans might have been imagining after watching the team dominate Illinois and Michigan to start the season. Whether it was because of bad luck with the coronavirus or simply poor execution on offense, the Badgers finished the regular season at 3-3.
The bowl game kicks off at noon ET on Wednesday from Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina, and can be seen on ESPN.
So why should fans be interested in Wisconsin closing out its season against a middle-of-the-pack ACC team such as Wake Forest (4-4)? Well, there are a few reasons, and here are three of them.
Gaging Graham Mertz’s progress
Despite and up-and-down season, Graham Mertz seems locked in as Wisconsin’s QB1 for 2021.
So Badgers fans probably want to get get a feel for whether Mertz is the young star he looked like in the season opener or the struggling rookie he has looked like since then.
The redshirt freshman quarterback led an offense that was pretty tough to watch during a three-game losing streak in which it never put more than 7 points on the board.
Mertz will be crucial to whether or not Wisconsin will be able to get to the next level as a program the next few years, so Badgers fans should be hoping Wednesday serves as a springboard into next season. The Badgers will not have many cases where they bring in a quarterback who had offers from all the major college football programs.
The day after Wisconsin’s win over Minnesota, senior quarterback Jack Coan announced he would transfer. Coan likely would’ve been the starter this season, but he broke his foot early in training camp and never appeared in a game even though he was back in uniform late in the season.
Chase Wolf finished the victory over Minnesota after Mertz left with an injury, but Mertz said he will be healthy enough to play in the bowl game. Overall, the Minnesota game was another poor showing from the passing game, but Mertz did complete a pair of big-time throws before exiting in the third quarter.
Wisconsin played the equivalent of half of a normal season this year. There should be plenty of reason to check out what Mertz, one of the Badgers’ most prized recruits, can do to close out 2020.
The next star running back may return
The B1G changed its COVID-19 protocols to allow players to return 17 days after testing positive instead of 21 days. Head coach Paul Chryst said that should make true freshman running back Jalen Berger available to return. He has missed Wisconsin’s past two games.
Berger didn’t play in the season-opener, but he quickly emerged as the team’s most talented back and appears to be the next star at the position for the program. Despite playing in just three games, Berger leads Wisconsin in rushing yards and is averaging 5.9 yards per carry.
Berger was one of the lone bright spots on offense despite a limited role. Wisconsin traditionally continues to feed the hot hand, but Berger was capped at 15 carries in each game he played in.
We’ll see how much Wisconsin uses Berger, considering he might not be in peak football shape after missing so much practice time. Regardless, it should be exciting to see a player who is showing signs of being an elite running back at such a young age.
Farewell: Final day for many
The free year of eligibility for 2020 players means we don’t exactly know who will stay and who will go after Wednesday’s game. Some seniors will take advantage and play another year of college ball, while others will try the NFL or simply move on with their lives.
At this point, Wisconsin hasn’t announced that any players will opt out of the bowl game, though some players have announced their plans for next season. The players who have already decided to move on include defensive ends Isaiahh Loudermilk and Garrett Rand, fullback Mason Stokke, offensive tackle Cole Van Lanen, safety Eric Burrell and cornerback Caesar Williams.
Meanwhile, safeties Collin Wilder, Scott Nelson and Tyler Mais, wide receiver Jack Dunn, defensive end Matt Henningsen and linebacker Mike Maskalunas have already said they will return next season.
Several seniors have not made their plans public, including receivers Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor, though offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said there’s a good chance they will be back. Both missed much of this season with injuries, so getting them back would be very important to the Wisconsin offense next season.
Regardless, this will be the last game for several members of the Badgers program.