Wisconsin backups may play key roles with B1G West on the line
Wisconsin Badgers fans received the best news imaginable about redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz minutes before Saturday night’s game at Michigan kicked off.
After testing positive for coronavirus following Wisconsin’s season-opening win over Illinois on Oct. 23, Mertz was able to play against the Wolverines. The future of the program was ready to go, but several others on the roster were not. Will they be available for Saturday’s crucial game against Northwestern?
After Wisconsin canceled consecutive games against Nebraska and Purdue due to a COVID-19 outbreak within the program, the Badgers’ list of inactives released prior to their 49-11 dismantling of the Wolverines did not include Mertz, though it did feature quarterbacks Jack Coan and Chase Wolf, with 10 players mentioned. Among them were 5 starters, including running back Garrett Groshek, offensive lineman Josh Seltzner, defensive end Garrett Rand, outside linebacker Izayah Green-May and cornerback Rachad Wildgoose.
Wisconsin has made it clear the past few weeks they would not announce positive COVID-19 cases for the sake of the players’ privacy, so it’s anyone’s guess why they were unable to play. We are unlikely to hear which of them have passed COVID-19 protocols until we get to game day for Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. ET kickoff against the Wildcats in an incredibly important game.
Northwestern enters with a 4-0 record after blowing out Maryland in Week 1, followed by victories in 1-score games against Iowa, Nebraska and Purdue. Wisconsin will enter with a 2-0 record after blowout victories over Illinois and Michigan. Whoever wins this game will have a clear path to winning the B1G West. For the Badgers, it gets a little trickier because they need to play the 4 remaining games on their schedule to be eligible for the conference title game in Indianapolis on Dec. 19. This is a crucial matchup, and Wisconsin needs their best players to be on the field against a team the Badgers have beaten just once in their past 6 road games in this series.
In addition to the 5 starters mentioned, a few other notable players were held out of Saturday’s game for one reason or another, and the Badgers saw a few players exit the game with injuries and never return.
Let’s take a look at the spots where Wisconsin could be in trouble as the injuries pile up.
Already without Coan after he suffered a foot injury in fall camp that required surgery, Wisconsin did not have Wolf available, either. It had previously been reported that he was among the players to test positive for COVID-19. Mertz will get the start Saturday, but if Coan and Wolf are not ready, 4th-string quarterback Danny Vanden Boom would be the backup.
Wisconsin went into Saturday night’s game without 2 of their top 3 running backs in Groshek and Isaac Guerendo. The Badgers ran the ball well with Nakia Watson and true freshman Jalen Berger, as well as a variety of wide receivers and fullbacks, as they managed to finish with 341 yards on the ground.
Groshek is a valuable piece in the Badgers offense because he can do just about anything, whether it’s running the ball, blocking or making a difference as a pass catcher. Wisconsin doesn’t have anybody in the running back room who can do what he does. We’re not sure what we’re getting from the speedy Guerendo at this point as he makes his transition from wide receiver to running back. He saw the field a good amount in the opener, carrying the ball 11 times for 36 yards.
Jack Dunn was the only player among the wide receiver group to be listed as inactive prior to the Michigan game. He plays a reserve role and provides experience and depth. Then, starter Kendric Pryor left the game with an upper body injury and did not return.
Wisconsin hasn’t exactly wowed their opponents with incredible wide receiver play through 2 games, so the Badgers should try to find any help they can get. Tight end Jake Ferguson appears to be the go-to guy in the passing game, which was expected, but Wisconsin could use a receiver or 2 to step up if Pryor and Dunn are unable to suit up or be completely healthy against Northwestern.
Rand plays a key role on Wisconsin’s defensive line, and with him out, the depth got hit even harder. Matt Henningsen got the start but left the game early with a left arm injury and never returned. In addition, reserve true freshman James Thompson Jr. saw his first action but left the game with an injury as well.
Wisconsin had no issues against Michigan, but if Rand and Henningsen are both out Saturday, this is a major concern.
Outside linebacker Green-May was the only linebacker to be ruled out prior to the game. However, the Badgers took a hit at inside linebacker, where they don’t have a lot of depth. Reserve Mike Maskalunas had to be helped off the field.
With these last 2 position groups, there shouldn’t be too much of a worry. Wildgoose missed Saturday’s game, and though he is a very talented cornerback, Wisconsin’s secondary as a whole is very experienced and has a good amount of depth.
Seltzner sat out the Michigan game, but the Badgers were able to move players around the offensive line. Depth on the offensive line is not an issue for Wisconsin in 2020 and should not be something to be concerned with heading into Saturday’s big game.