Wisconsin vs. Wake Forest: Fearless prediction for the Duke's Mayo Bowl
This one’s for all the mayonnaise, and Wisconsin’s season could use a little dressing to finish it off right.
A couple of young Badgers, in particular, should be especially motivated to make mincemeat of Wake Forest on Wednesday in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl (noon ET, ESPN).
In a battle of .500 teams in what will be a mostly empty Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., players on both sides might need to generate their own adrenaline. The Badgers (3-3) and Demon Deacons (4-4) will meet for the first time, at the home of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, but who will suit up for either side is anyone’s guess. Wisconsin has a bunch of questionable players but no announced opt-outs. Wake Forest will be down two key players, at the least.
Here’s a look at what to expect as the Badgers try to sandwich their midseason 3-game losing streak with a pair of wins on each side.
Where’s the motivation?
The No. 1 item to consider when analyzing a bowl matchup is which team actually wants to be there. In this case, I think it’s fairly equal with maybe a slight edge toward Wisconsin. You’d think the Badgers might not be too interested in playing this game considering the high expectations that came with their 2-0 start. It’s a big drop from CFP hopes to a bowl with a name that serves as a punchline. However, there are plenty of reasons to point to Wisconsin being a team that cares about playing well in this game.
Several players on the Wisconsin roster were fairly vocal about wanting to get another game in as the team sat out three games because of COVID-19 outbreaks. And sure, maybe that’s just the right thing to say, but actions speak louder than words. To this point, Wisconsin hasn’t had anybody opt out of this game, which is not the case for Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons will be without running back Kenneth Walker III and star defensive end Carlos “Boogie” Basham.
Additionally, Wisconsin has some young players still looking to prove themselves, most notably redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz, who needs to do all he can to show he will be the leader of the team for years to come. He is expected to return Wednesday after leaving the season finale with an injury in the third quarter.
The Wisconsin passing game has been a major issue this season. There are plenty of excuses that can be made, but Mertz has to be incredibly motivated to finish off his first year as a starter on a high note. With Jack Coan now out of the picture in the transfer portal, Mertz is the unquestioned starter heading into the offseason.
Identifying the matchups
When Wisconsin is on offense, it should be able to find success moving the ball against a Demon Deacons unit missing its best player in Basham. Wake Forest gives up 5 yards per carry, which ranks 98th among 127 FBS teams competing in 2020. In addition, the Demon Deacons allow 7.8 yards per pass attempt, 89th in the country.
It seems like Wisconsin again will be without its top two receivers, Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor, but freshman running back Jalen Berger should return after missing the last 2 games following a positive test for the coronavirus. Wisconsin’s rushing attack hasn’t been as effective this season as it usually is, but I can definitely see the Badgers doing some damage against the Wake Forest run defense.
On the other side, Wisconsin’s secondary is going to be tested. The combination of quarterback Sam Hartman and wide receiver Jaquarii Roberson has been very effective this season. In 8 games, Roberson has 54 catches for 795 yards and 5 touchdowns. Wake Forest ranks 47th in yards per pass attempt at 7.8.
Any time the Demon Deacons try to run the ball, that’s a win for Wisconsin. The Badgers rank 16th in the country against the run in terms of yards per rush, while Wake Forest is 98th in that category offensively and is coming in without one of its top two running backs.
Wisconsin should get a decent boost with Berger’s return to the lineup, though he probably isn’t in peak football shape after being sidelined for several weeks. Likely without Davis and Pryor again, the Badgers offense probably won’t put up a ton of points. However, I think the Badgers will dominate at the line of scrimmage, and their veteran secondary will limit big plays from the up-tempo Wake Forest offense. Just like in the 20-17 OT win over Minnesota to end the regular season, the offense will leave plenty to be desired but the defense will do enough to reward Badger Nation — and the family members who make the trip — with a victory.
Wisconsin 20, Wake Forest 13.