LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – DECEMBER 30: Quarterback Graham Mertz #5 of the Wisconsin Badgers looks on during a time out against the Arizona State Sun Devils during the SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl at Allegiant Stadium on December 30, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Badgers defeated the Sun Devils 20-13. (Photo by David Becker/Getty Images)

Wisconsin Badgers vs. Illinois Fighting Illini: What to watch for

Wisconsin Badgers vs. Illinois Fighting Illini: What to watch for

The Wisconsin Badgers (2-2, 0-1 Big Ten) will head back to Madison to take on the Illinois Fighting Illini (3-1, 0-1 Big Ten) on Saturday.

The Badgers head into the matchup coming off of an embarrassing loss in Columbus to the Ohio State Buckeyes, where they lost 52-21. Conversely, the Fighting Illini are coming off a 31-0 victory against the Chattanooga Mocs. Both teams are looking to notch their first win in conference play on Saturday.

Here are some items to watch for in Saturday’s contest:

How will Graham Mertz respond following a poor performance in week four?

Last weekend, the Badgers fell to Ohio State in a blowout. Wisconsin looked out of sorts in all three phases and was outclassed by the Buckeye’s talented team and coaching staff. Heading into Saturday, an essential item to watch will be how Graham Mertz responds.

The Badgers quarterback struggled in week four’s matchup after throwing an interception on his first pass attempt of the game. It seemed like the third-year starter lost his confidence after that interception, and things quickly went off the rails for Wisconsin.

Despite the poor stat line, Mertz spread the ball well to his receivers, which he has excelled at all season long. All in all, Mertz put together a stat line of 94 yards, one touchdown, and an interception, a stat line that seemed out of the ordinary after the impressive year he has had.

Mertz has looked like the best version of himself this season, putting together a stat line of 791 yards and seven touchdowns through the air. If the third-year starter is looking to return to his previous level of play, he will need to spread the ball to multiple receivers again and do so with confidence.

The Kansas native will be a key player to watch in this weekend’s showdown as he looks to regain his confidence and continue to play at the level he was before the loss.

Will Jim Leonhard and the Badgers’ defense bounce back?

In week four, the Badger’s defense was flat-out embarrassed by Ohio State’s explosive offense. It seemed that CJ Stroud and company got everything they wanted, and there was no stopping the passing attack.

Against the Buckeyes, the secondary was torn apart. Stroud posted a remarkable stat line of 281 yards, five touchdowns, and one interception. Heading into the matchup against Illinois, the secondary will be one of the key groups to watch.

The Fighting Illini are averaging 245 passing yards per game this season. Tommy DeVito has excelled through the air this year, putting up a total of 954 passing yards. While DeVito is not on the same level as Stroud, the Syracuse transfer has shown plenty of promise as the Fighting Illini’s QB1. The Badgers’ secondary will need to bounce back this week, and with Alexander Smith once again listed as out with injury, that may be tougher than anticipated.

Another group on defense to keep an eye on is the Badgers’ pass rush. While players such as Keeanu Benton and Nick Herbig have put up solid performances on the edge, the production has been less than expected. The Badgers will need to get into the backfield early and often to force DeVito to make mistakes.

Wisconsin’s defense is a very talented group, and how they respond after a poor performance will be a key item to watch this weekend.

Who will step up in the receiving game with Clay Cundiff out?

Wisconsin suffered a massive blow in week four when Clay Cundiff sustained an injury. The junior tight end suffered a significant leg injury, and there has been no update on his status yet.

Cundiff set career highs in week two against Washington State and showed promise in his pass-catching abilities. With Cundiff now out with injury, who will step up?

It’s no secret that Mertz incorporates his tight ends often in his passing game. He did it with Jake Ferguson, and it was the same story once Cundiff took over.

The Badgers have plenty of talent at the tight end position with Hayden Rucci and Jake Eschenbach. However, at this time, it’s unclear who will get the start against Illinois.

Rucci has appeared in two games for the Badgers this season. The redshirt junior has a stat line of four receptions for 47 yards this season.

Eschenbach, a redshirt senior, has also appeared in two games this season. The 6-foot-6 tight end has hauled in two catches for 33 yards this season.

Although both players have seen limited reps this season, one must step up and give their quarterback a great option in the receiving game. Whoever steps in to replace Cundiff will have big shoes to fill, and they will be a key player to watch in this weekend’s game.

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CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA – DECEMBER 30: Quarterback Graham Mertz #5 of the Wisconsin Badgers looks to take the snap against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons during the first half of the Duke’s Mayo Bowl at Bank of America Stadium on December 30, 2020 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Wisconsin Badgers vs. No. 3 Ohio State: What to watch for

Wisconsin Badgers vs. No. 3 Ohio State: What to watch for

Madison, Wis. – The Wisconsin Badgers (2-1) will hit the road to take on the No. 3 Ohio State Buckeyes (3-0) on Saturday, September 24th, at Ohio Stadium.

Following a 66-7 win against the New Mexico State Aggies, the Badgers will look to take down a talented Buckeyes team to kick off conference play.

Here are some items worth watching for in week 4:


Will the Badgers continue their strong play against a formidable opponent?

In Wisconsin’s week three matchup against New Mexico State, the Badgers had a complete game in all three phases. Although it was against a far inferior opponent, Wisconsin kept its foot on the gas through all four quarters.

Heading into week four, the Badgers face an incredible challenge.
Ohio State has put together some fantastic performances. While the competition wasn’t as tough as it gets, the Buckeyes have found the answers on both sides of the ball.

The Ohio State offense comes into Saturday’s matchup averaging 565.3 yards per game, the most in all of college football. Conversely, the Buckeye’s defense has allowed an average of 14.3 points per game.

The Badgers face a tall order in taking on this dynamic offense. UW will need to lean on its stars like Keeanu Benton, Nick Herbig, and Maema Njongmeta to keep themselves in the game.

On the flip side, the Badger’s offense will need another excellent performance from their quarterback Graham Mertz. The redshirt junior is coming off of an impressive game where he completed 12 passes for 251 yards and three touchdowns. If the Badgers hope to take down a tough Ohio State team, they will need another strong showing from their QB1.

One question remains, will the Badgers continue with the same level of play against a more challenging opponent in Ohio State?


How will the Badger’s defense slow down CJ Stroud?

Buckeye’s quarterback CJ Stroud has been nothing short of spectacular to begin the season. The 6-foot-3, 218-pound quarterback boasts a remarkable stat line of 941 yards, 11 touchdowns, and no interceptions. Furthermore, the junior boasts a QB rating of 94.6, the third-highest rating in the nation.

The Badger’s defense has been sound all season long, and the defense has allowed just eight points per game to begin the season. However, they have not faced a quarterback like Stroud.

The secondary will be key in this game. Cornerbacks Jay Shaw and Alexander Smith may have their work cut out for them going against Ohio State’s strong receiving core. The secondary will be responsible for playing physically and forcing Stroud to make mistakes through the air.

Another group that must contribute is the Badger’s talented pass rushers, and one player to keep an eye on will be Nick Herbig. The junior linebacker is the Badger’s current sack leader with four sacks. Herbig has wreaked havoc on offensive lines in the past three weeks, and he will need to once again in week four.

It remains to be seen how the Badgers will find the answers to slow down Stroud, but it will be a key item to watch in Saturday’s matchup.


Will Isaac Guerendo be more involved?

The Badgers are known for producing talented running backs. Their running back room includes the two-headed monster of Braelon Allen and Chez Mellusi, but it seems that Isaac Guerendo has played third fiddle in the rotation.

Guerendo, a senior out of Indiana, has had a solid season despite a smaller workload. The 6-foot, 223-pound running back boasts a stat line of 17 carries for 91 yards and three touchdowns.

Against New Mexico State, Guerendo logged 12 carries for 72 yards and two touchdowns. Although it was against an inferior opponent, the Indiana native showed plenty of promise.

The sample size has been relatively small, but Guerendo has shown that he is a dynamic back. The senior shows promise as a power runner while also having the speed to break out on the outside.

The Badgers have one of the deepest running back rooms in the nation, and getting Guerendo more involved could lead to success.

While he may not get a lot of carries out of the backfield, his speed could be useful on jet sweeps or screen passes to the outside.

It remains to be seen if Guerendo will be more involved, but after an impressive game against New Mexico State, we may see a higher workload from the senior running back.

While watching Wisconsin’s offense this weekend, keep an eye out for Guerendo and if he gets more touches.


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Sep 21, 2019; Madison, WI, USA; A Wisconsin Badgers helmet sits on the sidelines during the game against the Michigan Wolverines at Camp Randall Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Badgers PFF grades: Top 5 offensive/defensive players in week 1 vs. Illinois State

The No. 18 Wisconsin Badgers (1-0) kicked off its season opener at Camp Randall on Saturday night with a 38-0 smackdown of the visiting Illinois State Redbirds.

Behind a balanced and efficient offensive performance, the Badgers totaled 440 yards in Bobby Engram’s first game as offensive coordinator.

Even on a night where Jim Leonhard’s defense came out flat, they managed to pitch a shutout against the Redbirds.

It was a night that saw multiple school records broken. First, senior safety John Torchio scored the first touchdown of the season on a 100-yard pick-six late in the first quarter.

Then, Braelon Allen showed why he’s one of the best running backs in the country, ripping off a 96-yard touchdown run, the longest in school history.

Overall, it was a highly encouraging performance from both sides of the ball, giving Wisconsin momentum to build on heading into week two against the Washington State Cougars.

Here’s a look at the top five highest-graded offensive/defensive players from Wisconsin’s 38-0 victory over Illinois State, according to Pro Football Focus.


Top 5 offense

  • OT Nolan Rucci: 91.1 – Elite 

  • TE Hayden Rucci: 88.4 – Elite 

  • WR Chimere Dike: 82.6 – High Quality 

  • OT Jack Nelson: 81.6 – High Quality 

  • QB Graham Mertz: 81.4 – High Quality 


Top 5 defense

  • S Preston Zachman: 91.0 – Elite

  • NT Keeanu Benton: 86.8 – Elite

  • S Kamo’i Latu: 83.2 – High Quality

  • ILB Maema Njongmeta: 82.5 – High Quality

  • OLB Nick Herbig: 78.2 – High Quality


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MADISON, WISCONSIN – OCTOBER 30: Keeanu Benton #95 of the Wisconsin Badgers celebrates after a fumble recovery during the first half against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Camp Randall Stadium on October 30, 2021 in Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Wisconsin Badgers NT Keeanu Benton is college football’s best-kept secret

Wisconsin Football returns star nose tackle Keeanu Benton, who will be one of Jim Leonhard’s defensive focal points and leaders in 2022.

Madison, Wis. – Despite losing eight starters off last season’s top-ranked defensive unit, Wisconsin football expects to be among the nation’s best again in 2022. One of the biggest reasons comes from the return of senior nose tackle Keeanu Benton, whose been one of the most underappreciated stars I can remember. 

As a junior, Benton registered 25 tackles, 21 total pressures, 16 stops, seven QB hits, five TFL, 2.5 sacks, two fumble recoveries, and a pass deflection. 

At season’s end, the Wisconsin native was named a second-team All-Big Ten pick by the coaches and honorable mention by the media. 

With 32 career games under his belt, Benton is arguably the most indispensable player on Wisconsin’s defense – even if the counting stats don’t reflect it.

The impact of the 6-foot-4, 315-pound nose tackle goes way beyond the box score. Benton frequently takes on double teams to free up gaps, allowing Wisconsin’s linebacking core to make impact plays in the opposing team’s backfield. 

If I were a betting man (and I am), Leo Chenal and Jack Sanborn would probably tell you he made their lives much more manageable last season. 

Without the Janesville, Wisconsin native serving as the focal point of Jim Leonhard’s defense, all moving parts have less freedom to make plays.

Benton doesn’t just eat blocks

That said, Benton is more than just a sawed-off tree stump that Wisconsin uses to eat up blocks. His rare athleticism for the position gives coach Leonhard the versatility to maximize matchups and utilize him as a pass-rusher.

According to PFF, Benton finished last season with a pass-rushing grade of 74.9, good for fifth highest among all Wisconsin players and third among those returning in 2022. At times, he was an absolute bully in the trenches.

Now the elder statesman, Benton is leading by example

Benton’s humble nature and tireless work ethic have become one of the senior nose tackle’s defining qualities as an upperclassman – helping the younger players develop winning work habits.

“Really mastering all the things that require no talent and doing it at a (high) level,” Ross Kolodziej, Badgers defensive line coach, said in regards to Benton. “He can demand that of anyone else in the room, and his game is really becoming above reproach.”

“Impressive to see him grow physically but also (mentally) and earning the respect of his teammates with how he practices and puts it on tape.”

Wisconsin football coaches know what they have in Benton; it’s the rest of the country that hasn’t figured out he’s a star – but they will.


Contact/Follow us @Badger_Notes on Twitter, Subscribe to the BadgerNotes Newsletter here, and like our page on Facebook to follow ongoing coverage of Wisconsin news, notes, opinion, and analysis. You can also follow Dillon Graff on Twitter @DillonGraff.

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