PISCATAWAY, NJ – NOVEMBER 06 : Head coach Paul Chryst of the Wisconsin Badgers talks with quarterback Graham Mertz (5) during a game against the Rutgers Scarlet Knights at SHI Stadium on November 6, 2021 in Piscataway, New Jersey. Wisconsin defeated Rutgers 52-3. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

No. 18 Wisconsin vs. Illinois State: What to watch for

Madison, Wis. – The No. 18 Wisconsin Badgers kick off the new college football season by playing host to the Illinois State Redbirds at Camp Randall Stadium on September 3. 

Wisconsin football, coming off an underwhelming 9-4 season in which they failed to win the Big Ten West title, aims to redeem themselves in 2022 after re-vamping their coaching staff in the offseason. 

Here are some items worth watching for in week one. 

Does the offense look different?

A lot of offseason chatter surrounded the current state of Wisconsin’s offense, which looked stale last year, to say the least.

Wisconsin averaged 25.4 and 25.1 points per game the past two seasons, marking the first time UW went back-to-back years averaging less than 26 points since 1991.

Coach Chryst agreed it was time for an influx of new ideas, so he hired Bobby Engram, who spent eight seasons with the Baltimore Ravens, as the new offensive coordinator in hopes of reinvigorating UW’s passing attack.

Will the offense look markedly different than last season? Your guess is as good as mine. Wisconsin football will always be a run-first team at its core, but it’ll be interesting to see if they can find more balance under new leadership this season.

Young receiving core

Following the graduations of Jake Ferguson, Danny Davis, and Kendric Pryor, who accounted for 110 of Wisconsin’s 177 total catches last season; the Badgers will turn to multiple inexperienced wide receivers to step up and contribute this season.

In addition to learning a new offense, Wisconsin’s QB1, Graham Mertz, returns just 36.9% of his total targets from 2021, according to Pro Football Focus.

Junior WR Chimere Dike enters the season as the unquestioned No. 1 pass-catcher for the Badgers and will be heavily relied upon in the passing game. Behind him, it’s worth noting that no other WR on the UW roster has caught more than three career college passes, leaving the door wide open for several young players to carve out a role in the Badgers offense.

Skyler Bell, the breakout star of spring and fall camp, will be No. 2 on the depth chart and could add an explosive playmaker into the fold who can play on the boundary or in the slot.

Markus Allen, Keontez Lewis, and Dean Engram, who transitioned from nickel corner to WR in the offseason, will all see meaningful snaps at WR this fall.

It’s a young group of players, but there is plenty of talent worth getting excited about – the question is – can the passing attack perform well enough to utilize their skill sets?

Who steps up at inside linebacker?

Leo Chenal and Jack Sanborn were arguably the top inside linebacker tandem in the country last season, totaling 206 tackles, 34.5 tackles for loss, and 13 sacks in the heart of Jim Leonhard’s defense.

With both players in the NFL, the Badgers must replace 90% of the team’s overall snaps at the position.

During fall camp, Jordan Turner, Tate Grass, Maema Njongmeta, Jake Chaney, and Bryan Sanborn saw time running with the first-team defense. However, the position remained fluid, and although Turner and Njongmeta begin as the No. 1 tandem, nobody appears to have taken the reigns and run away with either starting spot.

Odds are, multiple players will see the field each week until a more consistent rotation establishes itself. Still, it’s encouraging that Wisconsin has multiple talented young players vying for snaps.

The big question is, who will step up and continue the tradition of elite play at inside linebacker?

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