The teams: The Wisconsin Badgers (3-3) vs the Wake Forest Demon Deacons (4-4) in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl
The time: 11 a.m. CDT, Wednesday
The place: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C.
The TV coverage: ESPN with Taylor Zarzour and Matt Stinchcomb in the booth, and Marty Smith on the sideline.
The last time: N/A
The series: First meeting
The line: Wisconsin -7.5
The Badgers injury report:
WR Danny Davis
WR Kendric Pryor
OL Cole Van Lanen
RB Nakia Watson
RB Jalen Berger (COVID-19)
DL Isaiahh Loudermilk
THE BREAKDOWN: 5 THINGS TO WATCH
1) Finish with momentum
Wisconsin is going for its fifth bowl victory in Paul Chryst’s six seasons as coach and you can expect them to play to win. Though some fans may want to see younger players in what many believe is a meaningless game, that’s not how the Badgers will approach it. Wisconsin hasn’t had a losing season since 2001 and don’t want to see that streak end at the hands of a middle of the road ACC team. Not only is it important to send the departing players out with a win, it also gives the program a good feeling heading into an uncertain offseason.
2) The return of Jalen Berger
Though Garrett Groshek was the difference in Wisconsin’s overtime win against Minnesota earlier this month, the Badgers best running back is Jalen Berger. And after having to miss two games due to a positive COVID-19 test, the true freshman is expected to return to the lineup on Wednesday against a Wake Forest defense that ranks 91st in the country against the run.
Despite playing in just three of UW’s six games, Berger leads the Badgers in rushing with 267 yards and is averaging 5.9 yards per carry. It’s unclear how much work Berger will get after missing so much on-field time, but after believing we’d seen the last of him due to the COVID-19 diagnosis, any glimpses of what the future holds for the New Jersey product is a big plus.
3) Graham Mertz stepping up
Mertz is expected to make his seventh career start on Wednesday despite being knocked out of the Minnesota game in the third quarter. The hope, at least for the Badgers, is he can build on the last — and best — two throws of that game — a deep sideline route to Jack Dunn and a strike down the middle to Jake Ferguson.
Mertz will once again likely be without his two top receivers in Kendric Pryor and Danny Davis. That means more of Dunn, along with true freshmen Chimere Dike and Devin Chandler. Helping matters should be a weak Wake Forest defense, which ranks 107th in the country against the pass.
4) Slowing Wake Forest
Wake Forest’s defense is a sieve, ranking 107th in the country in total defense and 78th in scoring defense. But their offense is going to be a big test for the Badgers. The Demon Deacons come in averaging 435 yards of offense and 37 points per game. Both totals are by far the best among the offenses Wisconsin has faced this season.
Led by quarterback Sam Hartman, Wake Forest will challenge the Badgers with its pace. The Demon Deacons run 80.3 plays per game, the eighth most in the nation. Hartman has thrown for 1,906 yards, 10 touchdowns and just one interception. His main target is junior Jaquarii Roberson, who has caught 54 passes for 795 yards and five touchdowns.
Though second-leading rusher Kenneth Walker III (579 yards, 13 touchdowns) decided in early December to sit out the remainder of the year, Christian Beal-Smith (650 yards, four touchdowns) will test the Badgers run defense after it gave up 151 yards to Minnesota’s Mo Ibrahim the last time out.
5) Last ride
While a number of seniors, and at least one junior, are yet to make a final decision on whether to return for the 2021 season, it seems likely that quite a few guys will be making their final appearances in a UW uniform on Wednesday.
That includes, assuming they’re healthy enough, left tackle Cole Van Lanen and defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk. Safety Eric Burrell is also likely off to the NFL and the same goes for fullback Mason Stokke. After returning for a sixth season, guard Jon Dietzen is expected to retire for good after the game.
Others that could be playing their final game include cornerback Caesar Williams, running back Garrett Groshek, outside linebacker Noah Burks, defensive end Garrett Rand, safety Madison Cone and junior tight end Jake Ferguson.
NUMBERS TO CONSIDER
This will be Wisconsin’s 19th straight year playing in a bowl game. Only Georgia (24) and Oklahoma (22) have longer current streaks. The Badgers are 9-9 in bowl games during the streak.
Wisconsin leads the nation in total defense, allowing 263.5 yards per game. That would be the third-best mark in school history since 1959.
According to UW, the top four players at wide receiver and running back coming into the season have each missed at least one game this year and a total of 20.
Zach Heilprin’s prediction: Wisconsin 21, Wake Forest 20
Ebo’s prediction: Wisconsin 27, Wake Forest 24
Nelson Raisbeck’s prediction: Wisconsin 24, Wake Forest 20