For the first time in their respective histories, Army West Point and Wisconsin will meet on the football field. This game will mark only the fourth time in Wisconsin's football history that they are playing a service academy. Wisconsin has a 1-1 record versus the Naval Academy (Navy defeated Wisconsin 36-7 in 1945; Wisconsin beat Navy 48-13 in 1949), and the Badgers defeated the Air Force Academy 38-0 in 1979. Army comes into this contest with a 4-1 record, having lost its most recent game 28-16 at Ball State. Wisconsin sits at 2-3 overall, following a 24-0 shutout win over Big Ten West rival Illinois.
Playing a service academy is always a challenging venture, as those teams traditionally employ some form of option football that forces the opponent to play true assignment defense. Playing a service academy in the middle of the year, versus at the beginning of the season, is even more unusual.
Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst recognizes the difficulties in playing a team of Army's caliber. At his weekly press conference, Chryst stated, "It is different than what we have seen. We spent time this summer preparing. ... I like the mindset our group has. You've got to recognize who they are and how they want to play and what they're doing. They're efficient, they execute well. ... It's going to force you to play really good, sound, assignment football. We've been playing well, but we're going to be tested differently. ... This is certainly a different type of prep."
Army West Point at Wisconsin
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 16 at 8 p.m. ET
TV: Big Ten Network
Spread: Wisconsin -14
When Army West Point Has the Ball
Army is a team that will beat you by running the ball. Repeatedly. Case in point — Army has attempted 33 total passes in five games this season with 16 completions, four touchdowns, and two interceptions. Christian Anderson is Army's quarterback, but Anderson also is the team's leading rusher with 431 yards.
The option attack the Black Knights use will force any opposing defense to focus on their respective assignments, as Anderson will run the ball himself or pitch it to an eligible teammate. Army is averaging 318 rushing yards per game. For a Wisconsin defense that is only giving up 54 yards per game on the ground, it will bear watching to see if Chryst's summer preparations will pay off.
When Wisconsin Has the Ball
The Badgers seemed to return to their traditional style of play last week versus Illinois, rushing for 391 yards. Chez Mellusi has emerged as Wisconsin's lead back as he went for 154 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries in the win over the Fighting Illini.
Quarterback Graham Mertz has had a consistently inconsistent 2021 campaign, as evidenced by the two touchdown passes compared to seven interceptions. Among Mertz's favorite targets are wide receivers Kendric Pryor (16 rec., TD), Danny Davis III (16 rec.), and tight end Jake Ferguson (16). Look for Wisconsin to establish the running game, which may allow Mertz to be successful with play-action passing.
Army's defense is once among the nation's stingiest units, ranking 10th in yards allowed per game (276). The Black Knights are third against the run (54 ypg), but some of this can be attributed to the competition. Of Army's five opponents, only Georgia State (31st) ranks higher than 89th nationally in rushing offense. Three of the Black Knights' foes (UConn, Ball State, WKU) rank 104th or worse when it comes to running the ball. Even though the Badgers aren't churning out the yards on the ground like they typically do (208.8 ypg), they are 28th in the country, so this will still be the toughest test Army's defense has faced this season.
So far in 2021, Wisconsin's season has not gone as expected. At 2-3 overall and 1-2 in Big Ten play, the Badgers will need to start racking up the victories if they have any hope of catching Iowa for the West Division title. Playing Army midseason is unorthodox, but a home win over the scrappy Black Knights could provide some momentum as Wisconsin prepares to tackle the remainder of its conference slate.
Prediction: Wisconsin 31, Army West Point 17
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— Written by Chip Minnich, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He also is podcasting for Buckeye Scoop. Follow him on Twitter @ChipMinnich.