In mid-November, both Wake Forest and Wisconsinhad lofty bowl expectations. The Demon Deacons were 4-2 and had won four straight games. Midway through the third quarter of their game against North Carolina on Nov. 14, Wake held a 21-point lead. But at that point, things fell apart. The Tar Heels came back and won, then a couple of games in future weeks were lost due to COVID-19 issues, and four weeks after the Carolina loss, Dave Clawson's unit fell to Louisville.
On that same Nov. 14, Wisconsin established itself as the Big Ten team most likely to challenge Ohio State. The Badgers had squashed Illinois in their season opener and after their own COVID-19 outbreak, destroyed Michigan to improve to 2-0. But three straight losses followed and Wisconsin fell out of the Big Ten West race. The skids by both Wake Forest and Wisconsin set up this Duke's Mayo Bowl matchup.
Wisconsin has played football since 1892 and Wake Forest since 1888, but this will be the first time the two programs have ever met.
Duke's Mayo Bowl: Wake Forest (4-4) vs. Wisconsin (3-3)
Kickoff: Wednesday, Dec. 30 at 12 p.m. ET
Where: Bank of America Stadium (Charlotte, N.C.)
Spread: Wisconsin -7
When Wake Forest Has the Ball
For much of the season, the Demon Deacons had a two-headed monster at running back. The combination of Kenneth Walker III and Christian Beal-Smith had combined for more than 1,200 yards and 17 rushing touchdowns. But 13 of those scores came from Walker, who decided to opt out before the final regular-season game against Louisville. That leaves the running up to Beal-Smith, who had a solid season before being held in check by the Cardinals. Freshman Justice Ellison was RB2 in the Louisville game and will be on Wednesday as well.
The biggest surprise in the final regular-season game was how the Cardinals disrupted Wake quarterback Sam Hartman. After an efficient 2020 campaign that included no interceptions in the first seven games, Hartman completed only 41.5 percent of his passes versus Louisville and he threw his first interception. Per usual, his primary option was Jaquarii Roberson, who caught nine balls for 138 yards and a touchdown. Second-leading receiver Donavon Green missed the Louisville game with an injury but is expected to be ready for the bowl game.
Wisconsin's struggles this fall were not the result of the team's defense. Coordinator Jim Leonhard's crew finished atop the Big Ten in both rushing and passing defense after the regular season while giving up just 15.7 points per game. Iowa posted 338 yards of total offense in their 28-7 victory over the Badgers, which is the most the Badgers have given up to this point. Corner Rachad Wildgoose has opted out of the bowl game, but he only played two games this year and was battling a shoulder problem, so his departure should not be a major issue. The unit is led by Leo Chenal and Jack Sanborn, two linebackers that each have been credited with 41 tackles through six games.
When Wisconsin Has the Ball
If Wisconsin had the Big Ten's best defense and still finished 3-3, you know there were problems on offense. The Badgers scored 45 points in their opener against Illinois and followed that up with 49 versus Michigan, but managed a total of 40 points in their four other games. Quarterback Graham Mertz started off red hot with seven touchdowns and no interceptions in the first two games but the redshirt freshman has struggled mightily (TD, 5 INTs) since.
Needless to say, it's not all Mertz's fault. For the first time in what seems like forever, there is no bell-cow running back in Madison. Jalen Berger leads the team with 267 rushing yards and though he is averaging 5.9 yards per carry, he has just one touchdown. Also, there aren't many dangerous threats out wide. Jake Ferguson and Jack Dunn caught 29 and 22 passes respectively, but neither averaged more than 9.4 yards per catch. Wisconsin has long been known for its dominant offensive line and while this is a fairly veteran unit, it is a group that still has something to prove.
The good news for the Badgers' front is that they won't have to deal with defensive end Carlos "Boogie" Basham Jr., as the Wake star has decided to skip the bowl game to prepare for the NFL draft. So the two players to watch on the Demon Deacons' defense are senior linebacker Ja'Cquez Williams and freshman safety Nick Anderson. Williams leads the team in tackles while Anderson is second in that department and had three interceptions (all in one game). Overall, this was a unit that finished the regular season ranked 13th in the ACC in total defense and had difficulties stopping both the run and the pass at times.
This is a game where both teams will be looking to build something for 2021. That is especially true for Wisconsin, who has four starting offensive linemen with remaining eligibility and would love to get back to being a dominant running team. Despite being hampered by an undisclosed injury, the freshman Jalen Berger is the future at running back, so expect to see him get a lot of carries while quarterback Graham Mertz, who is returning after getting banged up in the season finale against Minnesota, will look to pick his spots to throw. The Wake Forest offense will want to be balanced, which is the only way to successfully attack the Badgers' D. But it won't be enough. Wisconsin's defense will dominate once again and their offense will get back to their smash-mouth ways. For the sixth time in seven years, the Badgers will emerge victorious in a bowl game.
Prediction: Wisconsin 24, Wake Forest 13
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— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.