The Wisconsin Badgers are eager to put the inconsistent first-half results of the 2021 college football season behind them and try to get back into contention for the Big Ten's West Division. Standing in their way is a familiar conference foe, the Purdue Boilermakers. This will mark the first time the two teams have met since 2019, as COVID-19 forced the cancellation of their game last season.
Wisconsin (3-3, 1-2 Big Ten) defeated Army 20-14 at home last Saturday. While Badgers head coach Paul Chryst was certainly happy to see his team improve to .500, he does not want to get too far down the path of a possible division championship.
When asked on Monday about Wisconsin's chances of winning the Big Ten West, Chryst said: "That happens over the course of a season, our older guys know you've got to play out a whole season, a lot of things happen. We're at the halfway point of our season; there's a lot of football left to be played. The best way to take advantage of that is to be in the moment. ... Excited to be back in the West and take on a good Purdue team. ... I think if you're focusing on the end, you're going to miss the best part."
Purdue (4-2, 2-1) is coming off its biggest win of the 2021 season, a dominant 24-7 road victory over previously undefeated Iowa. The Boilermakers were rewarded with their first AP Top 25 ranking since 2007, snapping the longest drought among Power 5 programs in the process. More importantly, Purdue is currently better positioned than Wisconsin in the division standings.
Even with the big win at Iowa, Boilermakers head coach Jeff Brohm is taking nothing for granted with the Badgers coming into Ross-Ade Stadium for a pivotal game for both teams.
"We're getting ready to face a team that we haven't beat here at Purdue in a long time," Brohm said at a press conference. "I know they have a couple losses, but all their losses are to top-10 or top-12 teams in the country. They're very talented. They're big and strong. They play great defense. They always have. They run the football. They're physical. They're big up front. They control the ball and limit possessions. They're a really good football team. So it's a tough match-up for us. ... We have a lot of work to do this week, and we're looking forward to figuring out ways to get better and trying to come up with a win on Saturday. ... We understand that it's a tough challenge for us, and we're facing a really good football team that we have to find a way to beat."
Wisconsin at No. 25 Purdue
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 23 at 3 p.m. ET
TV: Big Ten Network
Spread: Wisconsin -3
When Wisconsin Has the Ball
The Badgers have traditionally been able to run the ball, wearing down opponents. This season, they are generating 207 rushing yards per game (4th in the Big Ten) and facing a Purdue run defense that is giving up 115 yards on the ground per contest (5th). Wisconsin running back Braelon Allen came up big last week with 108 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries, earning him Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors.
Two key players on this side of the equation are Badgers quarterback Graham Mertz and Boilermakers defensive end George Karlaftis. Mertz has struggled as a passer with two touchdowns versus seven interceptions this season. In the 20-14 win over Army, Mertz completed only eight of 15 passes for 112 yards. Mertz continues to rely on tight end Jake Ferguson, who led the team with four receptions for 58 yards.
Karlaftis is coming off a strong performance against Iowa, in which he collected a sack and was credited with three quarterback hurries. If Karlaftis is able to effectively harass Mertz, as he did Iowa's Spencer Petras, it could make for a challenging afternoon for Wisconsin's offense, which enters this game second to last in the conference in scoring (19.7 ppg).
When Purdue Has the Ball
Purdue ranks 10th nationally with 334.2 passing yards per game but that's because the Boilermakers have been dreadful running the ball. They are 124th out of 130 FBS teams with 88.3 rushing yards per game.
Three quarterbacks — Aidan O'Connell, Jack Plummer and Austin Burton — played in the win over Iowa wtih O'Connell (30-of-40, 375 yds., 2 TDs) leading the way.
But the big weapon against the Hawkeyes was wide receiver David Bell, who posted 240 yards and a touchdown on 11 catches (21.8 ypr). Bell will no doubt be the focus of Wisconsin's defensive game plan.
The one constant throughout this season for the Badgers has been their defense. They are in the top 10 nationally in total, rushing, and passing defense. They are second in yards allowed per game (225.8) with only 162 of that coming through the air. A key defender to watch is linebacker Leo Chenal, who racked 17 up tackles (2.5 for a loss) and a sack in the win over Army.
Purdue is coming off a huge road win and has a ripe opportunity to put itself squarely into the conversation for a division title with a win over Wisconsin. The Badgers are still trying to determine what they do best offensively and could be headed into a buzzsaw environment at Ross-Ade Stadium.
Prediction: Purdue 24, Wisconsin 17
Podcast: Previewing Week 8 + CFB Expansion + Washington State Coaching Search
— Written by Chip Minnich, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He also is podcasting for Buckeye Scoop. Follow him on Twitter @ChipMinnich.