As they study film in preparation for their first game in nearly three weeks, the receivers on the University of Wisconsin football team are likely excited by what they see.
Michigan’s secondary is struggling mightily this season. Its pass defense is ranked 104th out of 123 teams in the FBS and it has allowed more than 300 yards through the air in each of the past two games.
Even if they’re rusty from the layoff caused by a COVID-19 outbreak within the UW program, facing the Wolverines (1-2) at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Michigan Stadium could be the kick-stat the No. 13 Badgers (1-0) need to get their season back on track.
“Looking at them the past couple weeks, knowing Michigan, you know they’re always going to have good defense. That’s kind of what they’re known for,” UW senior receiver Kendric Pryor said.
“But I feel very confident in our preparation that … (they’re) probably basing us off our first game which was two weeks ago and we’re definitely not the same team as two weeks ago. But I know they’re going to do some adjustments, too, off the past two games they had, they’re going to do some adjustments and try to give us their best shot. I know things aren’t going how they thought or how they want it to go.”
In the Badgers’ season opener, redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz tied program records with five touchdown passes and 17 consecutive completions, and set the program record with a completion percentage of 95.24% (20 of 21 passing). He — along with the Badgers’ receivers, tight ends and backs — cut through Illinois’ Cover-2 zone defense en route to a 45-7 win. Mertz, who was one of the 30 individuals in the program to test positive for COVID-19 since Oct. 21, was on track to return to physical activity and, if that goes well, practice this week.
If he’s available to play, Mertz and the UW offense will face a different challenge against Michigan. Wolverines defensive coordinator Don Brown’s man-coverage-heavy scheme often asks the cornerbacks to play press coverage on the line, initiating contact with receivers and attempting to disrupt their timing with the quarterback.
“I think coach (Alvis) Whitted has done a great job of really giving those guys confidence in releases,” UW offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said.
“I like the way he’s worked with the guys, I like their confidence when they’re faced with those situations, it seems like they have a toolbox. Kind of like what you want to give, I say it with the O-line, you’ve got a toolbox, what do you want to use in this situation? How are you going to borrow from what we’ve worked on to win? I see that in his teaching.”
The Wolverines’ man coverage has been under an aerial assault the past two weeks, allowing 323 passing yards and three touchdowns to Michigan State and 344 yards and three scores to Indiana. The Spartans’ Ricky White had eight catches for 196 yards and a touchdown against Michigan, while Indiana’s Ty Fryfogle (seven catches, 142 yards and a touchdown) and Whop Philyor (11 catches, 79 yards) found open space in the secondary often.
In MSU’s next game — last Saturday against Iowa — it threw three interceptions and scored just seven points.
Michigan's defensive backs have also given up big yards and first downs in penalties, with seven defensive pass interference or holding penalties in the past two games.
UW coach Paul Chryst said he sees the struggles the Wolverines’ have had defensively, but was quick to credit the offenses they’d faced.
“There’s a receiver from Michigan State that made some tremendous plays. Those count, but I don’t know … I like our group, but you’ve still got to go execute and do that,” Chryst said.
“You don’t see a team (in Michigan) with a ton of missed tackles, or missed-tackle opportunities. You don’t see some things where they’re always getting beat at the same thing where you say, ‘This is something that they’re just not covering or they’re vulnerable to it.’ I know where they’re at and what other teams have done against them, but it’s not one of those … where you look up and say, ‘OK, that’s going to happen, we can bank on that being part of it. That’s who they are this year.’ I think it’s a defense we’ve got a lot of respect for. We’ve played them a lot and have got a feel for it. We’ve been inconsistent against them, right? So it’s going to be a big week of preparation for our guys and then it comes down to when you play, you’ve got to execute.”
Michigan’s secondary isn’t getting help from the pass rush, either. The Wolverines haven’t tallied a sack since their opener at Minnesota, which was down multiple starting offensive linemen. That rush took another hit this week when experienced junior defensive end Aidan Hutchinson fractured a bone in his leg. He’s out indefinitely after his injury required surgery.
If the Badgers can hold off Kwity Paye — Michigan’s defensive end prospect that ranks high on NFL draft boards — there should be opportunities to attack down the field for Mertz and his receiving threats.
“People always wonder where Wisconsin receivers are, but over the past couple years, we’ve made plays in these games,” Pryor said. “As you go back to last year, you’ve got receivers and tight end making plays against tight coverage. So it’s like, people talk about how they try to get physical and play man, but I feel like we’re confident and we’re ready for this opportunity.”
Get to know the Badgers' 2021 recruiting class
Get to know the Wisconsin Badgers' 2021 football recruiting class
JP Benzschawel, an offensive lineman out of Grafton, was the first recruit in the Badgers’ 2021 class, continuing the family tradition at UW.
Benzschawel’s brothers, Beau (2015-18) and Luke (2016-19) played offensive line and tight end, respectively, for the Badgers. His father, Scott (1983-87) and uncle Eric (1988-92) also played football for UW.
Benzschawel is one of the top-ranked offensive tackles in the country. A four-star recruit on 247sports, and ESPN, and a three-star on Rivals, Benzschawel is a top-200 recruit nationally by 247sports and ESPN.
Jackson Acker, a running back from Verona, committed to the Badgers soon after receiving an offer in June 2019.
UW was Acker’s first scholarship offer after his sophomore season, but he used it as momentum for a strong junior campaign at Verona High School. He was a first-team running back on the Wisconsin State Journal’s All-Area team, rushing for 929 yards and 11 touchdowns in eight games.
Acker is a three-star recruit according to 247sports, Rivals and ESPN.
Deacon Hill, a quarterback from Santa Barbara, Calif., committed to the Badgers in July 2019.
A 6-foot-4, 225-pound, pro-style prospect, Hill was part of wave of recruiting commitments for UW. Hill turned down offers from Kansas State and Nevada in favor of the Badgers.
Hill turned heads at an Elite 11 regional camp in California with his big arm and deep throws. He is the lone quarterback thus far in the 2021 class, and the 2020 class added just one in walk-on Daniel Wright.
Hill is listed as a three-star recruit by 247sports, Rivals and ESPN.
Loyal Crawford, a running back from Eau Claire, Wis., committed to the Badgers in August 2019.
A fast, shifty and explosive back, Crawford was limited to five games as a junior due to injury. Still, he tallied 671 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns in that span. He was one of the first freshmen to suit up for a varsity game at Eau Claire Memorial High School.
Crawford — listed at 6-foot and 190 pounds — is a three-star recruit per 247sports, Rivals and ESPN.
UW’s scholarship offer the first Division I offer Crawford had received, according to multiple outlets.
Riley Mahlman, an offensive lineman from Lakeville, Minn., committed to the Badgers after watching them defeat Michigan at Camp Randall Stadium in September 2019.
Mahlman is ranked as a four-star prospect by 247sports and ESPN, and a three-star by Rivals. He’s ranked as the top recruit in the state of Minnesota by 247sports and ESPN, and the No. 2 Minnesota product by Rivals. UW beat out Ohio State, Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan State, Florida and others for Mahlman.
With Mahlman and 2020 linebacker Kaden Johnson, the Badgers secured the top-ranked recruit out of Minnesota in consecutive years.
The 6-foot-7, 265-pound tackle also played tight end for Lakeville South High School.
Bryan Sanborn, an inside linebacker from Lake Zurich, Ill., committed to UW in December 2019.
Sanborn, the younger brother of Badgers inside linebacker Jack Sanborn, is a three-star recruit according to 247sports, Rivals and ESPN.
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound prospect had a handful of Power Five offers, including Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska. Bryan’s late father, Paul, played football at Oregon.
Ayo Adebogun, a linebacker/defensive end hailing from Mequon, committed to the Badgers in December 2019.
The 6-foot-3, 205-pounder was a second-team all-state selection by the Wisconsin Associated Press as a junior, a season in which he tallied 16 sacks and 75 total tackles.
The Homestead High School product is a three-star recruit per 247sports, Rivals and ESPN.
Hunter Wohler, a safety out of Muskego, orally committed to UW just before Christmas 2019.
Rated by multiple recruiting sites as the best or second-best prospect in Wisconsin in his class, Wohler helped Muskego to an unbeaten record and a WIAA Division I state championship as a junior. Wohler had 122 total tackles and two interceptions as a junior, and he was named the state’s Associated Press' player of the year.
Wohler — listed at 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds — is rated as a four-star recruit by 247sports, Rivals, and ESPN. He’s ranked as the No. 298 overall prospect in the 2021 class by ESPN.
Jake Chaney, a linebacker out of Lehigh Acres, Fla., committed to the Badgers in March 2020.
The 6-foot, 200-pound prospect is a three-star recruit according to 247sports and Rivals.
He was the District 7A player of the year last season after recording 100 tackles as a junior. Jake Chaney’s father, James, is his coach at Lehigh Senior High School and played at Florida State from 1988-1991.
Chaney was the third linebacker and ninth overall recruit in the 2021 class.
Antwan Roberts announced in April that he’d be attending the University of Wisconsin.
The 6-foot-1, 189-pound back is a three-star recruit per Rivals and 247sports.
UW was the only Big Ten program to offer Roberts a scholarship. He was also considering offers from Cincinnati, Duke, Kentucky, Louisville, Memphis, Missouri and Vanderbilt. He also played defensive back for his high school, Pope John Paul II.
Jack Pugh, a tight end out of Hilliard, Ohio, announced his commitment to the Badgers in late May
Pugh — ranked a four-star recruit by 247Sports and ESPN, and a three-star prospect by rivals — is ranked in the top 12 of tight ends in his class. The 6-foot-5, 235-pound prospect had scholarship offers from more than 20 programs, including a majority of the Big Ten Conference schools.
Pugh has the prototypical size to play as an on-the-line tight end, but has also split out as a receiver often through his high school career. A standout basketball player, Pugh also showed explosiveness as a defensive end for Hilliard Bradley High School.
Peterson, a three-star outside linebacker/defensive end from Akron, Ohio, committed to UW on June 1, 2020.
He was one of the Badgers’ top targets on defense since the spring of 2019. He tallied 21 sacks in his junior season at Archbishop Hoban, and chose the Badgers over offers from Alabama, Michigan, West Virginia and more.
247Sports, Rivals and ESPN all rate Peterson — a 6-foot-3, 235-pounder — as a three-star prospect. He’s the first linebacker in the 2021 class.
Mike Jarvis, a 6-foot-5, 250-pound lineman out of Medford, N.J., announced his commitment to the Badgers on June 3, 2020.
A three-star prospect on 247Sports and a two-star per Rivals, Jarvis has potential to play as a defensive or offensive lineman, although he’s been primarily recruited for his ability on defense.
Jarvis picked UW over scholarship offers from Duke, Florida State, Indiana, Nebraska, Princeton, Rutgers and others.
Outside linebacker/defensive end TJ Bollers added to a hot recruiting streak for the Badgers when he committed in June 2020.
Rated a four-star recruit by 247Sports, ESPN and Rivals, Bollers held offers from the likes of Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Penn State and most of the Big Ten. He narrowed his choices to Alabama, California, Iowa State, Nebraska, Northwestern and UW before making his decision..
Bollers — listed at 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds — is ranked the 98th overall recruit in the country by Rivals, 147th by 247Sports and 200th by ESPN.
Hallman, a 6-foot cornerback out of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., tweeted his commitment to the Badgers in late June 2020.
Hallman, ranked a four-star prospect by Rivals and a three-star by 247Sports and ESPN, had offers from at least 16 Football Bowl Subdivision programs, including Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Miami, Florida and Florida State.
UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard was a key piece to Hallman choosing the Badgers. Hallman has said in multiple interviews that he and Leonhard spoke often and that Leonhard was the kind of coach he wanted to play for. Leonhard was also key in UW landing another 2021 prospect out of Florida, linebacker Jake Cheney.
Adding Hallman to the fold continues a strong South Florida connection to UW’s secondary — current Badgers’ defensive backs Faion Hicks, Semar Melvin and Rachard Wildgoose are all from that area.
Skyler Bell — a 6-foot-1, 185-pound prospect out of Watertown, Conn. — had upwards of 18 scholarship offers, including other Big Ten programs like Iowa, Rutgers, and Northwestern before deciding on UW.
Bell is the first receiver to join the class, announcing his commitment in August, but the Badgers are expecting to add more.
Bell is a three-star recruit per 247Sports, ESPN and Rivals.
UW won an intense recruiting battle for Rucci, whose older brother Hayden is a Badgers tight end. Rucci held offers from nearly every top program in the country, but had narrowed his list to Clemson, Michigan, Notre Dame, Penn State and UW before announcing in early September.
Rucci is a five-star prospect and the No. 16 overall recruit in the country per 247Sports, while Rivals tabs him No. 29 and ESPN ranks him 33rd; Rivals and ESPN list him as a four-star recruit.
The Lititz, Penn., product is listed at 6-foot-8 and 295 pounds, and his father, Todd, played at Penn State before a seven-year career in the NFL with the New England Patriots.
AL ASHFORD III
Al Ashford III was a surprise pick up for the Badgers when he committed in early September. Ashford III’s commitment came seemingly out of nowhere, as he didn’t publicly announce a scholarship offer from UW prior to choosing the school.
Ashford III is listed as a three-star recruit on both 247Sports and Rivals, and is the top-rated cornerback in Colorado per 247Sports. He’s listed at 6-foot-1 and 170 pounds.
Fond du Lac prospect Braelon Allen kicked off the Badgers' 2022 class with a bang when he committed in July 2020. But he reclassified to the 2021 class in September, giving the class its seventh four-star-or-better recruit in the 2021 class.
Allen — listed at 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds — has been recruited as a safety, the position he’s played for Fond Du Lac, but 247Sports now lists him as an inside linebacker. Per 247Sports’ composite rankings, Allen is the No. 6 inside linebacker in the 2021 class.
Wide receiver Markus Allen became the first UW recruit to make his oral commitment during the 2020 season when he announced on Nov. 6.
He's a four-star prospect per Rivals and a three-star recruit according to 247Sports and ESPN.
The 6-foot-2, 190-pound target out of Clayton, Ohio, had at least 26 Division I offers and was ranked as the No. 10 player in his state by Rivals. After he de-commitment from Michigan in September, UW and Cincinnati emerged as favorites to land Allen.
Jake Ratzlaff joined a star-studded group of defensive recruits when he committed to the Badgers in late November.
Ratzlaff is a four-star prospect per 247Sports’ composite rankings and a three-star recruit per Rivals.
Ratzlaff was committed to Minnesota to play hockey, but decided to pursue football and chose UW over offers from Minnesota, Iowa, Iowa State, Northwestern and Penn State.
NATE VAN ZELST
Nate Van Zelst joined the 2021 class the day before February's signing day.
A five-star kicker per Kohl's Kicking, the Wilmette, Illinois, product is the first specialist to join the class. Van Zelst had a long field goal of 49 yards as a junior, but wasn't able to play a senior season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
He accepted a preferred walk-on offer.
Garrison Solliday became the first post-signing day commitment for the Badgers when he announced he was joining the class on Feb. 8, 2021.
The Mendota Heights, Minnesota, product projects as a linebacker. The 6-foot, 220-pounder was an all-state football player and wrestler in Minnesota.
He accepted a walk-on offer.
Excited to announce my commitment to further my education and athletic career at the University of Wisconsin! Thank you to my coaches, family, friends and everyone who helped me get here.❤️🤍 #Badgers #wiscon21n @CoachBostadUW @tmehlhaff10 @CoachKhalif @CoachDanOB pic.twitter.com/oXpiDsnmE0— Gsolliday (@Gsolliday3) February 8, 2021
Grover Bortolotti joined the last in mid-February 2021 as a walk-on.
Bortolotti played running back and defensive back at Whitefish Bay, which went 7-0 his senior season. He's listed as an athlete by Rivals, so he could play safety or move to a different role once camp begins.
The 5-foot-10, 185-pounder had three interceptions his senior year.
Arrowhead High School product Owen Arnett joined the class in early March as a preferred walk-on.
Arnett originally committed to Virginia in November, but decided to stay closer to home and play at UW. The 6-foot, 200-pound prospect projects as a linebacker.
A second-team all-state edge player as a senior, Arnett had 67 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, five sacks and two interceptions, according to Wissports.com.