Notre Dame 2021 Schedule Countdown: No. 2, Wisconsin
This is the 11th in our 12-part series where we count down Notre Dame’s 2021 strength of schedule by how we view the degree of difficulty, from 12 to one. At No. 2 is the Sept. 25 showdown with Wisconsin at Chicago’s Soldier Field.
Head Coach: Paul Chryst —75-38 (.664) overall in nine seasons as head coach.
Entering seventh season at Wisconsin, where he is 56-19 (.747).
Chryst was 19-19 in his three seasons as the head coach at Pitt (2012-14).
Recruiting Rankings 2017-21: 2017 (35th), 2018 (40th), 2019 (27th), 2020 (28th), 2021 (14th)
2020 Record: 4-3
The Badgers looked like a national title contender after their first two games. They opened the season with a 45-7 romp against Illinois in which prized quarterback recruit Graham Mertz completed 20 of 21 passes for 248 yards and five touchdowns. After two weeks of cancellations, Wisconsin then obliterated Michigan in The Big House by a 49-11 count while out-rushing the Wolverines 341-47. It marked the second straight year Wisconsin led 28-0 at halftime against Michigan (the largest at home against a UM team since 1927).
But by the first week of November, Wisconsin had to cancel a couple of games and postpone another when 30 active cases of COVID-19 infiltrated the program, including Chryst, Mertz and backup sign-caller Chase Wolf testing positive.
The defense under coordinator Jim Leonhard remained strong, but the offense plummeted into the abyss in losses to Northwestern (17-7), Indiana (14-6) and Iowa (28-7) before concluding the year with a 20-17 overtime victory versus Minnesota and a 42-28 Duke Mayo Bowl win against Wake Forest.
Did You Know …
Chryst’s 2013 Pitt team upset Notre Dame 28-21 in November. This year he will attempt to become the seventh head coach in history to defeat the Fighting Irish while at two different schools, and the fourth in the last 10 years.
The others were Howard Jones (Iowa and USC), Johnny Majors (Pitt and Tennessee), Dennis Erickson (Miami and Oregon State), Nick Saban (Michigan State and Alabama), Todd Graham (Tulsa and Arizona State) and Jim Harbaugh (Stanford and Michigan).
Current Hawaii head coach Graham almost did it at three schools. In Graham’s one year at Pitt (2011), a late Irish rally enabled them to post a 15-12 win.
2021 Capsule Summary
The Badgers return eight starters on offense and seven on defense, plus both kicking specialists.
In Leonhard’s four seasons as defensive coordinator, Wisconsin cumulatively ranks second in scoring defense (17.2), fourth in total yardage allowed (297.9), fifth against the run (112.3) and fifth in pass efficiency defense (109.0 rating). It also has forced the second-most turnovers (104) and recorded the second-most interceptions (68).
The linebacking corps ranks among the best in the country with Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal on the inside and fifth-year senior Noah Burks and Nick Herbig on the outside. Anchoring the middle is 6-4, 315-pound nose tackle Keeanu Benton, while cornerback Caesar Williams is a the top cover man. If voids at safety and tackle can be ably filled, the defense should again rank among the nation’s best.
On offense, there are grand expectations for Mertz, the nation’s No. 42 ranked overall prospect in 2019 and part of the reason why Jack Coan is now at Notre Dame after starting 18 games for the Badgers in 2018-19.
Top receivers Danny Davis III and Kendric Pryor had concussion setbacks last year, while Jake Ferguson will challenge Notre Dame’s Michael Mayer as one of the nation’s elite tight ends. Both Ferguson and Davis enter 2021 with 99 career receptions.
Still, the identity of Wisconsin has centered on the offensive line and power running. Jalen Berger demonstrated star potential as a freshman running back last year, averaging 90 yards and 6.0 yards per carry in the three Big Ten games he played.
The right side of the line also could be among the nation’s finest with tackle Tyler Beach and guard Logan Bruss, while 2020 five-star recruit Logan Brown is projected to take over at left tackle.
Why No. 2 In Countdown
In reality, there are probably three or four other faster, flashier and perhaps even more individually talented opponents on the 2021 Irish slate, but none has been as consistent a “program” as the Badgers the past three decades, thanks to former head coach and current athletics director Barry Alvarez.
In the 28 seasons since 1993, Wisconsin has finished in the AP top 10 eight times, in the top 25 nine other times, has had 19 straight winning seasons, and since 2004 has not finished out of the top 25 two straight years.
Alvarez has imbued a culture of toughness, physicality, consistency and exceptional fundamentals that has permeated the program under his watch.
Notre Dame has mirrored that the past four years, and has a stronger overall recruiting and talent base with which to work. This September showdown should provide a clear picture if the Fighting Irish will be a bona fide College Football Playoff contender after advancing there two of the past three years.
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