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Notre Dame Football

Scouting Report | Wisconsin

September 22, 2021
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Wisconsin should be 2-0. They pretty much gave away the Penn State game with mistakes on offense and defense. The best of what they showed in that game was more than good enough to win. The worst was ugly.

Notre Dame should expect their best this week. Coming off an open week, they should have a lot of things fixed and ready to go for the Irish. Paul Chryst has consistently put a good football team on the field since he returned to Wisconsin after a brief stint as Pitt’s head coach.

This is set up to to be one of this best teams and they’re a favorite to win the Big Ten West with so many quality players returning from last season.

Currently ranked 9th in F+, they’re a little bit like the Irish where we don’t know how good they are yet, but they certainly have the talent to be very good. Notre Dame is jumping up a level going against them this week.

Injuries

Starters CB Faion Hicks and S Collin Wilder missed the Eastern Michigan game with injuries. As of today, their status is unknown for Notre Dame.

Their number two TE, Jack Eschenbach, is also questionable for this game.

Offense

Ranked 34th in F+, but only 96th in yards per play, with only two games before this it’s tough to gauge how good they are on this side of the ball with only two games under their belt.

Chryst is back calling the plays this season and it didn’t go so well against a very strong Penn State defense. It was almost too easy against Eastern Michigan.

They currently lead the nation in time of possession per game.

Expected strengths

They are extremely physical up front and they know their identity. They are a heavy football team that is trying to run the ball down the throat of their opponent.

The offensive line gets after it. They’re well coached and the tight ends are all solid blockers as well. The combination of them to go with three talented backs is what makes them go.

Clemson transfer Chez Mellusi has emerged as the lead back and he’s proven to be much more than the speed guy he was coming out of high school. He’s run downhill and been decisive through the first two games with 51 carries.

RB Isaac Guerendo isn’t a make-you-miss type, but the can hit the hole and break a long one if he gets a crease. Jalen Berger is the third back and he’s a talented option as well.

No one would accuse their passing game of being dynamic, but TE Jake Ferguson is one of the top players at his position in the country. He has big time ball skills and is a go-to player for them.

WR Danny Davis hasn’t had a big play yet in 2021, but he has the speed to threaten vertically. He’s very consistent with his hands and as a route runner.

Potential Weaknesses

Normally they’re pretty solid in protection, but LT Tyler Beach gave up seven pressures against Penn State. He struggled with their quick edge players and him matching up against Isaiah Foskey and Justin Ademilola is going to be something to watch.

Both Mellusi and Gurendo have struggled in pass protection as well so if Notre Dame can get blitzers isolated against them, there will be chances to get to the quarterback.

That brings us to the big issue with Wisconsin’s offense. QB Graham Mertz hasn’t been very good. It’s carried over from last season and since his breakout game against Illinois, he’s thrown two touchdowns to seven interceptions.

He only completes 35.7% of his throws when pressured. He’s yet to complete a deep ball this season. Overall his intermediate and deep completion percentage is 36.8%.

He can make the easy one-read throws that are set up for him, but his feet can get all over the place and force him to be high on deeper throws. Mertz will also lock in on one-read and throw to it blindly too often. There could be chances for turnovers for the Irish secondary in this game.

The key will be to get him into 3rd down passing situations.. He’s only 46.7% completions on 3rd down this year 3.1 yards per attempt. I know it’s a tiny sample size, but he was bad on 3rd down last year as well.

Wisconsin was 81st in 3rd down conversions last year and they’re 91st to start this season. They really struggled in the red zone against Penn State as well.

If Notre Dame makes them pass to beat them, Mertz hasn’t proven he can accomplish that.

Scheme

They are a heavy run team at 65.3% running ratio early this year. They are pretty consistently at 60% under Paul Chryst so that’s nothing new.

They are diverse with formations and run concepts, but the big thing (no pun intended) is when they play heavy with two tight ends or in the I-formation with a fullback. Because they do that so often, I don’t see Marcus Freeman playing much Dollar in this matchup.

They’ll try to confuse blocking assignments with pre-snap shifts and will also try to sneak in speed sweeps to catch teams who are too focused at stopping the inside run.

Despite all of the running they do, they’re not a frequent play-action team. Over the last two seasons it’s less than 20% of drop backs that are play-action passes.

Matching personnel is going to be something to watch because they will play 11 personnel as well that’s pretty standard when they are on 3rd down.

Key Players

QB Graham Mertz - Has great physical tools, but struggling to put it all together so far.

TE Jake Ferguson - He’s a player Notre Dame will bracket in the red zone. Kyle Hamilton will be matched up with him on plenty of snaps.

LT Tyler Beach - The pressures against PSU were obvious, but he’s a strong run blocker.

RB Chez Mellusi - 9 runs of 10 or more yards for him through two games.

WR Danny Davis - The “Super Senior” has been good in contested catch situations this season.

Key for Notre Dame

Early down success

It goes without saying that Notre Dame will have to get off the field on 3rd down, but the best way to set themselves up for success in that situation is to win on 1st down. If they can get the Wisconsin offense off-schedule with their running game, it changes how Chryst wants to call plays.

Defense

Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard is one of the top coordinators in college football. He was offered the same position for the Green Bay Packers this offseason and turned them down.

Wisconsin has been good on defense for years, but he has got them to a point where they are consistently elite. They currently rank 4th in F+ and they don’t have to play that many plays because their offense shortens the game for them.

Expected strengths

If you look at the tackle for loss numbers or the pass breakups, you may think it’s not a defense that creates many negative plays. You’d be wrong.

They are at 20.2% Havoc Rate. It’s all about the number of plays they are on the field for.

LB Jack Sanborn is a great player and a tremendous blitzer. He is probably the best pass rushing inside linebacker in the country. The linebacking unit as a whole is a strength of the defense.

The three man defensive line doesn’t have any game wreckers, but they are part of a consistently strong run defense. They play gap sound football and it’s very difficult to move them off the ball.

In terms of situational football, they are good year over year in the red zone and on 3rd down. They may not be loaded with elite athletes, but they have good athletes who play fast and play smart.

Potential Weaknesses

It was week one so maybe this is stretching to call it a weakness, but they gave up big plays in the air against Penn State that included a few coverage busts. If they are missing a starter or two on the back end, it’s something to watch out for.

S Scott Nelson is someone that Notre Dame can try to win against if they can get a matchup they like. He’s average in coverage.

They don’t have a dominant pass rusher and often need to blitz to generate pressure. That might be less of an issue against Notre Dame with their struggles in protection, but we’ll see if that’s the case in this game.

Scheme

They run a good amount of cover 1. They were 7th in the country according to PFF last season and I think we’ll see them run that quite a bit based on what Purdue did last week.

Leonhard, a Rex Ryan disciple, loves to blitz. He did so 44.2% of the time in 2020 and he’s very creative with his pressures. Notre Dame’s protection will have their hands full with some stuff that will be new after the open week of practice for Wisconsin.

They are a three down team in general, but will play four down with two edge/OLBs standing up a good amount as well.

Key Players

LB Jack Sanborn - Way more than a blitzer. He’s intelligent in coverage and has four career interceptions.

LB Leo Chenal - He missed the first couple of weeks because of Covid. He’s expected back for this game.

OLB Nate Herbig - A high-motor kid who will make Notre Dame’s tackles work on every rep.

NT Keeanu Benton - Two pass breakups and a consistently tough player to handle inside.

Key for Notre Dame

Generating explosive plays

I don’t think anyone can have confidence that Notre Dame is going to consistently run the ball against a run defense like Wisconsin. It’s going to be difficult to sustain long drives because of that.

That means they better supplement that with explosive plays, specifically in the passing game. They’ve produced them in each game this season and that will have to continue to be able to put points on the board against this defense.

Special Teams

K Collin Larsh is 3 of 4 on the season and his one miss was a blocked kick.

P Andy Vujnovich made Bruce Feldman’s Freaks list. He’s averaging 48.8 yards per punt this season. He will flip the field for them.

Overview

This game looks like it might set up to be similar to Wisconsin’t matchup with Penn State where both teams struggle to score. A lot of how this turns out will have to do with Notre Dame building on some things from last week and Wisconsin getting better over their open week. It should be an interesting matchup that could go either way on Saturday.

 
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