An already difficult task got a little bit tougher for Notre Dame this morning.
According to multiple reports, the No. 12 Irish will have to try to slow down the potent Wisconsin rushing attack without starting nose tackle Kurt Hinish, a key cog in the Notre Dame run defense that stifled Purdue last week. Hinish is reportedly out with an injury he sustained in practice this week after earning the Game Ball against Purdue. Irish linebacker Drew White said Tuesday that the Badgers will try to run the ball down Notre Dame’s throat and that will be even more true in Hinish’s absence.
Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz remains unproven — he has not yet thrown a touchdown pass this season – and is somewhat turnover-prone, but he might not have to do much today. It's likely that the Badger offense will consist almost entirely of runs and play-action passes until the Irish prove their defense can get off the field. Every time the Badgers don't try to throw down the field is a play that Kyle Hamilton can't make a game-turning interception.
With Notre Dame's defense likely to be put under significant strain, the Irish offense will have to do more than just hit the occasional big plays that have sustained it so far this season. Notre Dame would prefer to keep Wisconsin's offense off the field with some longer, clock-eating drives, but that likely means being able to run the ball, which has been a chore for the Irish so far this season. They're picking up just 2.8 yards per carry (3.7 without counting sacks) and Wisconsin is giving up only 1.9 yards per rush. Unlike the Blue and Gold, the Badgers do have their top run-stuffer available in 320-pound Keeanu Benton. All-American center Jarrett Patterson will have his hands full with Benton and the Irish ground attack could hinge on whether Patterson is able to win those battles more often than not.
Notre Dame got its running game going against Toledo in Week 2 with a healthy dose of quarterback Tyler Buchner, who brings more of a ground dimension to the position than starter Jack Coan, a Wisconsin transfer, does. Buchner did not play much against Purdue because of a tight hamstring, but the Irish expect him to be available today. How much he plays and how effective he is against a better defense that also has some tape on him – his snaps against the Rockets were the first in his college career – remains to be seen.
Although Notre Dame will likely need more than big plays to win this one, some chunk yardage would help. The Badgers proved vulnerable to such plays against Penn State in Week 1 as wide receiver Jahan Dotson burned them for two gains of more than 40 yards. The Irish will look to receivers Kevin Austin Jr., Braden Lenzy and Avery Davis to get open down the field. They missed a couple of opportunities for big plays against Purdue (Lenzy dropped one in the end zone and Coan overthrew a wide-open Austin), but also hit a 62-yard deep post to Davis for a touchdown. Those are the type of plays that could force Wisconsin to go to the air on offense, the situation where it is most vulnerable.
The Irish have spent the first three games of the season winning against less-than-stellar competition. That has helped them identify their weak points and they seemed on the road to fixing them against Purdue. But they'll have to be much further along that road this week when they face far better competition than anything they've seen so far. We still don't really know how good either of these teams is or can be, but we'll find out plenty this afternoon.