The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, September 21, 2021 1:00 am

Badgers' stout defense awaits Irish

STEVE MEGARGEE | Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. – Wisconsin ranks second in the nation in total defense. The Badgers believe they still have plenty of room to improve on that side of the ball.

That's bad news for No. 12 Notre Dame, which faces the 18th-ranked Badgers in a highly anticipated matchup Saturday at Soldier Field in Chicago. ESPN's “College Gameday” will be on hand for the clash.

Wisconsin's defense represents the toughest challenge yet for an Irish offense that has struggled at times due to an uncharacteristically ineffective line. Wisconsin has given up just 194.5 yards per game to rank behind only No. 14 Iowa State (192.7) among Football Bowl Subdivision programs.

The Irish have yielded 14 sacks through their first three games. The only FBS teams to give up more are Central Michigan and Southern Mississippi with 16 each. Notre Dame was finally able to get some clean pockets for quarterback Jack Coan on Saturday in the second half of a win over Purdue by lining up in two-tight end sets to provide extra blockers.

That leaves only two receivers on the outside, but Notre Dame pass-catchers Kevin Austin, Avery Davis, Braden Lenzy and Joe Wilkins are explosive enough that the Irish are capable of having success without all of them on the field at once.

Against the Boilermakers, Coan hit Davis on a deep post for a 62-yard touchdown in the third quarter. He later hit a wide-open Lenzy in the end zone for what should have been a 50-yard touchdown, but the receiver had the ball bounce off his hands. 

That's typical of a Notre Dame team that has compensated for its lack of a consistent rushing attack by producing big plays. The three Irish touchdowns in the 27-13 victory over the Boilers came on pass completions of 39 and 62 yards, plus a Kyren Williams 51-yard run.

That's one area where Wisconsin has been somewhat vulnerable.

The Badgers allowed Jahan Dotson to score on a 49-yard catch and set up another touchdown with a 42-yard reception in a 16-10 season-opening loss to Penn State. Wisconsin lost despite controlling possession for more than 42 minutes because Dotson had those two big catches and the Nittany Lions had a plus-3 edge in turnover margin. 

“They are similar (to Penn State) in that way,” Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said of Notre Dame. “They're going to throw the ball vertically down the field. They've been a big-play offense. That's kind of swung momentum in their last couple of games in a big way.”

Despite its big play ability, Notre Dame ranks 115th out of 130 FBS teams in yards rushing per game (105.7) and 122nd in yards per carry (2.94). Injuries have forced the Irish to start a different left tackle in each of their three games, though they're hoping No. 2 tackle Michael Carmody (ankle) returns this week.

Starter Blake Fisher remains out with a knee injury and likely won't return until deep into October. 

The Irish must play as efficiently as possible against Wisconsin, which leads the nation in average time of possession (40:57).

The Badgers are surrendering only 33 yards rushing per game, the lowest average of any FBS program. Wisconsin ranks 23rd in yards given up per play (4.37) and eighth in opponent yards per carry (1.83).

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