Pinch yourself, it’s finally here.
Friday, the Wisconsin football team will take to the field for the first time since their heartbreaking New Year’s Day defeat in the Rose Bowl as they open up the season against Illinois at Camp Randall.
The Badgers enter the 2020 season with a bit of uncertainty. Wisconsin will look to replace current Colts running back and two-time Doak Walker Award-winner Jonathan Taylor on offense. In three years at Wisconsin, Taylor rushed for the record books, accumulating 6,174 rushing yards and 50 touchdowns. It will be no small task to replace his production.
On defense, Wisconsin will miss two veteran linebackers who terrorized opposing quarterbacks. In 2019, linebackers Zack Baun and Chris Orr combined for 24 sacks, leading a defense that only gave up 16.1 points per game last season. With Baun and Orr gone to the NFL, Wisconsin will rely on junior linebacker Jack Sanborn to anchor the defense.
The preseason All-Big Ten nominee turned some heads last season, recording 50 solo tackles and 5.5 sacks.
Perhaps the headline of Friday’s game is the highly-anticipated debut of redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz. The talented youngster was thrown into the starting role after a foot injury sidelined senior quarterback Jack Coan indefinitely. While Mertz has a lot of arm talent, it’ll be interesting to see how he handles the pressure of facing a Big Ten defense in his first start.
On the flip side, the Illini will look to build off a successful 2019 campaign. In 2019, they won six games — their highest win total since the 2014 season. One of those wins was a shocking Oct. 19 upset win against the then-ranked No. 6 Badgers.
To avoid a loss for the second consecutive season against Illinois, the Badgers will have to slow down an experienced offense led by quarterback Brandon Peters.
In 2019, Peters provided stability at the quarterback position, starting 11 games and throwing for 18 touchdowns to only eight interceptions. Peters and the passing game are complemented by running back Mike Epstein.
When healthy, Epstein has been effective, rushing for over 5.5 yards per carry in all three of his seasons. The problem is that Epstein has been plagued by the injury bug and has suffered a season-ending injury in all three of his seasons in Champaign. Coupled with Peters’ proficient passing, Epstein and the rest of the running game could make for a balanced offensive attack in 2020.
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Though this has been an unconventional season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Wisconsin game day is finally approaching. With a handful of new faces, Wisconsin looks to fend off the feisty Illini. Kickoff is set for 7:00 p.m.