How does No. 12 Notre Dame beat No. 18 Wisconsin? By following these four keys to the game.
These keys to the game will likely decide if No. 12 Notre Dame (3-0) can beat No. 18 Wisconsin (1-1) on Saturday in Chicago's Soldier Field (12 p.m. EDT on FOX).
1. Beat the Badgers deep
Notre Dame’s offense likely won’t be able to rely on methodical drives due to the high quality of Wisconsin’s defense and the low quality of the Irish offensive line. That leaves big plays as Notre Dame’s best bet with the offense on the field.
The Irish have been able to strike with long passing plays in their first three games with seven of 30-plus yards, four of 40-plus yards and three of 50-plus yards. Penn State used passing plays of 49 and 52 yards to score and flip the field position in the second half of its 16-10 victory over Wisconsin.
Quarterbacks Jack Coan and Tyler Buchner need to threaten the Badgers in the passing game with the help of big-play receivers Kevin Austin Jr., Avery Davis and Braden Lenzy.
2. Keep Mellusi in check
Running back Chez Mellusi is the workhorse of Wisconsin’s offense. In the first two games, Mellusi rushed 51 times for 265 yards and two touchdowns. At a Wisconsin program known for running the ball, Mellusi became the first running back to record back-to-back 100-yard performances in a player's first two games with the Badgers since Corey Clement in 2013.
Yet all that yardage from Mellusi, a Clemson transfer, included only one run longer than 19 yards (a 60-yard gain against Eastern Michigan). Long runs hurt Notre Dame’s defense in the first two games of the season against Florida State and Toledo. Letting Mellusi get loose for long runs could be backbreaking for the Irish.
3. Manufacture a Mertz mistake
Graham Mertz can be friendly to opposing defenses. The Wisconsin quarterback has thrown four touchdown passes and seven interceptions in the eight games since his five-touchdown performance against Illinois to open last season.
Notre Dame’s defense can be stingy to opposing quarterbacks too. Only nine FBS teams entered the week with more than the five interceptions the Irish recorded in their first three games.
The Irish need to continue those trends Saturday. Any opportunity to end a Wisconsin offensive possession early will be critical in preventing the Badgers from controlling the game.
4. No misses from Doerer
Kicker Jonathan Doerer already played the hero role in Notre Dame’s 41-38 overtime victory at Florida State. In a Wisconsin game that figures to be short on points and won by a slim margin, Doerer might be given the opportunity to hit a game-winning field goal again.
But Doerer can’t afford to miss any field goals before the fourth quarter either. His misses from 55 yards against Toledo and 45 yards against Purdue didn’t come back to bite Notre Dame, but one miss could against Wisconsin. The Irish shouldn’t be left second-guessing a decision to send Doerer out for an attempt in the Windy City.
Follow ND Insider Tyler James on Twitter: @TJamesNDI.