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University of Wisconsin football players speak to the media Saturday, Nov. 13, 2021, after the 20th-ranked Badgers defeated the Northwestern Wildcats 35-7 at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison.

For a team left for dead a month into the season, the University of Wisconsin football team is playing some pretty lively ball over the past six weeks.

The Badgers’ six-game win streak has them in the driver’s seat in the Big Ten Conference’s West Division, sitting atop their side of the league alongside Iowa, whom they own a head-to-head tiebreaker against.

Saturday’s 35-7 win over Northwestern showed a few areas where the Badgers have gotten better as the season has played out and a few tweaks that the team has made to get where it is now.

Here are four observations after rewatching the Badgers’ victory over Northwestern.

1. What was that first defensive drive?

It didn’t result in points for the Wildcats, but the first drive of the game served as a wake-up call for the Badgers defense. Northwestern drove 81 yards before senior cornerback Caesar Williams came up with an interception in the end zone to halt the series.

This was the worst drive the UW defensive line has put on tape all season. There was little to no penetration on 12 of the 19 plays Northwestern ran, and Badgers defensive linemen were catching blocks and coming off the ball slow. Junior nose tackle Keeanu Benton, who’s been a stud for much of the season, was getting blown off the ball early in the drive.

UW was able to use its base 3-4 defense for a majority of the drive while Northwestern had two tight ends on the field, so being pushed around up front was inexcusable. Credit is due to the Wildcats’ offensive line, which didn’t allow slants from the UW defensive front to create lanes for blitzing linebackers. Benton and rest of the defensive front finally got things sorted out late in the drive and penetration by Benton forced a roll out to set up a fourth down.

The Badgers’ front was strong the rest of the game, but the opening series was so uncharacteristic for a defense that has earned a reputation for fast starts.

2. Mertz showed impressive ball placement

I wrote Saturday about the improvement of Badgers quarterback Graham Mertz and the passing game overall the past month, but Mertz’s ball-placement was particularly good against Northwestern.

There were plenty of examples of Mertz’s throw hitting his receivers in the chest and making it an easy catch — Brady Schipper’s 24-yard catch in the second quarter and a pair of dig routes in the first half jumped out. But his accuracy on two throws to tight end Jake Ferguson truly showed the step forward Mertz has taken this year.

On a third-and-9 in the second quarter, Mertz put his throw out in front of Ferguson in a manner that allowed only Ferguson to have a chance to catch it. Northwestern safety Coco Azema was in trail position on Ferguson and had tight coverage, but he had no chance to disrupt the perfectly-placed pass.

Mertz’s throw to Ferguson in the third quarter resulted in a touchdown, but Ferguson wasn’t even looking when the ball was thrown. Mertz saw the blitz coming from his left and got rid of the ball in time for Ferguson to run his route, turn toward the ball with it already coming toward his chest and finish the play.

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We can dissect the interception he had before the end of the first half as well, but it was really the one ball he didn’t show proper touch on all game.

3. Nelson in the box

Badgers defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard was aggressive in bringing safety Scott Nelson into the box and playing essentially an extra linebacker role for much of the first three quarters. PFF counted 15 of Nelson’s 35 snaps as lined up in the box or on the defensive line.

He had a quick tackle on a dump-off pass on Northwestern’s first possession, then had a good string of plays near the line of scrimmage in the second half. He broke up a pass with a quick rush on Marty and then was credited with half a tackle-for-loss when he assisted defensive lineman Matt Henningsen in bringing down tailback Evan Hull behind the line.

His hybrid linebacker role saw him line up on the outside of the defensive line, standing next to an outside linebacker, seven times.

Nelson has been beat deep a few times this season, but he’s a willing tackler and has a good first step when he’s reading and reacting to plays. Expect to see Nelson continuing to play in the box while John Torchio fills in more often on obvious passing downs after he tallied an interception and a tackle for loss after blowing up a screen pass.

4. Leo Chenal’s only weakness

Admittedly, it’s an exercise in high-level nit-picking to examine flaws in the performance of UW linebacker Leo Chenal, especially after he notched 14 tackles, including three for loss.

But one play showed the lone weakness present in Chenal’s game at the moment and the freakish athleticism that he uses to make up for it.

UW sent a blitz on a second-and-10 in the second quarter, but Northwestern quarterback Andrew Marty was able to get the ball out before the rush got to him and the pass to Malik Washington gained 24 yards. Chenal was the linebacker responsible for carrying Washington deeper into the middle of the field, forcing Marty to hold the ball a bit longer, which possibly could’ve resulted in a sack.

Washington was lined up in the slot to Chenal’s right, and Chenal got a little flat-footed off the snap. Instead of immediately turning to run with Washington on his crossing route, Chenal reached his hand out and tried to get in Washington’s way. Washington swatted Chenal’s hand away and sprinted by him for the catch. Chenal was able to chase him down despite being at a stand-still and Washington already running.

Badgers fans are worried about losing Chenal to the NFL next season, but if he does stay, improving his technique and awareness in pass coverage would be a reason. He’s not asked to cover in space often at UW, but he would be at the pro level if he’s going to play inside linebacker.

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