The University of Wisconsin cornerback room got a bit thinner Thursday when junior Donte Burton announced his decision to enter the transfer portal.
Burton is the first member of the Badgers’ defense to leave early for the portal, joining running back Antwan Roberts, wide receiver Devin Chandler, center Kayden Lyles and fullback Quan Easterling. Running backs Loyal Crawford and Jalen Berger were dismissed from the team earlier this season and also are in the portal.
Burton, a Loganville, Georgia, product, played in four games this season and 27 total over his career at UW, including five starts. His playing time this season has been reduced, with Pro Football Focus crediting him with 32 defensive snaps and none since the Illinois game Oct. 9.
He will be a graduate transfer at his new program. He finished his UW career with 26 tackles, an interception and five pass breakups. His lone career pick came this season against Eastern Michigan.
Iowa at Wisconsin football: 3 keys to victory, why the Badgers safeties are crucial and predictions
WHO HAS THE EDGE
When the Badgers have the ball
The Badgers offense has found a formula that works well over the past few weeks, riding the run game and a less-turnover-prone quarterback in Graham Mertz to four consecutive wins. Mertz was particularly effective early in the game against Iowa, using quick passes and good decision-making to help move the Badgers on a pair of scoring drives in the game’s first 18 minutes.
Mertz may need to complete a few early passes to open up things for the rushing attack.
UW freshman tailback Braelon Allen has tallied more than 100 yards in each of the past four games, and he’d become the first UW freshman to do so in five consecutive games since Anthony Davis in 2001 if he reaches that mark against Rutgers.
Rutgers’ four-man front has been susceptible to the run against the better offensive lines it has faced, allowing more than 200 yards on the ground against Ohio State and Michigan. The Badgers haven’t allowed a sack since right tackle Logan Bruss returned to the lineup against Purdue.
Senior receiver Danny Davis had six catches for 60 yards and a touchdown in the 2018 meeting, the last time these teams played. Senior tight end Jake Ferguson had two catches for 33 yards and senior receiver Kendric Pryor had a 20-yard rush.
When Rutgers has the ball
The Scarlet Knights’ midseason gauntlet of playing top-20 foes took its toll on the offense. Rutgers scored exactly 13 points in losses to Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State. The following week it scored seven at Northwestern before bouncing back a bit in a 20-14 win over Illinois a week ago.
Quarterback Noah Vedral is the engine behind the Rutgers running and passing game. Tailback Isaih Pacheco leads Rutgers with 420 yards rushing on 116 carries, but it’s the option fakes and 1-2 punch of he and Vedral that keep defenses on their toes.
Vedral does a good job spreading around the ball to his receivers, with five players having 12 or more catches. Bo Melton leads the team with 412 yards receiving, 37 catches and three touchdowns. Junior Aron Cruickshank, who transferred from UW after the 2019 season, is a big-play threat any time he gets the ball, and he has the team’s longest reception of 75 yards this season. But he’s been sidelined by a shoulder injury for the past two weeks and is questionable for Saturday’s game.
Rutgers struggles on third down, with a 35.2% conversion rate, and is facing a UW defense that leads the Big Ten in stopping third downs. The Badgers allow 25.5% of third downs to be converted.
UW had to adjust its coverage after Iowa hit a 44-yard kick return on the opening play last week. The Badgers allowed an average return of 18 yards the rest of the game. Freshman safety Hunter Wohler also stopped Iowa’s attempt to throw a lateral on a late kickoff.
Rutgers has one of the best return specialists in the country in Cruickshank, but the Scarlet Knights have missed the spark he provides while he’s been out of the lineup.
With two made field goals against Iowa, UW senior kicker Collin Larsh is now 7 of 7 in his last five games.
UW never has lost to Rutgers — the teams have met just three times, but the Badgers have won those games by an average score of 38.6-9.
Early leads have been a boon for the Badgers this season, as they’re 4-1 when scoring first.
UW tailback Chez Mellusi is on pace to rush for 1,110 yards this season. Should he get to that mark, he would be the 19th player in program history to eclipse 1,000 yards rushing in a season.
The under has hit in three of the past four UW games and the past three Rutgers contests.
THREE KEYS FOR THE BADGERS
1. Keep attacking left: The rushing attack has found a great deal of success, especially when running to the left side during the Badgers’ four-game win streak. UW is averaging 22.5 attempts, 129.3 yards rushing and 1.5 touchdowns per game running to the left in those four games, per Pro Football Focus.
Running to the left allows left tackle Tyler Beach do what he’s best at, which is going forward in run blocking; same goes for left guards Josh Seltzner and Michael Furtney. It also allows right guard Jack Nelson — one of the most athletic linemen on the team — to be a force as a puller toward that side.
2. Get Pryor involved: Senior wide receiver Kendric Pryor was targeted once last week against Iowa, a pass that was broken up. Pryor was wide open on a shallow slant on the first third down of the game, which the Badgers converted with a pass to Danny Davis, but Pryor may have had a touchdown down the UW sideline if the ball found him.
Pryor only has been targeted four times since the Illinois game, but he is second on the team with 225 yards receiving.
3. Make Vedral a passer: UW’s nation-leading run defense (49.6 yards per game) will be tested a bit differently this week by Rutgers quarterback Noah Vedral. Rutgers will use Vedral on designed runs — QB draws, powers and the like — to change the math in the box and give itself an advantage.
However, the Scarlet Knights have shown they’ll go away from the tactic if the Badgers shut down those chances early. Vedral is in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten in terms of completion percentage and yards per game, so making him one-dimensional would help the Badgers defense have a good day.
THREE KEYS FOR THE SCARLET KNIGHTS
1. Attack deep: There aren’t many holes in the Badgers’ front seven for opponents to attack, and teams’ quickness to abandon the run helps UW post stellar numbers against the run.
Rutgers QB Noah Vedral and the offense should take as many deep shots as the offensive line allows. It’s a high-risk, high-reward strategy and won’t be very efficient in terms of getting first downs or sustaining drives. But Rutgers’ normal offense isn’t either — Rutgers ranks 10th in the Big Ten and tied for 95th in the FBS in first downs per game (19.5), and its 34.7% conversion rate on third down is 13th in the conference.
2. Stay aggressive with the blitz: Rutgers is blitzing opponents’ drop backs at a 33.8% rate this season, but coach Greg Schiano’s aggressiveness hasn’t paid off as much as one might think — the Scarlet Knights have just 15 sacks this season despite blitzing on 242 opponent drop backs, a sack rate of 6.2%.
Still, getting pressure is the most effective way to make UW quarterback Graham Mertz ineffective. He averages 2.7 yards per attempt under pressure, according to Pro Football Focus.
3. End with a kick: The Badgers’ defense has taken away the ball eight times in the past two games after forcing four turnovers in the first six games of the season.
Rutgers has done well in protecting the ball this season, coming into the game with just six turnovers (three fumbles, three interceptions). Badgers defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard will continue pushing his players to be assertive in going after the ball, so Rutgers’ only chance this game is to avoid turnovers and make the Badgers’ offense earn every point it scores.
Series: UW leads 3-02
First meeting: UW won 37-0 in 2014
Last meeting: UW won 31-17 in 2018
UW’s longest winning streak: Three games (2014 to current)
This could be a trap game for the Badgers on the road. But UW has done well keeping its focus on the team in front of it this season and won’t take Rutgers lightly. Expect the Badgers to keep to their successful script of the past month — dominant defense, using its size and strength and the run game, while avoiding the crucial mistake offensively.
Badgers 28, Rutgers 7
The fan’s pick
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— Badger Beat (@BadgerBeat) November 3, 2021
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This article originally ran on madison.com.
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