Collin Wilder felt the football in his stomach and simply reacted.
He thought he was going to be late to a play over the middle of the field last week at Purdue, so he shifted focus to hitting Boilermakers tight end Payne Durham hard enough to jar the ball loose after quickly admonishing his tardiness in his mind. Wilder wasn’t as late as he thought. He arrived just after the football did, and upon feeling the ball against his body, ripped it out of Durham’s hands.
Wilder didn’t seem to mind that Durham had yanked his facemask in the process of bringing down him.
“I was running to celebrate and my helmet is like halfway off my head and I had no idea why,” Wilder said with a big laugh. “All I cared about was getting the ball at the time. So I was too excited to have the ball to even notice.”
That Wilder’s focus was on the celebration with his teammates rather than what happened to him isn’t surprising. His dedication to and love for this University of Wisconsin football team is often one of the first things brought up when friends, teammates, family members and coaches speak about the sixth-year senior safety. UW took a chance on Wilder as a walk-on transfer from Houston four years ago. He took a chance moving more than a thousand miles from home in search of a college football opportunity that fit him well.
Those risks worked out for both sides — Wilder has become an indispensable leader for the Badgers (4-3, 2-2 Big Ten Conference) and he’s joined the program’s fraternity of walk-ons who eventually earn a scholarship.
Wilder will need to continue playing at a high level in Saturday’s crucial game against No. 9 Iowa (6-1, 3-1) at Camp Randall Stadium. He’ll be tasked with helping stop the run, but his most important role against the Hawkeyes arguably will be covering tight end Sam LaPorta, their leading receiver.
Wilder is known for being a sparkplug on the defense. He’s the one in the center of the mass of Badgers players before games, giving the last word before they take the field. He does the same at the end of practices, setting the tone for their off-field work once the players leave practice. His clothing line — a name, image and likeness deal with a company called PWRFWD — features a cartoon version of Wilder sipping on a cup labeled “juice” with his No. 18 on the character’s foot.
Bringing the juice, as Wilder calls it, is just part of his job.
“He’s truly all-in for this group,” UW coach Paul Chryst said. “Takes the time and gets to know individuals. It’s not for show. It’s genuine. Has always brought great energy and he loves playing the game. It’s been great having him.”
Keeping it real
Wilder entered the media room at Soldier Field in Chicago with some fire. It wasn’t just that the Badgers lost to Notre Dame on Sept. 25 that had him running hot, it was the way they finished that bothered him most. UW allowed 31 points in the fourth quarter in a game that went sideways.
His message to his teammates through reporters that day was simple — everyone was to blame and that loss wasn’t acceptable.
It was a side of Wilder that’s usually reserved for teammates behind closed doors. He’s become a player comfortable enough in his own skin that he can dole out tough love when it’s needed.
“He’s going to keep it real,” junior defensive lineman Keeanu Benton said about Wilder. “He’s not someone who’s trying to fit in. He’s going to be himself regardless. And that’s what I like about him. A lot of people try to get out of their comfort zone to try to become a leader, but he’s naturally doing it.”
Wilder’s fiery words didn’t immediately fix things. The Badgers dropped another lopsided game the next week at home against Michigan. But UW has won three consecutive games and put itself right back into the Big Ten Conference West Division race since losing to Michigan on Oct. 2. Wilder has had 10 tackles, including half a tackle for loss, an interception and the aforementioned forced fumble and recovery in that span.
Teammates have leaned on Wilder as a leader since last season, and their trust in him is what matters most.
“As long as those guys believe in me, that’s all I care about,” he said. “For them to want to believe in me and want to follow me in certain ways, it means the world. That’s really all I’ve ever wanted here was to earn that type of respect.”
Wilder’s father, Craig, said he knows how much his son cares about earning teammates’ esteem and being someone they consider a leader.
“There’s a genuineness, a transparency to him that makes him real to people,” Craig said. “And I think that passion, that transparency attracts people to him, to want to jump in on his leadership.”
With a bachelor’s degree in communications in hand and a master’s in educational leadership and policy analysis in the works, Wilder has become a poised, confident speaker in multiple settings. He joked that he’s a bad salesman because he struggles with being inauthentic.
Wilder takes many cues on and off the field from his position coach, UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard.
Leonhard’s influence was a significant factor in Wilder choosing the Badgers when he transferred, and they share the bond of being walk-ons who earned a scholarship. Leonhard and Chryst emphasize players taking ownership of the team, something they’ve seen Wilder do.
“I think he’s so consistent in his approach that immediately teammates respect that,” Leonhard said. “He cares, he’s always going to be vocal, he’s always going to go grab a young guy that’s struggling or he’s always going to just try to provide some motivation for somebody.
“You love the way he plays because guys feed off of that energy and you know he’s a guy that every week, or every couple of weeks, he’s going to make a hit and you just see how the team responds to it. It’s fun to watch him play.”
A softer side
While Wilder’s fire is on display on the football field, his calm nature is readily visible away from football.
Multiple teammates spoke about Wilder’s attention to and involvement in their lives outside of the game.
“That just builds chemistry,” Benton said. “Knowing that you’re not just friends with this guy because you play the same sport, you develop that personal bond. I feel like that’s important with our team because I feel like Wisconsin is a family-oriented place. And I feel like he fits perfectly.”
Wilder’s maturity is clear when speaking to him on a variety of subjects, but it was most evident last season when he spoke about honoring his friend and former Houston teammate Ka’Darian Smith. Smith was killed in a November 2020 shooting, and Wilder told reporters on a Zoom teleconference days later he was doing all he could to make his friend proud.
The experiences of his life have shown Wilder the importance of holding his friends and teammates close.
“I love making relationships with guys and knowing that I’m going to see these guys every day,” he said. “How can you not want to get to know them and not want to know who they are and what their why is and why they’re here and why they choose to play football? Why they choose to come in this building every day?”
Fellow senior safety Scott Nelson is one of Wilder’s close friends and they’ve lived together over the past two years. He texted with Wilder for most of the bus ride back from Chicago after Wilder’s impassioned words. Nelson says he feels like he often knows what Wilder’s thinking.
Being as close as he is with Wilder, Nelson also knows the idiosyncrasies that most others don’t, like Wilder’s love of naps or readiness to bust a move.
“Collin loves to dance,” Nelson said. “He’s a big dancer. You just put a little music on, put a little Chris Brown on, and he’s a big dancer.
“Anytime we’re around each other, and there’s usually a lot of other guys around, and the conversation we have with each other … we always say it’s just vibes, always good vibes with Collin.”
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
The Badgers football team heads to New Jersey this weekend to face Rutgers. Who do you like?
— Badger Beat (@BadgerBeat) November 3, 2021
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