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Open Jim: Will Wisconsin football come out passing vs. Illinois State?

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Welcome back to another Open Jim mailbag.

A quick plug for this week’s Open Jim podcast. Here’s a look at the three featured questions in the mailbag portion of that show, so please give it a listen (or watch).

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As always, thanks for reading and for those who submitted questions, keep them coming.

What I’d like to see happen: A pass call that would get Graham Mertz off to a positive start, maybe targeted at someone other than Chimere Dike.

What I think will happen: Handoff to Braelon Allen for a run to the left side of the offensive line.

As for when we’ll see the first pass play of 15-plus yards, I think it will be relatively early. Maybe I’m gullible, but I do think new offensive coordinator Bobby Engram will try to spread the field a bit more than UW has done in recent years. Stretching the defense on the opening drive would be a good way to live up to that promise.

Are we going to have a strong defense this season?

— Jon Salo (via Facebook)

History suggests that the Badgers’ defense will be stout, even though that unit is replacing eight starters.

In Jim Leonhard we trust, right?

Star outside linebacker Nick Herbig has said he thinks this UW defense will be even better than last season's version that led the nation in total defense and finished fourth in scoring defense. I'm not buying that, but I’m not anticipating a big dropoff, either.

I’d break this group into three parts:

What I really like: The defensive line and outside linebackers. Herbig and nose tackle Keeanu Benton are standouts and there’s a good mix of experience (Isaiah Mullens, C.J. Goetz) and potential (Rodas Johnson, James Thompson Jr., Darryl Peterson, Kaden Johnson) in these areas.

What I mostly like but am not completely sold on: The revamped secondary. The starting group includes Alexander Smith and Jay Shaw at cornerback, with Cedric Dort at the nickel spot, and Hunter Wohler and John Torchio at safety. That looks like a solid group on paper.

Where I still have questions: Inside linebacker. There’s a lot of promise in the quartet that includes starters Justin Turner and Maema Njongmeta, along with backups Jake Chaney and Tatum Grass. But there will be some growing pains, too, and this was the best position on the team last season with Leo Chenal and Jack Sanborn leading the way.

I feel badly for Chase Wolf, and wish him well in his recovery. From a football standpoint, though, I do not see the problem. We have seen what Chase can do and cannot do. His injury will give UW a chance to develop and play Deacon Hill. If Mertz goes down, I see three victories , whether Wolf or Hill is the backup. The lack of depth at this critical position is Paul Chryst’s fault. Do you agree that the concern over Chase’s injury is unfounded?

— Andy Shovers (via email)

I think it all depends on how you look at it, Andy. The scenario you presented is essentially Mertz sustaining a major injury early in the season, but what if he’s knocked out of an important game and UW only has a green backup to replace him.

Scenario: UW is on its way to grinding out a win at Michigan State in October and Mertz gets hurt early in the fourth quarter. I’d want Wolf to be in the game at that point because he knows the offense and is respected by his teammates. Wolf has his flaws, but I think he could manage the game enough to help the Badgers get out of that situation with a win. I haven’t seen enough of the other scholarship quarterbacks on the roster to know how they’d handle a moment like that.

You mentioned Deacon Hill as the likely backup and, while that’s probably going to be the case, it wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement for Hill on Tuesday when offensive coordinator Bobby Engram said “right now it’s a competition” between Hill and true freshman Myles Burkett.

I’m not sure if this is a rip on Kirk Herbstreit … or me … or both. But on behalf of Herbie — that’s right, I called him by his nickname — we accept any and all criticism for believing in a program that has given us no reason to believe in, oh, 20-plus years.

Week Zero showed us that Scott Frost can’t get out of his own way and that Nebraska still doesn’t know how to win. At this point, you have to wonder how much self-doubt is playing a role in close games for the Cornhuskers.

I still think the Big Ten West is going to be wild, but I feel much less confident that Nebraska is going to be part of that title race. As for Northwestern, I’m not ready to jump on that bandwagon just yet. I thought the Wildcats played smart and physical after halftime and Pat Fitzgerald, the anti-Frost when it comes to coin-flip games, won the coaching battle by a landslide.

I’d wait and see how the next month plays out. Frost’s buyout drops from $15 million to $7.5 million on Oct. 1. So even if the bottom drops out on the Cornhuskers during a four-game home stand — North Dakota, Georgia Southern, Oklahoma and Indiana — I don’t see him being shown the door until after that game against the Hoosiers at the earliest.

UW athletic director Chris McIntosh has been asked that question a lot since taking over for Barry Alvarez and his answer has been consistent: UW isn’t looking to add sports right now.

I don’t think that changes even with this additional revenue that will start rolling through the department when the new Big Ten media rights deal, which is worth $7 billion over seven years, begins in 2023.

Adding baseball would require UW to add at least one sport on the women’s side to remain in compliance with Title IX guidelines. The more prudent approach, especially on the heels of a global pandemic, is for UW to invest the new cash in its existing 23 programs that includes about 650 athletes.

I thought my colleague Todd Milewski did a really good job of presenting ways UW could use the extra media rights money it will begin receiving next year in a piece he wrote earlier this month.

Sorry, baseball fans, I don’t see UW playing ball anytime soon.

You’re right, Matt, you’re not alone. A lot of fans over the last year or so have expressed feelings ranging from uneasiness to frustration to outright anger about the direction of college sports. The cause? NIL, the transfer portal, expansion, coaches’ salaries going through the roof, media rights deals, etc.

Listen, I get that it can be overwhelming and, believe me, I long for simpler times, too. But my interest in UW athletics hasn’t waned and here’s why: There are still a lot of positive things going on over there. I say this all the time when I speak to groups, but I consider myself fortunate that I’ve gotten to cross paths with a lot of athletes who are smart, full of insight and great stories, and here for the right reason. That’s what I’m choosing to focus on, and I think that’s as good a reason as any for fans to continue to be excited about the Badgers even in such chaotic times.

I was in UW athletic director Chris McIntosh’s office last week to ask him some questions on another topic and I asked him about fans feeling uneasy. I thought his answer was interesting, though I’m not sure it’s going to change the way you feel:

“I empathize with our fans because there’s been more change in the last 14 months than there has been in the last few decades. I can empathize with their position because there are a lot of open-ended questions right now,” McIntosh said. “As you get closer to home on topics like our new practice facility, that project is unprecedented in scale for our program. It’s so badly needed right now.

“I’m trying to constantly seek balance in our priorities. What will not change is a priority for us is to provide access to a world-class education while competing for championships in this program. With championship-level expectations, it requires an investment in the program that there’s just no getting around. I can empathize with our fans, and on many aspects I share their concern, but I think for our program and where we need to continue to take it, I think there are some significant opportunities that we need to pursue. And that practice facility is at the top of the list.”

I think the jury is still out on whether Hodges has improved enough to be a rotation player for the Badgers this season. I’ll say it again: The France trip was great for this team, especially young players such as Hodges, but don’t make any grand conclusions based off those four games.

Hodges has gone two full seasons without playing a game, and there’s going to be a big learning curve for him this season. I’m eager to see how he does over the first month or so of the 2022-23 campaign.

What are our chances with Nolan Winter and/or Bubu Benjamin?

— Kevin Donovan (via Facebook)

UW has been recruiting Nolan Winter, a forward out of Lakeville North High School in Minnesota, for a while. But I think UW is going to lose out to Minnesota, where Winter’s father played. Winter is scheduled to make his official visit to the Golden Gophers this weekend, so this recruitment could be over soon.

Bubu Benjamin, a 6-7 forward from Canada, is scheduled to make his official visit to UW in mid-September. He doesn’t have an offer from the Badgers yet but I think there’s a good chance Benjamin will get an offer during his visit if Winter picks Minnesota. And you have to like UW’s chances considering Benjamin doesn’t have any offers from power-conference programs at this point.

Considering I picked Iowa to win the Big Ten West, this is an easy one for me: It’s the Packers, who still have one of the best quarterbacks in the game and play in a weak division.

It wouldn’t shock me if both teams win their divisions and it absolutely would stun me if neither does.

The only other scenario I can come up with is major injuries to multiple key players on defense such as Jaire Alexander, Rashan Gary, Kenny Clark, De’Vondre Campbell, Adrian Amos and Preston Smith.

This should be a really good defense. But take away some combination of the aforementioned six players and that picture suddenly changes significantly.

I’m still not there yet, even though I do think Jordan Love took some positive steps forward this offseason.

It’s one thing to do it in training camp practices or a preseason game and something completely different to do it when the games matter during the regular season. I suppose it depends on which games we’re talking about — a Love-led team could beat the Chicago Bears, for example — but I need to see more before I’m convinced he’d succeed in meaningful games.

Contact Jim Polzin at


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