University of Wisconsin outside linebacker Izayah Green-May has been a Chicago Bears fan his entire life, but never has been to a game at Soldier Field. His first game at the stadium will be his own when UW takes on Notre Dame on Saturday.
Green-May and his siblings would watch as many games as they could together. Some of his most distinct memories of watching the Bears former linebacker Brian Urlacher.
“He was always a guy that I looked up to,” Green-May said. “In Madden, I’m always using No. 54, getting sacks every play. That was my guy for sure.”
Irish star defender Kyle Hamilton plays all over the field and has the potential to create massive headaches for the Badgers offense this weekend.
There are a handful of Bears fans on UW’s roster, including Kendric Pryor, Jack Sanborn and Mike Maskalunas, who all grew up in Illinois rooting for Chicago. They then moved to Packers territory when they decided to play for the Badgers.
The rivalry between the Bears and Packers is legendary, so different guys took different approaches to sharing their love of the Bears. Maskalunas said he made sure to wear his Bears jersey in Wisconsin to show where his loyalties lie. Green-May said he went undercover his first couple of months so his teammates wouldn’t give him trouble for liking the Bears.
“Obviously guys give me crap, but it's not bad,” Sanborn said. “I feel like I’ve had times where I’m watching almost more Packers games here than Bears games, so I don't really like that. I'm a football fan, so whatever game is on I'll watch. I'm a fan of good football.”
Maskalunas was dubbed the biggest Bears fan on the team by a few of his teammates. He said getting the opportunity to play in his favorite NFL team’s stadium is surreal. Add in that he’ll have some family members in the stadium, and he’s looking forward to the experience.
Most fans know about the Jack Coan and Graham Mertz matchup, but here are four other elements to Notre Dame’s game to keep an eye on Saturday.
“We play in a lot of pretty cool stadiums in college,” Maskalunas said. “Anytime you get the chance to play in an NFL stadium, it just adds a little something extra to it. I’m just excited to be out there playing in front of Chicago.”
Pryor had the chance to play a high school state football game at the University of Illinois, but not in Soldier Field like some other high schools. He said the specialness of Soldier Field isn’t because he’s a Bears fan but because of the proximity to his family.
He doesn’t have a favorite NFL team any more, but he still does cheer for the Bears because of their receivers.
“Everybody's asking me for tickets, but I don’t know if I can get the whole fam (in),” Pryor said. “But actually playing in Chicago, where I have all of my family members closer than I do to U of I, just having them knowing that even if they don't come, they'll be watching on TV. It's going to be pretty cool to get a chance to play at home.”
Players only get four tickets to Saturday’s game, which makes it harder for local players to get their entire families into the stadium. Pryor said he’s been asking his teammates that don’t live close to Chicago to pass along their extra tickets so he can get more of his family there.
UW safety Scott Nelson, who will line up across from Coan on Saturday at Soldier Field, said of his close friend: "I love the kid. I’ll always love the kid."
Green-May already said his mom is going to be in the stands He said she’s the biggest Bears fan he’s ever met — yes, including Maskalunas — so she might get emotional when she sees her son step onto Soldier Field.
The Bolingbrook, Illinois, native said he probably won’t cry, but he’ll definitely be swiping some blades of grass and turf pellets as a souvenir.
Maskalunas said being able to step on the field and play such a high profile game definitely will make top five moments in his collegiate career.
“Whenever I run out there, I try to take a moment just to look around and soak it all in because what we’re able to do with these opportunities is pretty cool,” Maskalunas said. “I’ll probably take an extra second just to really breathe in that air, look around and just be in the moment.”
Wisconsin vs. Notre Dame football: 3 keys to victory, why the Badgers' running game matters so much and a prediction
WHO HAS THE EDGE
When the Badgers have the ball
The Badgers should have the ability to attack the Notre Dame defense where it is weakest — between the tackles. Notre Dame doesn’t feature a standout middle linebacker or defensive tackle and likely will have trouble keeping UW’s offensive line on the line of scrimmage. Big things could be in line for an emerging stable of Badgers running backs if the Badgers keep defensive end Myron Tagovaila-Amosa out of the backfield.
Chez Mellusi has gotten the lion’s share of the work thus far, but there seems to be enough carries to go around after Mellusi, Isaac Guerendo, Jalen Berger and Braelon Allen all scored touchdowns two weeks ago. How UW manages its backs’ workload will be interesting to see because keeping fresh legs attacking Notre Dame’s front will be important.
Quarterback Graham Mertz has yet to throw a touchdown pass this season after one was called back by a penalty and another was dropped against Eastern Michigan. Notre Dame’s secondary, led by safety Kyle Hamilton, is difficult to crack — their 232.7 yards per game allowed was inflated by pass-heavy Purdue. UW may need to use more motion in an effort to get the secondary out of position or rely on more play-action passing if the running game is working.
Senior receiver Danny Davis has been solid for the Badgers with 11 catches for 129 yards. Look for receivers Kendric Pryor and Chimere Dike to get more involved, especially in the flats, where they can catch the ball and create yards.
Edge: Slightly Wisconsin
When the Fighting Irish have the ball
UW fans know Notre Dame quarterback Jack Coan well after watching him start 16 games for the Badgers, but freshman Tyler Buchner has been earning snaps in part because he’s the better scrambler of the two and Notre Dame’s line has struggled thus far.
The Irish have had three left tackles start games this season after Blake Fisher and Michael Carmody were injured in the first two games. Tosh Baker started last week against Purdue and ND again had difficulty handling pass rushers, allowing four sacks and 16 pressures against the Boilermakers.
Tight end Michael Mayer is Coan's and Buchner’s top target, hauling in 17 catches for 206 yards and three touchdowns. Running back Kyren Williams is a tackle-breaking playmaker, but the O-line struggles have limited him so far this season (46 carries, 224 yards, 2 TDs). Senior receiver Kevin Austin Jr. will be a tough matchup for UW because the 6 foot 2, 215 pounder is adept at winning one-on-one battles on the sideline.
Williams is a difficult cover in the passing game, especially when he’s matched against a linebacker, so the Badgers will have to identify where Williams lines up in the formation and ensure they have the right personnel defending him.
A big challenge for UW’s defense will be to limit the big pass plays the Irish are capable of — cornerbacks Faion Hicks (listed as questionable) and Caesar Williams will need to be physical without committing penalties down the field.
Edge: Slightly Wisconsin
Collin Larsh has been solid for UW after winning the starting kicking job. Excluding the short kick that was blocked against Penn State, Larsh has made a 43-yarder and tries from 33 and 39 yards.
UW hasn’t had many chances in the return game thus far, and don’t expect them to come this week. Notre Dame only has allowed six punt returns for a total of 34 yards and it allows just 21.7 yards per kick return.
Don’t look now, but UW punter Andy Vujnovich has become one of the best in the Big Ten, ranking fourth at 48.9 yards per punt. He’ll have to direct his punts well to keep the ball away from Williams, who is returning punts for the Irish.
This will be the first time since 2001 that the Badgers play two ranked teams in their first three games. UW lost to No. 7 Oregon and No. 19 Fresno State that season. Paul Chryst never has started a season 1-2 since taking over at UW, but Chryst is 10-15 at UW against AP Top 25 teams.
Brian Kelly’s Notre Dame teams are 6-5 in their first game against a ranked opponent in a season. Kelly is 3-2 in his last five games against Big Ten Conference opponents, dating back to 2015. He notched his 105th official win at Notre Dame last week, tying Knute Rockne for most by an ND coach.
UW last played at Soldier Field in 2011, when it defeated Northern Illinois 49-7.
THREE KEYS FOR THE BADGERS
1. Bracket Mayer: Notre Dame tight end Michael Mayer is one of the best offensive weapons in the country, and quarterback Jack Coan is finding him often. UW should plan on using its outside linebackers to disrupt Mayer’s route off the line of scrimmage and ensure a safety is covering the 6-foot-4½, 251-pound target. The Irish have multiple weapons who can make plays, but taking away option A in Mayer is a good place to start.
2. Attack the offensive line: The Irish’s offensive line has been OK at its very best in its first three games this season. It allowed four sacks to Florida State, six sacks against Toledo and four sacks against Purdue. Pro Football Focus statistics count 38 pressures allowed by the line, and Notre Dame has rushed for just more than 100 yards per game. UW’s front — especially with the return of inside linebacker Leo Chenal — is one of the best in the country and should continue to expose an O-line that’s beaten up by injuries.
3. No turnovers: This one isn’t rocket science, but the Badgers can’t afford to give away the ball and put its defense in tough spots. After three turnovers in a loss to Penn State, UW’s offense gave up the only points Eastern Michigan scored with a pick-6. It’s likely the Badgers’ offense again relies on the ground game given Notre Dame’s difficulty stopping the run (145 yards rushing allowed per game) and the ball-hawking presence of safety Kyle Hamilton. Ball carries must protect the ball and quarterback Graham Mertz has to secure handoffs better than in the first two game this season. Mertz also has to be smart with his throws and not put too many attempts in danger of being picked off.
THREE KEYS FOR THE FIGHTING IRISH
1. Decide on run game quickly: The Badgers defense has allowed a total of 66 yards rushing on 36 carries, less than 2 yards per attempt. Both Penn State and Eastern Michigan ditched running between the tackles, and the former had success getting to the edge with quick passing then challenging UW downfield. Notre Dame should do the same if its banged-up offensive line can’t generate push. Wasting downs trying to establish a run game is exactly what UW wants Notre Dame to do.
2. Play Hamilton in the box: Mertz hasn’t been challenging teams downfield often thus far. Notre Dame usually has star safety Kyle Hamilton play deep or in the slot so he can be close to the ball, but the Irish likely will need him in the middle of the field to make a bigger impact. Mertz most often targets the middle of the field between 10-15 yards, so placing Hamilton there and allowing him to read Mertz’s eyes creates the most opportunities for turnovers or other disruptive plays.
3. Gives your tackles help: The Irish have to do a better job giving their tackles help against pass rushers, especially if they again are down to their third-string left tackle. While there are a multitude of reasons the Irish have been bad protecting the passer, many of which stem from the line losing matchups, relying on that group without help too often is another culprit. With UW outside linebackers Nick Herbig and Noah Burks both showing improved pass rushing skills this season, Notre Dame needs to keep a back, tight end or both in protection to keep Coan upright.
Series: UW trails 6-8-2
First meeting: UW won 54-0 at home in 1900
Last meeting: UW lost 31-7 at Camp Randall in 1964
UW's longest winning streak: Three games (1900, 1904, 1905)
UW's longest losing streak: Four games (1929, 1934, 1935, 1936)
UW has the advantage on both lines of scrimmage, something it’s used to and knows how to use to control a game. If the Badgers can avoid turnovers, score touchdowns when they get in the red zone and force Notre Dame’s offense to go for long drives instead of allowing big plays, they should be able to come away with the win. Fail in those areas, and Notre Dame ekes out another close one.
Badgers 21, Notre Dame 17
The Badgers and Notre Dame at Soldier Field ... Who do you like?— Badger Beat (@BadgerBeat) September 20, 2021