In Wisconsin's season opener, redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz was so good in his first career start that he drew raves on social media from NFL Most Valuable Player Patrick Mahomes.
But days after going 20-for-21 for 248 yards and five touchdowns in the Badgers' 45-7 rout of Illinois,Mertz fell victim to 2020. A second positive test for COVID-19 will sideline him for a minimum of 21 days per Big 10 rules, forcing him to miss the next three games.
In even worse news for No. 9 Wisconsin, backup Chase Wolf also tested positive for coronavirus. That means when the Badgers visit Nebraska on Saturday for the second game of the season for both teams, they'll dip down to the No. 4 spot on their preseason depth chart for Danny Vanden Boom.
The 6-5, 207-pound Vanden Boom, a fourth-year junior, has tried only one pass in his Wisconsin career. It went for a 3-yard touchdown at the end of a blowout win against New Mexico in 2018.
However, it is Vanden Boom's team to run for now. With original projected starter Jack Coan (foot), Mertz, and Wolf all on the shelf, Vanden Boom will attempt to lower the boom on the Cornhuskers.
Badgers coach Paul Chryst said he supports the conference's stringent policy regarding absences forced by the pandemic.
"They told us it was more conservative, and if that helps one person, then that's a good thing for us," he said on Monday. "For us to play, if that is something that's in the best interest of everyone involved, then I completely support it."
Wisconsin's athletic department said Sunday night that it won't release COVID-related testing information due to HIPAA law. Chryst declined comment when asked about the reports specifically regarding Mertz on Monday.
While the Badgers try to get Vanden Boom up to speed, Nebraska aims to bounce back from a 52-17 loss in last week's season opener at No. 3 Ohio State. The Cornhuskers were able to hang with the Buckeyes for most of the first half before being outscored 38-3 in the game's last 33 minutes.
Nebraska will play the first half Saturday without a couple of key players in the secondary. Safety Deontai Williams and cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt were each ejected at Ohio State after being called for targeting, which could make the Cornhuskers defense vulnerable, even facing Wisconsin's fourth-string quarterback.
Nebraska's defensive emphasis, according to coordinator Erik Chinander, is to slow down the running game.
"In the Big 10, you have to stop the run every week," he said after practice Tuesday. "That's got to be a primary focus. We just have to get everything tightened up a little bit."
The Cornhuskers showed offensive promise in the first half with impressive touchdown drives of 75 and 78 yards. But they'll have to execute well against a veteran Wisconsin defense that allowed only 218 yards to Illinois.
Nebraska aims to end a seven-game losing streak in the series between West Division rivals, dating back to 2012. The Badgers own a 10-4 series advantage.
--Field Level Media