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What if Indiana and Wisconsin actually played in the season opener?

Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wisconsin is regarded as having one of the best college football atmospheres in the country.

Indiana takes the field against Michigan last fall. (Bailey Wright/HN)

Sept. 4 would have been the day the Indiana Hoosiers put on the cream and crimson to face the Badgers for a huge test in the season opener. But higher than usual expectations and excitement around the program came to a halt on Aug. 11 when the Big Ten announced the postponement of its college football season. 

If the Big Ten carried on with a season, it’s likely that the electric atmosphere wouldn’t have been there. Camp Randall Stadium probably wouldn’t have had fans losing their mind to “Jump Around” before the fourth quarter. But there would have been football: the game Hoosier fans will miss the most this fall. 

As the weeks go on, the Hoosier Network will attempt to give fans an idea of what a 2020 season would have looked like, and reflect on the history that goes along with each subsequent matchup. It’s not football, but it’s as close as it gets. 

What could have been 

This was always a daunting matchup for Indiana in the weeks leading up to the season. Wisconsin is a perennial powerhouse in the Big Ten and has only lost eight home games in the past 10 seasons. 

The Badgers entered the 2020 season ranked No. 12 in the AP Top 25 poll, which is good for the third highest ranking among Big Ten teams, behind No. 2 Ohio State and No. 7 Penn State. Wisconsin lost Jonathan Taylor to the NFL Draft, who ranks second in both career rushing yards and single-season rushing yards at Wisconsin, but would have been under the leadership of senior quarterback Jack Coan and an always-solid offensive line. 

This makes for a tough matchup for Indiana, but one that could have been closer than most thought. Wisconsin opened as a 14.5-point favorite in this matchup, but keep in mind that this game would have likely been played without fans.

Indiana has had a tendency for many years to hang around with good teams into the third quarter, and without a true home-field advantage for Wisconsin, this is a scenario could remain. At the end of the day, though, Wisconsin is a team that loves to control possession and run teams into the ground. 

A year ago, Indiana’s defense ranked ninth in the conference in both total rushing yards allowed per game and yards allowed per rush. The ground and pound attack of Wisconsin, combined with senior leadership of Coan, would have been too much for the Hoosiers to overcome. Score prediction: Wisconsin 24, Indiana 13

Most intriguing matchup we missed out on

Earlier it was discussed how Wisconsin’s rushing attack is what they use to win games, but in this matchup, Indiana’s running back group would have been just as important. The duo of junior Stevie Scott and sophomore Sampson James is one of the best one-two running back punches in the conference, and would have faced a serious test versus the Badgers linebacking corps.

Scott put together a solid sophomore campaign last year, rushing for 845 yards and 10 touchdowns on 178 carries. He was also a threat catching the ball out of the backfield, averaging 8.1 yards per reception on 26 catches.

James arrived in Bloomington last year as the No. 10 ranked running back in the nation’s 2018 recruiting class. James had a nice freshman season, rushing for 275 yards and three touchdowns in a complementary role behind Scott. A year of Big Ten football experience under James' belt, coupled with the experience and consistency of Scott, makes for a very dangerous backfield group for the Hoosiers. 

Wisconsin is known to find success with the running game, as well as stopping the opponents’ rushing attack, and the latter hinges on the production of its linebackers. The Badgers would have been without two of their top three tackle leaders from 2019 in linebackers Chris Orr and Zack Baun.

However, Wisconsin returns leading tackler from 2019 in linebacker Jack Sanborn and has a tendency to reload at this position. Sanborn was tops among Badgers last year with 80 total tackles and three interceptions. 

With Sanborn on the inside of the defense and senior Noah Burks at outside linebacker, the most intriguing matchup in this game is complete with Scott and James running the ball on the other side. Burks was fourth on the team in sacks in 2019 with four, and sixth in total tackles with 36. A 68-yard pick-six also adds to Burks’ resume, not only as a run-stopper. 

What we remember most

The series history has largely gone in Wisconsin’s favor. The Badgers lead the all-time series 41-18-2 and are currently on their longest win streak in the matchup’s history with 10 wins in a row. Within this win-streak also came the largest margin of victory between the two teams in 2010 when Wisconsin defeated Indiana 83-20. 

While the Badgers have an advantage in just about every historical team statistic, there have been a few incredible games in the series history.

On Nov. 11, 1989, Indiana running back Anthony Thompson set the Indiana record for rushing yards in a game with 377 yards. The Hoosiers went on to win this game at Camp Randall Stadium 45-17, but it wasn’t enough to push Indiana to a bowl game as the Hoosiers lost four out of five games to end the season. 

Perhaps the most recent meaningful win for Indiana over Wisconsin was on Oct. 26, 1991 when the Hoosiers went in to Camp Randall Stadium and pulled off a 28-20 victory over the Badgers. This win propelled the Hoosiers to a 7-4-1 record and an appearance in the Copper Bowl where they defeated Baylor 24-0. 

The Hoosiers were led by running back Vaughn Dunbar in 1991, who was a first-team All-American, rushed for the second most yards in the country and finished sixth in Heisman Trophy voting. Dunbar went on to be the 21st pick in the 1992 draft by the New Orleans Saints.

History was written again in a matchup with the Badgers on Oct. 10, 2001 when running back Levron Williams set an Indiana record for rushing touchdowns in a game with six. Indiana was victorious at Camp Randall Stadium in this game by a score of 63-32 thanks to the effort by Williams. Again, though, this win was not enough to make the Hoosiers bowl eligible, after getting off to an abysmal 1-5 start to the season. 

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