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The matchup that could decide if the Badgers beat Penn State on Saturday

The matchup that could decide if the Badgers beat Penn State on Saturday

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Parker Washington started all nine games as a freshman last season for Penn State.

Jahan Dotson answered the question with the same speed he makes his cuts while running a route.

Who’s the best receiver in college football?

“Right now?” the Penn State senior said. “You’re looking at him. … I know what I’m capable of doing. I know what I can do every single time I step on the field, every time I touch the ball. So I say that confidently.”

The No. 12 University of Wisconsin football team hosts Dotson and the No. 19 Nittany Lions on Saturday in a season opener. The Badgers will have the task of covering Dotson and sophomore Parker Washington, a highly touted receiver who made an immediate impact on the offense as a freshman last season.

Follow along as State Journal cartoonist draws a cartoon with Bucky Badger and Wisconsin fans returning to Camp Randall.

Matching Dotson’s confidence might be impossible, but Badgers senior cornerback Faion Hicks answered a question regarding how the secondary will handle defending the preseason All-Big Ten pick with the same decisiveness Dotson showed.

“I’ll be following 5 (Dotson’s number),” Hicks said, “so we’ll see how good he really is.”

Dotson was good enough last season to earn third-team all-conference honors as a receiver and an honorable mention nod as a punt returner. He led the Big Ten Conference with 884 yards and was third with 52 catches; his four catches for 60-plus yards tied for the nation’s best despite playing in just nine games.

Washington, a four-star recruit who visited UW the same week he toured PSU in 2019, produced 36 catches for 489 yards and six touchdowns last season. Dotson primarily lined up as an outside receiver with Washington in the slot last season, but that could change this fall under new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich.

Having the challenge of two top-tier receivers to battle in the opener has been on senior cornerback Caesar Williams’ mind for months.

“I put the tape on as soon as I found out they were on our schedule,” he said.

That film study showed a pair of pass catchers who excel at winning 50-50 balls and use their leaping ability to get to passes in the air. It also put into focus how dangerous both can be after the catch — Dotson led PSU with 375 yards after catch, an average of 7.2 per reception, while Washington was a tick below 5 yards after each reception.

Williams was a bit more diplomatic when discussing how the Badgers will defend the Dotson-Washington combo, saying he’s up for the challenge of defending either one.

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“Whatever side they’re going to go to, I’m comfortable with Faion guarding whoever and he’s comfortable with me guarding whoever,” Williams said. “So if it comes down to it, if we liked the matchup, we can (follow one or the other). But at the same time, I think we have the free will to just play left and right if we need to.”

The matchup gives Hicks and Williams a chance out of the gate to show where they’ve improved over last season. Dotson (5-foot-11, 184 pounds) and Washington (5-10, 207) have similar speed and route-running prowess to Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Iowa’s leading receiver last season. Smith-Marsette torched the Badgers for seven catches, 140 yards and two touchdowns in Iowa City last season.

The changes Yurcich made to the Nittany Lions offense and how he uses his dynamic duo of receivers is yet to be seen, but the Badgers have been reviewing Yurcich’s work at Texas — he was the OC for Tom Herman — and what they believe Penn State will keep from its previous coordinator, Kirk Ciarrocca.

“You look whether it’s Penn State, Texas, wherever this coaching tree’s been, they challenge secondaries in a big way,” UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said.

Washington could see a boost in targets — Texas’ primary slot receivers under Yurcich were No. 2 and 3 in total targets, according to Pro Football Focus — and Dotson could play more from the slot after being on the outside for more than 90% of his snaps last season.

UW players and coaches spoke numerous times Monday about preparing for the unexpected. Opponents come out every game with something they hadn’t seen before and they have to adjust on the fly. That’s especially true for season openers against new coaches.

What the Badgers know is Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford will give Dotson and Washington chances to make plays. UW will need their senior cornerbacks, and the rest of the secondary, to play at their best immediately.

“It gets really easy to motivate your guys,” Leonhard said.

“They’ve been through it before, they understand talented football players, the issues they can cause and what it’s all about. So I think our guys have been really focused throughout the offseason and going into camp knowing that Week 1 is going to be a huge test.”


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