MADISON, Wis. — When Wisconsin plays host to Northwestern for its homecoming game on Saturday, plenty of talent no doubt will be displayed on the field. But it’s the talent that will be watching from the sideline that truly has Badgers fans salivating.
Saturday represents arguably the most important day in recent Wisconsin football recruiting history because of the sheer volume of blue-chip prospects traveling to Madison. Chief among that crop are running back Joe Mixon (Oakley, Calif.) and offensive lineman Damien Mama (Bellflower, Calif.)
Mixon is a five-star recruit who rushed for 1,443 yards with 21 touchdowns as a junior last season at Freedom High School. He garnered scholarship offers from more than 40 schools and narrowed his list to a top five on his Twitter account in August: Florida, Cal, Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Oregon.
Mama, meanwhile, is another five-star recruit who is rated as the No. 1 guard in the country for the Class of 2014. He is listed at 6-foot-4 and 370 pounds and has scholarship offers from nearly two-dozen schools, including Wisconsin, Alabama, Notre Dame, Ohio State, USC, Florida, Nebraska and Oklahoma.
Badgers coach Gary Andersen, along with the rest of his coaching staff, can’t comment on specific recruits until after they sign national letters of intent. Still, Andersen said following Thursday’s practice that he recognized the importance of this weekend to the future of his football program.
“There’s a little bit larger number of young men coming in,” Andersen said. “This time of year, all the kids coming in on recruiting trips, it’s a big weekend. It’s highly contested just like it’s been the whole year long. Our numbers are loading up pretty quick this year, which is a real positive thing. It’ll be a great weekend. It looks like the weather is going to be pretty good.”
Wisconsin recently landed its 16th commitment for the Class of 2014, when wide receiver Krenwick Sanders (Jesup, Ga.) picked the Badgers over the likes of Georgia, Florida and Florida State. But Andersen and company clearly are not done recruiting just yet.
“This is a big recruiting class for the University of Wisconsin,” Andersen said. “Obviously we’ve got a senior-laden class. We’ve got to fill in some holes in the junior, the sophomore, the freshman class. We’re looking to hopefully get 30 new kids in this program by next August. That is the plan. And when you look at 85 scholarships and 30 new scholarship kids, that’s a large number.”
Other recruits expected to make the trip to Madison this weekend include five-star wide receiver Jamil Kamara (Virginia Beach, Va.), four-star running back Chris James (Niles, Ill.), four-star cornerback John Plattenburg (Houston, Texas), three-star safety Andre Godfrey (Miramar, Fla.) and two-star cornerback Deion Hallmon (Weston, Fla.).
Bye week bliss: Andersen said the benefits of having a bye week between the Ohio State and Northwestern games wouldn’t be known until the Badgers actually played on Saturday. Still, he acknowledged several banged up players either wouldn’t have been able to participate if Wisconsin had a game last Saturday or wouldn’t have been at full strength.
This week, the Badgers will bring back center Dallas Lewallen (leg), tight end Jacob Pedersen (knee) and wide receiver Kenzel Doe (hamstring), each of whom did not play against Ohio State. Running back Melvin Gordon, who injured his knee in the third quarter against the Buckeyes, also is cleared to play.
“I’ve noticed no issues, and I try to watch those kids coming off those injuries very closely,” Andersen said. “And early in the week there was a whole bunch of them to watch. My eyes were catching them as much as I could. Dallas along with Melvin and Kenzel, the list goes on, seemed to be just fine.”
Rank and file: Wisconsin will find itself in the unusual position of being unranked for a game against Northwestern when the teams meet Saturday. The Badgers have been ranked in the top 25 in 12 of the past 14 matchups, dating back to 1993. Only twice during that stretch has Northwestern been ranked.
The Wildcats were ranked 11th in 1995 when they drubbed Wisconsin 35-0 with current coach Pat Fitzgerald playing linebacker. They would go on to play in the Rose Bowl that season.
Northwestern enters Saturday’s game ranked No. 19 in the Associated Press poll. The Badgers fell into the “others receiving votes category” in both the AP and USA Today/Coaches top 25 polls. Wisconsin is 29th in the AP poll and 28th in the coaches poll.
Dating back to 1951, the only other season in which Northwestern played Wisconsin as a ranked team while the Badgers were not ranked came in 1996, when the Wildcats were 14th. Northwestern won that game 34-30 in Madison.
“I think it’s something special anytime you can look and you’re in the rankings,” Andersen said. “It’s a statement I guess that shows you’re a pretty good football team by other people, and they respect your program. It’s nice to be ranked. Would I rather be ranked than not ranked? Sure. I’ll take it.”