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Entering the season I picked the Wisconsin Badgers to win the Big Ten.
I thought Ohio State would take a big step backwards without Justin Fields (which appears to be correct) and I thought Wisconsin would be good enough to manage a favourable schedule, get back to Indianapolis and finally get over the hump and win the conference.
Well, through three weeks it’s clear Wisconsin is not close to good enough to make that prediction reality.
The latest let-down was yesterday’s 41-13 loss to Notre Dame. While the final score does not indicate the competitiveness of the contest or how many chances Wisconsin had to win, it is a result that leaves me with a bigger feeling of concern than I remember having since 2018.
Last year there were many explanations about why the team struggled and could not beat ranked opponents. Graham Mertz was injured and inexperienced, the team didn’t have a running game, the receivers were hurt and COVID-19 put a wrench into their early momentum.
This year is different. We can’t use the same explanations (some would call them excuses) about why Mertz continues to struggle, about why there is no running game and about why this group cannot beat ranked teams.
This team has significant flaws. Here is why I’m deeply concerned after yesterday’s loss:
This team struggles in a key place where Wisconsin usually dominates: the offensive line
Sep 25, 2021; Chicago, IL, USA; Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz (5) completes a pass to running back Chez Mellusi during the first quarter of their game against Notre Dame Saturday, September 25, 2021 at Soldier Field in Chicago, Ill. Mandatory Credit: Mark Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports
The offensive line went out and dominated Eastern Michigan last weekend.
But Wisconsin has played two formidable opponents thus far (Penn State and Notre Dame). In each of those games, the offensive line has made backbreaking mistakes in key areas, been unable to push defenders off the ball and allowed consistent pressure on Graham Mertz.
Good Wisconsin offenses are built around a dominant offensive line before anything else. This unit, on the other hand, has shown an inability to open holes for the running back, protect the quarterback and even push defenders off the ball to convert a 4th-and-1.
I was told years ago that if one team shows an ability to push people off the ball and convert a 4th-and-short while the other team cannot, that second team does not deserve to win the football game. I’d argue that was the case Week 1 and it was the case yesterday.
Want the biggest indication about how great of a struggle this unit has had? Offensive line coach Joe Rudolph rotates in different combinations on the line constantly throughout each game. Hell, even Logan Brown saw snaps at left tackle yesterday.
A Wisconsin team that can’t find a consistent 5-man group on the offensive line? That is bad, bad news.
There are other obvious areas of concern on offense (which I’ll get to). But first and foremost to me: the play of the offensive line (which was supposed to be really good) has been extremely disappointing and has me extremely concerned moving forward.
Graham Mertz can't do the simple things Wisconsin needs its QBs to do
Sep 25, 2021; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Wisconsin Badgers quarterback Graham Mertz (5) passes during the first half against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports
I’m sorry to bring Jack Coan in as an example….but what did Coan do so well during his highly successful 2019 season at Wisconsin?
He took care of the football, he was great on easy throws, he moved the sticks consistently, he was extremely accurate in short and intermediate routes and he was able to put the ball into the end zone.
Right now, Graham Mertz is good at none of that.
He turned the ball over another five times yesterday, he missed numerous big-play chances down the field, he converted just 1/14 third downs (which was a fullback dive), the accuracy was off and he again went 1/4 scoring touchdowns on drives inside the 30.
Every point but 7 Notre Dame scored occurred after a turnover of some sort (downs, fumble, 4 INT). Of course, the other seven came on a kick return TD. #Badgers
— Dave Heller (@dave_heller) September 25, 2021
Mertz was hailed as the “savior of Wisconsin football” when he started Week 1 against Illinois last season. His development was then hindered by the COVID-19 season and poor play around him on the offense.
But how long do we go until a few data points become a real trend? Mertz is now 0-5 against ranked teams and the team is 0-5 when he throws an interception (which have all come in those games).
Graham Mertz's stats in five career games against ranked opponents (Badgers are 0-5):
103/191 (54%), 205 yards passing per game, 2 TD, 11 INT#Badgers
— Stephen Watson (@WISN_Watson) September 25, 2021
Heading into the year I was confident Mertz would look more comfortable in the offense & do enough to compliment a good offensive cast.
I think yesterday gave us a conclusion, though, that will not be changed until we see significant change on the field.
That conclusion: Graham Mertz is bad in every area Wisconsin needs quarterbacks to be good in (otherwise known as the simple things) and Wisconsin will not beat a good team until that changes.
No run game? No offense.
Sep 25, 2021; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Wisconsin Badgers running back Chez Mellusi (6) gains yardage against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the second half at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports
This wraps up the two observations above: Wisconsin’s only chance at beating teams is running for 200+ yards and taking the ball out of the hands of their quarterback.
The running game did that job against Penn State and, as I’ve outlined numerous times, Wisconsin wins that football game 9 times out of 10.
But yesterday’s game saw the opposite side of the coin: Wisconsin could not run the football and Graham Mertz couldn’t do anything as a result.
28 carries, 74 yards, 2.6 yards per carry. That’s a recipe for losing when you have quarterback play as poor as Wisconsin has right now.
This team still cannot finish drives
Sep 25, 2021; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Wisconsin Badgers wide receiver Kendric Pryor (3) runs in for a touchdown against Notre Dame Fighting Irish cornerback Clarence Lewis (6) during the second half at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports
So even when Wisconsin does drive (or the defense forces a turnover) we continue to see a stark inability to score touchdowns.
Wisconsin traveled inside the Notre Dame 30 yard line four times yesterday.
1st half: 2 drives inside the 30, 3 points.
2nd half: 2 drives inside the 30, 10 points.
Penn State’s scoring struggles came thanks to mistakes along the line and at quarterback.
Yesterday’s struggles? A combination of things. Wisconsin’s offensive line couldn’t get a push, the team couldn’t run the ball and Mertz couldn’t do anything against Notre Dame’s coverage.
Michigan will certainly be an interesting test. In my opinion, it will be the final data point necessary to prove whether the Badgers have had bad luck at times, or whether the offense’s flaws are that significant.
We're seeing a lack of development all over the offensive side of the football
Kelli Steffes, UW Athletics
Let’s look at the offense as a whole for a second.
I know recruiting rankings often don’t mean much when players enter college, but check out the star ranking of each starter on the offensive line:
Tyler Beach: 3-star (though had NFL hype after last season)
Josh Seltzner: 2-star
Joe Tippmann: 4-star
Jack Nelson: 4-star
Logan Bruss: 3-star (though had NFL hype after last season)
Then check out some of the guys behind them: 5-star Logan Brown, 4-star Kayden Lyles, 3-stars Tanor Bortolini, Cormac Sampson and Michael Furtney.
Wisconsin usually prides itself on developing offensive linemen into greater players than a star rating suggests. Right now, the unit as a whole is not seeing anybody emerge as a legitimate force, let alone a star player.
I mentioned it above: Joe Rudolph having to rotate 9-10 guys in throughout the game shows all you need to know about the unit. Previous years have seen continuity and development across the unit, this year has shown the opposite.
Recruiting rankings don’t matter much when a player enters college, but development does. Wisconsin is usually among the best in the country at developing offensive linemen and making that unit one of the team’s best.
This year has seen the opposite of that.
Then there’s also Mertz who seemingly hasn’t taken a step forward since last year’s loss to Northwestern.
The offense is hurting this team and its chances to win football games. A big part of that is the lack of development up front.
Special teams continue to be a disaster
Sep 25, 2021; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish running back Chris Tyree (25) returns a kick for a touchdown during the second half against the Wisconsin Badgers at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports
Special teams have been an issue since Paul Chryst took over as head coach…it would take hours to go through every time a special teams unit dramatically hurt the team’s chances in a big game.
But it was on full display yesterday with Notre Dame returning a kickoff for a go-ahead touchdown.
This is now 5+ years of poor special teams with no hint of changes to come. That’s not good.
Wisconsin is built on a few areas of dominance...Right now this team is dominating one of those areas
Sep 25, 2021; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Wisconsin Badgers head coach Paul Chryst looks on during the first half against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports
Wisconsin has been built on dominating key areas of the game for the last 20 years: controlling the game by running the football, winning the field position battle, winning the turnover battle and playing great defense.
The defense is the only dominant facet of the game right now, and that’s a big problem.
Wisconsin can still beat bad teams just due to pure physicality, talent and defense.
But whenever a good team comes to town? The Badgers can’t win consistently up front on offense, they turn the ball over at an alarming rate and special teams are extremely weak.
This isn’t Wisconsin losing to insanely talented teams or to opponents that are favored against them. The Badgers have been favored in every game, yet they continue to struggle in areas that have built the last 20 years of consistent winning.
This team seems incapable of executing 2-minute drives and cutting into late deficits
Wisconsin Badgers quarterback Graham Mertz (5) walks off the field after throwing an interception that was run back for a touchdown by Notre Dame as they celebrate in the fourth quarter during their football game Saturday, September 25, 2021, at Soldier Field in Chicago, Ill. Dan Powers/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
Take everything I’ve discussed thus far and apply it to scenarios when Wisconsin needs a touchdown in less than four minutes (we saw it a few times on Saturday).
This team just doesn’t have the pieces to get it done.
Defenses can tee off on Mertz thanks to poor blocking up front, they can drop in coverage and force mistakes and there isn’t a dynamic playmaker on the Badger offense that can make a game-changing play down the field (see: Quintez Cephus).
The last 4 minutes of the first half and the final 7-8 minutes of the second half yesterday showed that inability.
Hell, it was even clear during yesterday’s game that the offensive line wasn’t playing well enough to execute a 10-minute, clock-killing drive.
This offense being flawed on numerous levels makes it tough seeing the unit lead the Badgers to wins against good teams. Things can still change, but next weekend’s matchup with Michigan could see the same problems crush Wisconsin’s chances of winning.