Game Day Grades: Wisconsin vs. Northwestern

Author: Sam Gemini

MADISON – Well, the Badgers saw their Big Ten Championship hopes slip away on Saturday as they were rolled by the Wildcat defense 17-7 in Evanston, Ill. Let’s take a closer look at what failed so miserably for Wisconsin this weekend.

Offense: F

There’s no better place to start than Wisconsin’s disastrous offensive efforts. This was Graham Mertz’s third start at quarterback, and it was glaringly obvious. He made one terrible decision after another, adding up to three interceptions and a fumble. Running back Garrett Groshek added to the turnover potpourri with a fumble of his own, the final giveaway count coming in at five. On top of it all, the Wisconsin receivers were awful; tight end Jake Ferguson had the most receptions (seven) and the most yards (fifty-eight) of any Badger. There is no question that Northwestern’s defense is elite, possibly top five nationwide, but Wisconsin knew going in that ball security was a top priority in this game. Losing the turnover differential by four gave the Badgers zero chance. The only, and I mean only, positive to be taken away on offense is Jalen Berger’s ninety-three yards rushing. The highly-rated freshman seems to be coming into his own. Aside from that, this was one of the ugliest offensive performances we have seen in years for Wisconsin.

Defense: A-

The Badger defense, the only part of the team that showed up, was outstanding. Despite being put in tough positions by the offense, they yielded very little for most of the game. The opening drive touchdown for the Wildcats began at midfield and was aided by multiple bad pass interference calls, and the second touchdown came on an unbelievable throw from veteran senior Peyton Ramsey. Other than that, Northwestern’s offense did nothing; Wisconsin forced a three-and-out on four straight drives in the third quarter. Unfortunately, the Badgers were not able to force turnovers, the only takeaway being a fumble by Isaiah Bowser on a botched goal line hand-off, more of a giveaway than a takeaway. This was largely due to the smart and mistake-free football played by Ramsey, another reason the game went so poorly for the Badgers.

Special Teams: B

Special teams did even less this week than against Michigan. Due to the abysmal offense, Collin Larsh only attempted one kick, an extra point that was made after the only touchdown. Andy Vujnovich, the punter, had much more work than last week, booting it away seven times and pinning Northwestern at the two-yard line in the third (although he did have a bit of a shank earlier in the game). With nothing else to report, this was another uneventful game on special teams.

Coaching: D

Paul Chryst got outcoached on every level by Pat Fitzgerald. The offensive schemes were atrocious, the decision-making was terrible, and Wisconsin did not look ready to play from the beginning. The game began on offense with a run for no gain, a bad incomplete pass, and a busted screen. The Badgers then punted and allowed Northwestern to march down the field for an opening-drive touchdown. Good teams cannot come out of the locker room like that in the biggest game of the year. There were many confusing decisions made by Chryst throughout the game: punting on the offensive thirty-four on fourth and three; punting on fourth and four down ten with six minutes left; over-conservative play-calling on multiple third and long scenarios. Wisconsin football always seems afraid of anything that may lead to excitement. Jim Leonhard had a good day calling the defense, but other than that, it was a tough coaching scene for the Badgers.

Overall: D+

Obviously, this was by far the worst game of the year for Wisconsin, and it is extremely unlikely for any future games this season to be this bad. Northwestern, an extremely tough opponent on defense, made Mertz look very young. I am not going to bury the freshman for this performance in only his third start; he has a lot to learn and a very high ceiling. The Wildcats are always a bad matchup for the Badgers because of their ability to stop the run and their great defensive backs. It was still a hugely disappointing performance for Wisconsin in a game that meant everything. Hopefully, things will be different next week at Camp Randall in the Battle for the Axe.