Author: Sam Gemini
On September 4 the Wisconsin Badgers football team took the field for the first time this season as they faced the Penn State Nittany Lions. It was a tough game from start to finish as the Badgers took yet another loss to Penn State at 16-10. Here are the grades that each aspect of the Badgers deserves after this rough performance.
Unfortunately, the Badgers’ offense – in particular the passing game – picked up where it left off last season. Any hopes that last fall’s woes could be chalked up to COVID-19 – or that Quarterback Graham Mertz’s offseason shoulder surgery may have fixed the offense – were swiftly dashed in the first half. After a couple of sputtering drives, Wisconsin was able to put together back-to-back red-zone trips – neither of which resulted in points. The first trip had the Badgers one yard away from the goal line before a terrible false start penalty and a blocked chip-shot field goal. On the second trip, Wisconsin marched inside the ten before a botched handoff gave the ball right back to the Nittany Lions. Self-inflicted wounds were the story of the afternoon as Wisconsin had another opportunity from the one-yard line with under three minutes to go until another miscue on a hand-off backed them up to the eight. It is growing more and more difficult to believe that Mertz can be successful as the Badgers’ starting quarterback; his zero touchdowns, two interceptions, two fumbles (one lost) and 18.5 quarterback rating weren’t nearly good enough. The only good sign offensively was, as usual, the run game; Chez Mellusi – the transfer from Clemson – was quite good, rushing for 121 yards and a touchdown. Someday, I hope that the running back will not be the main positive point when analyzing Wisconsin’s offense.
As we’ve come to expect, the best part of Saturday’s game was the defense by a wide margin, only allowing fifty yards rushing and 297 yards total. Defensive coordinator Jim Leonard drew up another gem as Wisconsin blanked Penn State in the first half. The Nittany Lions are traditionally an offensively potent team, and despite their efforts to play up-tempo and disarm the Camp Randall crowd, the Badgers’ defensive unit yielded nothing at the halfway mark. Offenses were more successful in the second half; Penn State finished with the winning total of sixteen. The Wisconsin defense still looked solid in the final half; although, safety Scott Nelson’s performance was a little concerning as he got smoked by the Nittany Lions’ top receiver – Jahan Dotson – multiple times, allowing them to complete several significant deep passes. The Badgers also didn’t force any turnovers on Saturday, which is not a formula for winning football in the long run. Overall, the defense was very good and is clearly the least of Wisconsin’s problems.
Special Teams: C+
As I’ve said before, the main expectation for special teams is to avoid screwing things up. Special teams were not disastrous for Wisconsin against Penn State, but it is difficult to look past Collin Larsh’s blocked twenty-eight-yard field goal in the second quarter. In a game this tight, a mishap like this is extremely costly, and missed or blocked field goals from this short of a distance should not happen. That said, Larsh did well to recover with a key forty-three-yard make in the fourth. There were no major punt or kick-off miscues, so there isn’t much blame to place on special teams for this loss; I just can’t give a higher grade than C+ when a kick is blocked from twenty-eight yards.
Now that he is calling plays once again, I’m sure Paul Chryst will receive flack for the lack of offense in this loss; however, I don’t think the play calling was all that bad. Outside of one or two instances in which a run play seemed more prudent than the pass play that was called, the play-calling was sensible and attempted to make the best of the quarterback play Chryst was forced to deal with. Obviously, Jim Leonard’s defensive coaching was outstanding. There were a couple of poorly-timed timeouts; Wisconsin burned a timeout defensively on the second play of the game, and the one on fourth and goal with under three minutes remaining hindered their ability to complete a game-winning touchdown drive later. Besides these mistakes, player execution – not coaching – was the main culprit in this loss.
This was not a disastrous performance from Wisconsin; it was simply an awful day on offense, as was the case for most of last season. The Badgers were able to move the ball on a few occasions, but these drives were crippled by their own blunders. This game will be looked back on as one that got away; Wisconsin dominated time of possession with almost forty-three minutes to Penn State’s seventeen; the first-down totals were twenty-nine to eleven in favor of the Badgers. The old cliché is that they “shot themselves in the foot”; with this game, it is more like they impaled themselves in the chest. The only positive takeaways on offense were that the run game looked solid and Mertz started moving the ball minimally in the second half. The defense is, once again, elite and will have to carry the Badgers this season. Hopefully, Mertz can find some confidence against a much less formidable opponent in Eastern Michigan next week.