The Badgers displayed by far their poorest effort of this abbreviated season, and now will need some help if they hope to make it back to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship game.
Let’s look at three of the primary story lines that popped up against Northwestern.
Wisconsin has had long-standing issues on the road at Ryan Field, and that trend unfortunately continued in the most recent iteration of the rivalry.
The game as a whole was hard on the eyes, with both teams unable to muster much offensively. The two teams combined for a whopping 17 punts, and accumulated more punting yardage than total yardage.
Wisconsin & Northwestern yesterday combined for more punting yardage (670 on 17 punts) than total offense (629 on 150 plays). pic.twitter.com/8LNNWsIcfo— Matt Belz (@savedbythebelz) November 22, 2020
While Northwestern did not veer too far from their season averages, the Badgers were sloppy in all three phases of the game, most notably on offense.
Without starting wide receivers Danny Davis III and Kendric Pryor, Graham Mertz and the entire passing game seemed completely out of sync for most of the afternoon. The young signal caller had a really beautiful touchdown toss in the first quarter to fellow freshman Chimere Dike, but fumbled the ball on a strip-sack on the following drive. From that moment on, Mertz struggled.
Credit Northwestern for disguising coverages, and some great defense in general, but the top remaining receiving threats could not generate much separation from the Wildcats defensive backs. On the rare occasion when Wisconsin did have opportunities, there were some easy throws that were missed. On the day, Mertz finished with 230 yards and a touchdown, but three sacks and four turnovers loomed far too large.
The offensive game plan appeared to do Mertz no favors. The former four-star recruit threw the ball a career-high 41 times, while the running game had no horizontal threat without Davis and Pryor to run the jet-sweep. The play-calling was unable to adjust, and instead became overly reliant on the passing game.
For instance, on third-and-one from the Northwestern 34 yard line, Wisconsin attempted a play-action shot down the field that resulted in a sack. Sure, Mertz needs to get rid of the ball, and can’t take a sack there. However, the fullback position has consistently plowed ahead for first downs in the first two games against Illinois and Michigan, why get cute now?
Instead of running the ball twice, and most likely moving the chains in plus territory, the Badgers wound up going from hyper aggressive, to extremely conservative with a punt from the 36. Instances like this put a young quarterback in a tough situation, and over complicated things all afternoon. Anytime the Badgers pass the ball more than they run — especially when the top two receivers are out — something is out of whack.
Defense did their part
Saturday night had to be extremely tough for the Wisconsin defense.
The group held Northwestern to only 24 yards on the ground, and the Wildcats had their fewest total yards of the season. That effort was still not enough.
Head scratching reviews and a few questionable pass interference penalties definitely appeared to always go against the defenders, something that visible frustrated the Wisconsin secondary.
Watch the end of the video. You’ll see the ref reaching for his flag while the ball is still in the air!! “The DB didn’t play the ball” was the call. https://t.co/blTzRqOq39— Caesar Williams (@Caesar_Austin) November 22, 2020
In spite of the calls, the group played extremely well, and further demonstrated why they are one of the top units in the conference. The defense was forced into tough situations multiple times due to the offensive struggles previously mentioned, and were able to mitigate the damage most of the afternoon.
That goal line stand fumble that Keeanu Benton and Spencer Lytle combined for completely shifted momentum and led to the Badgers only score on the day. The defense continued to play stout from there on as well, but the offense couldn’t hold up their end of the bargain.
One of the few bright spots to emerge from the game was the strong play of RB Jalen Berger.
The true freshman tailback paced the team in rushing yardage and total yards from scrimmage for the second straight game, compiling 93 yards on 15 carries. With the rest of the running back room unable to get much going (36 yards on 14 carries), and Garrett Groshek also fumbling early in the game, it was Berger who saw the most action.
In the past two games it has become evident that Berger is the most talented back to earn carries this season. The former four-star and Army All-American Bowl participant from a year ago has displayed a tremendously smooth running style. While Nakia Watson and Garrett Groshek entered the season as 1A and 1B, Berger has quickly flashed better vision speed, and an ability to break tackles that the other two backs can’t replicate.
Berger is still developing physically, and most likely still needs to grow in his knowledge of the full playbook, but his abilities are definitely apparent.
With at least three regular season games left to play, and up to two more postseason contests possible, Berger has earned more playing time. The New Jersey product averaged over six yards per carry on Saturday, and probably should have seen more carries than the 15 he received.
The way in which Berger progresses through the last few games will be one of the key situations to monitor down the stretch.
At punter, Andy Vujnovich has been a huge boost. Against Northwestern, he had a beautiful punt that downed the Wildcats inside the five, and was extremely consistent. The Columbus native was a late addition to the team after transferring over from the DIII level, but he has proven to be a nice weapon for the team. On the season, Vujnovich is averaging nearly 43 yards per punt, and has hit three punts over 50 yards.
Kevin Stemke is the only Wisconsin punter to have a higher career average in program history. While the sample size is extremely small, Vujnovich has been a nice surprise for the team.