The Wisconsin Badgers (2-3 overall, 2-3 B1G) fell for the third time this season, losing on the road to Iowa. The game marked the third consecutive loss for the Badgers, all three of which came against ranked B1G West opponents.
The game Saturday represented the largest scoring margin in a defeat against the Hawkeyes since 2008, as the Badgers fell 28-7.
Let’s look at some of the major storylines that emerged from the Iowa game.
Let’s start off with a major positive from this season as a whole.
Junior punter Andy Vujnovich has been a significant upgrade for the Wisconsin special teams this season. The transfer from Dubuque (DIII) is averaging 42.9 yards per punt, with five punts over 50 yards and has pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line on 12 occasions.
Against Iowa, outside of a 19-yard punt in the second quarter, he was once again sterling. The Columbus native dropped three punts inside the 20, and connected with two over 50 yards. For the game, Vujnovich averaged 43.7 yards per punt, a whopping 46.75 with that 19-yard outlier removed. Not too shabby.
Vujnovich did an excellent job of flipping field position for the Badgers on multiple occasions and was a bright spot in a tough game for the team. His long snapper, Adam Bay also had a huge game, as he recovered a muffed punt by Iowa that resulted in the Badgers only points on the day.
A lot can be said about the Wisconsin offense right now, but punter Andy Vujnovich has been a colossal upgrade this year. Just booted a 49 yarder to flip field position for the #Badgers.— Matt Belz (@savedbythebelz) December 12, 2020
25 punts into his career at Wisconsin, and he is already second in school history in terms of average (Kevin Stemke leads all with a 44.5 average). Former Badger great Brad Nortman had a multi-year career stint in the NFL after being selected in the sixth round of the NFL Draft in 2012, and he never had a higher average in any of his four seasons in Madison.
Early returns have been good so far with Vujnovich, and he has been tasked with a lot of work these past three games given the struggles on offense.
Offensive weaponry & miscues
With Jalen Berger added to the COVID-19 list late in the week, and the Badgers already without Kendric Pryor and Danny Davis III heading into the game, Wisconsin was unable to muster much of anything on offense against a really strong Iowa defense.
The three unavailable players above represented 34% of the team's offensive production from the season, leaving Wisconsin very short-handed heading into the game. As one would expect, Wisconsin struggled mightily without those players.
Devin Chandler with his first career catch for a Wisconsin first down!— Bucky’s 5th Quarter (@B5Q) December 12, 2020
At wide receiver, walk-on Jack Dunn led all players in all-purpose yards with 57, while freshmen Chimere Dike and Devin Chandler also were involved heavily. Both Dike and Chandler did some positive things against Iowa which should benefit their development moving forward, but unsurprisingly also had freshman moments on Saturday as well.
In the backfield, the Badgers couldn’t get anything going on the ground. For the game, Wisconsin averaged 1.7 yards per attempt and were held to only 56 rushing yards. No play may have demonstrated the lack of confidence the coaching staff had in their rushing attack than in the second quarter on fourth and one yard to go, Joe Rudolph dialed up a wildcat throwing play that was completely blown up by Iowa in plus territory.
Ok. So I have shied away from writing about the quarterback play so far this year, but here we go.
The inability to move the ball with the run forced freshman quarterback Graham Mertz to throw it 38 times.
That is the most attempts from a Wisconsin quarterback since...well the Northwestern game when Graham Mertz was tasked with throwing it 41 times. However, to find another time where a Badger quarterback threw it 38 times or more you would have to go all the way back to the 2017 Big Ten Championship against Ohio State, where Alex Hornibrook threw it 40 times in a loss.
Asking a freshman quarterback to be an entire offense without his top three players around him (that are not the grandson of Barry Alvarez), and this is what happens. Add in the fact that Iowa has one of the best defenses in the country, and I am not totally sure what people expect, myself included.
Now, Graham Mertz missed a handful of throws that he should have made, that is 100% true. Outside of the Illinois game, he has looked like a freshman this year. There were multiple occasions where Mertz misread the defense, was late on a throw and was inaccurate against Iowa. But, I also remember all of those things from Jack Coan when he was forced into action as a sophomore, and that was with a full assortment of weapons around him, namely Jonathan Taylor.
I don’t anticipate the Wisconsin offense looking markedly better this season until everyone is back and healthy, and even then an abbreviated off-season, three weeks worth of missed games and two weeks of nearly full inactivity due to COVID-19 outbreaks will probably still keep things from running smoothly.
Quarterback play this season has been underwhelming, but it is not the only issue at hand for the Badgers. Even LT Cole Van Lanen struggled against Iowa, so frustration does not deserve to fall solely on a 19-year-old.