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B5Q Roundtable: 2020 season in review edition

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There was, well, a lot that happened this year for the Wisconsin Badgers. What did our writers remember most from this season?

Duke’s Mayo Bowl - Wake Forest v Wisconsin Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

We’ve got a pretty lengthy end of the season roundtable, so we’re just going to get right to it. Here is what Belz, Rock, J.J. and Ryan thought about the season that was in 2020.

Let’s start positive! What was your favorite memory of the 2020 season?

Belz: I think it has to be the Illinois game for me. There was so much excitement heading into the home opener, with a brand new season, brand new quarterback, etc. For the Badgers to come out and absolutely blow the doors off Illinois, and look really good doing it, was such a fun moment.

Rock: Michigan game, easily. After former Buckeye Kirk Herbstreit berated Michigan on national TV for showing no effort, talent, or planning, I found the Wolverines radio network post-game show. Here are some samples I texted friends: “The Michigan call in show has people demanding they burn the cutouts.” “THIS IS JUST THE WORST” “THE FIRST WORDS AFTER COMMERCIAL WERE ‘OH GOD’” “GONNA LOSE 100-2 TO OHIO STATE ON A GAME ENDING SAFETY” “A WISCONSIN FULLBACK RUSHING FOR 48 YARDS? BO WOULD NEVER HAVE STOOD FOR THAT.” “NEVER SEEN A TEAM WITH LOWER FOOTBALL IQ, POP WARNER INCLUDED.” “YOU CAN NOW OFFICIALLY SAY THIS IS THE WORST THING SINCE SLICED BREAD.”

And for preservation in the Internet amber, during the game I texted “30-50 feral hog mollies that run in the Big House while my children play” which I’m pretty proud of!

J.J.: The Michigan game was the season’s peak for me. Carrying all the momentum from the Illinois blowout, it was flat-out fun to see the Badgers roll over a Michigan squad in Ann Arbor that didn’t seem to have any answers to anything Paul Chryst and Co. threw at them all night. The defense played Joe Milton out of the game, and the offense flourished using a diverse playbook that showed how dangerous this team could have been had everyone stayed healthy. Fullback dives FTW.

Ryan: I have to agree with Rock and J.J., the Michigan game was definitely a favorite for me. The playbook was so creative, the defense was stifling and Wisconsin rolled over Michigan, in the Big House.

Who was your team MVP this year?

Belz: I think a really compelling argument could be made for either of the starting inside linebackers. Both Leo Chenal and Jack Sanborn had really nice seasons. For the sake of making a choice, I will go with Jack Sanborn because he was in charge of making the defensive calls. Sanborn led the team in tackles, and was arguably the best player on a really strong defense for Jim Leonhard.

Wisconsin v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Rock: Garrett Groshek averaged 69.8 total yards per game.

J.J.: Jack Sanborn gets it for me. In a season with so much chaos, Sanborn stood out as both one of the defense’s top talents but also its principal leader, keeping a unit that kept Wisconsin in a ton of games late in the season well-marshaled.

Ryan: Jack Sanborn was a force on defense each and every game this season. While the offense stumbled, the defense was solid all season and he led the charge.

Who was your most improved player this year?

Belz: I’m going to go with Scott Nelson. I know he didn’t play much last season after a knee injury in the opener, but the drastic jump he made from his redshirt freshman season was great to see. Nelson looked fast and did a really good job in run support as a tackler, something he struggled with at times back in 2018. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him take another nice jump next year after having another full year to build himself up after that that injury that killed his entire 2019 season.

Rock: Leo Chenal blossomed in his jump to a full-time starter, and helped replace Chris Orr and Zack Baun’s production working with Sanborn. .

J.J.: Leo Chenal’s growth was clear this year, as he emerged as a premiere player in a tough defensive unit. I’m really excited to see what the sophomore has in store in the coming years.

Ryan: Scott Nelson, who missed just about the entire 2019 season with a knee injury and made up for lost time this season, making big defensive plays.

What was the biggest surprise of the season for the Badgers?

Belz: The struggles with signals, after the first two weeks that led to Graham Mertz having to run back-and-forth to the sidelines for the play call. I don’t think it was nearly as big of a deal as many fans made it out to be, but the fact that the signals were stolen that early in the season was troublesome, and I’m sure it will be a priority this off-season.

Rock: Four straight picks in the bowl game, doubling the season total. Wake Forest QB Sam Hartman had only thrown one in his 236 prior attempts. To have a game-clinching meltdown like that was really special.

J.J.: While a lot of it can be blamed on injuries and weak opposition, the fact that the passing game just fell off a cliff after the first two weeks came as an ugly surprise to many fans, including myself. Without their top two receivers, the Badgers struggled to really create much of anything threw the air for the majority of the season, even if Chimere Dike showed flashes of potential in a WR1 role he wasn’t quite ready for.

Duke’s Mayo Bowl - Wake Forest v Wisconsin Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Ryan: The offensive struggles in my opinion were the biggest surprise, especially after seeing Wisconsin average 47 points in the first two games of the season and then seeing them score 40 total points over the final four games of the regular season. Wisconsin was sharp, creative, efficient, exciting and then downright hard to watch at times. Having Mertz run to the sideline between each play messed with the offense’s rhythm, and I hope they abandon that play calling style next season.

What was the biggest surprise of the season in the Big Ten?

Belz: I think for me it would have to be Penn State. The whole off-season they were anointed as the team most likely to contend with Ohio State in the B1G East, and they really struggled early in the season. They rebounded nicely by winning their last four games after losing the first five, but I don’t think anyone figured that they would be under .500 this year.

Rock: Nebraska choosing not to play a bowl game. They could have played! They did not want to play any more football.

J.J.: Indiana was a massive surprise for me. I knew Tom Allen had a great reputation around Bloomington but I wasn’t expecting them to finally reach the next level and move from scary upset game to legitimate contender for the Big Ten title. Their season may have ended in disappointment, but I won’t (and I know Indiana fans won’t) forget that Hoosiers went blow for blow with national title contender Ohio State for a stretch.

Ryan: For me, it was Indiana. I had no idea coming into the season that the Hoosiers learned how to play football. I was also very surprised that the B1G decided to back-track on their rules, allowing OSU to play in the B1G Championship game… I mean, I am surprised that I was surprised. The conference will do whatever it can to cater to the Buckeyes.

What was the most disappointing part of the season? And you can’t all just say COVID and leave it at that!

Belz: The fact that the Big Ten blundered the PR and scheduling announcements in the summer and in the fall.

Rock: The Big Ten said they had a plan to safely play football, so bring it back! - and still cancelled 13 of their 63 games. Ohio State begged for extra credit so they could round that up to a B. Division-1 wide, over 80 games were cancelled. No fans, no tailgating, no 5th quarter, just the ~$3.5 million per game to put it on TV.

Comparatively, Texas, Illinois, South Carolina, and Auburn almost certainly furloughed or laid off people in their athletic departments over the summer, but managed to come up with several million dollars to tell their head coach “You don’t work here anymore.” College sports have never been pretty, but they’ve never been this ugly.

J.J.: The way that it started in the first place. There was nothing about it that was well executed- an initial cancellation, before later bringing it back just created so much chaos, rush, and confusion that it muddled what could have potentially been a great opportunity.

Ryan: How the B1G handled everything, from making no plans all summer, to cancelling, back-tracking, saying they would play, then that they wouldn’t, but then that they would again. Also the way they screwed over Indiana, even though Ohio State didn’t play enough games. Lastly, the B1G metrics that were setup ahead of the season to deal with Covid… Wisconsin had 27ish positive cases and had to cancel their games…the B1G metrics didn’t say they had to.

Where are you sitting on the Graham Mertz Bandwagon? Still driving it, jumping off, or have you moved back to coach to see how next season goes?

Belz: I’m still firmly on board. I’ve gone on record multiple times defending Mertz this season and highlighting that his stats are better than Jack Coan’s in 2018, all while he was without his primary weapons for large chunks of the season. Mertz will take a nice jump next season assuming the team can stay healthy on offense, and that COVID allows for a semi-normal spring practice and fall schedule.

Rock: The offense really stalled when the starting wideouts were a true freshman and a 5-foot-7 walk-on. With Kendric Pryor and Danny Davis III, he was able to sling it. My optimism for Mertz’s next year really depends on those two coming back. [Editor’s note: Pryor has announced he’s coming back, yay!]

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

J.J.: I’m still firmly on board. Next year if the struggles continue questions will be asked, but with (hopefully) his top two receivers back, and a year of experience under his belt, I expect a nice bounce back year for Mertz next year.

Ryan: I am still firmly aboard the Mertz bandwagon. While I don’t think we will be seeing him play the way he did against Illinois against every team moving forward, I still think he will continue to be a great quarterback for Wisconsin. This was a tumultuous season for him to take over at quarterback. Ahead of the season, he was thrown into the roll with Coan’s injury, all the safety protocols changing their routines, Wisconsin being without its top two receivers for most of the season, the change in playcalling (both coach and style) and he still threw the ball well throughout. I think with more normalcy next season, Mertz will take steps forward in his development.

Can you name one player on Wisconsin whose grandfather is ALSO the athletic director?

Belz: Never forget

Rock: ON, WISCONSIN ON, WISCONSIN PLUNGE RIGHT THROUGH THAT LINE

J.J.: Did you know Jake Ferguson is related to former coach Barry Alvarez? Did you know Jake Ferguson is related to athletic director Barry Alvarez? Did you know Jake Ferguson is related to former Badger safety Joe Ferguson?

Ryan: Wait? One of the Badgers is the grandchild of Barry Alvarez? No way… OMG, JAKE FERGUSON IS BARRY’S GRANDSON?!?!? DID ANYONE ELSE KNOW!?!?!