Just like everything, nothing is as ever as good as it seems or as bad as it seems, especially when being a prisoner of the moment.
This is true for the Wisconsin Badgers’ offensive performance during their 41-12 loss to Notre Dame last Saturday. While the lopsided loss doesn’t feel any better because of it, the Badgers were leading this game 13-10 in the fourth quarter. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Graham Mertz underachieved during the game, though he didn’t receive a ton of help from the play calling or his offensive line.
I’m going to break this up into a couple of different areas to try and separate a few of the issues currently with the Wisconsin offense. Let’s start with the offensive line.
The Wisconsin Badgers offensive line is one of the longest standing traditions in college football. A position that’s become the identity of an entire football program due to their continued excellence over nearly thirty years.
However, the last two seasons the Badgers’ offensive line hasn’t quite lived up to the expectations and reputation the group has cultivated over that time period.
One of the main issues I’ve come across with the Badgers, and had this question posed to me by a former member of the program, is: What is the Badgers’ identity in the run game? North Dakota State is a gap scheme team. Iowa is a zone team. Oklahoma is a GT Counter team.
What is Wisconsin’s staple run play?
It used to be the counters and power and anything involving pullers. However, recently, I’m not sure I could pin point a bread and butter run play. What could cause that? Well, a few different things.
Wisconsin currently doesn’t have a legitimate NFL back on the roster. I mean, sure, Chez Mellusi and Jalen Berger are nice backs and could maybe have some sort of minor NFL futures, but as of right now, there is no Jonathan Taylor, Montee Ball, Melvin Gordon, or James White on the roster. And that’s understandable to an extent. It’s awfully tough to replicate those types of talent often, but the fact of the matter is none of the backs on the roster are true game breakers. It is what it is, but important to take into consideration.
Another thing that’s undoubtedly led to some under-performance as an offensive line unit is the massive rotation the Badgers are currently implementing. By my count, as many as nine offensive linemen are playing in games. Tyler Beach and Logan Brown at left tackle. Josh Seltzner and Cormac Sampson at left guard. Joe Tippmann and Kayden Lyles at center. Jack Nelson and Michael Furtney at right guard and Logan Bruss at right tackle.
The offensive line more than any unit on a football team is dependent on communication and continuity. It’s impossible to develop any type of meaningful or sustainable chemistry as a run game, lineman or running back, when there’s a conveyor belt of offensive linemen rotating throughout the game.
Now, the million dollar question is: Are the Badgers playing nine offensive linemen because there are nine legitimate, deserving blockers to get into the game, or are they searching for the right group, and just don’t have a bonafide five offensive linemen that they feel comfortable sticking with?
Someone should ask that.
Anyways, let’s take a look at some plays from last weekend that the offensive line didn’t play well on.
Gasp! Is that some of the pre-snap motion that I read on Twitter has disappeared? Well, upon a rewatch, there’s plenty of it.
However, we’re really here to talk about Jack Nelson leaving this double team a little too quickly, and leaving Joe Tippmann a little too much of this reach block. BUT even though Nelson could have been a bit thicker through this double team (not in so much of a hurry to get up to the linebacker), Tippmann’s first step on wide zone needs to gain some ground (width).
You see here, the redshirt sophomore steps underneath himself and the ND defensive lineman is able to out-leverage him to the sideline, and gets the penetration and the stop. In a situation like this, Tippmann is coached to even give some ground on that first step in order to get the width needed to cover up the defensive lineman. It happens, he’ll keep getting better.
Holy wide zone, Batman! This appears to be the direction the Wisconsin offensive line is heading in - though it’s tough to tell if that’s a schematic change, or simply what Chez Mellusi and Isaac Guerendo are most comfortable running and what lends to their skillsets.
This looks like another communication issue, as left guard Cormac Sampson would have been better served to slow play this and help back to left tackle Logan Brown on the three-technique (outside shoulder of the guard), rather than playing front side with center Kayden Lyles. Sampson doesn’t really provide much to Lyles, just contributes to the mosh pit, while Brown is beat to the spot by a defensive lineman hell bent on penetrating and disrupting on fourth down. This is a tough block, but a former 5-star recruit should be able to make it. Regardless, the unit isn’t completely simpatico, and misses a valuable opportunity because of it.
QB Graham Mertz has likely received too much criticism for the offense’s woes so far this season for missed throws like this, and while it’s a throw he can make, it’s certainly not an easy one. He is off platform and navigating the pocket, and with Rylee Mills of Notre Dame (had Wisconsin as a finalist during his recruitment) bearing down on him in the pocket.
This pressure is on Josh Seltzner, who jump sets (doesn’t get depth) on this rep because of the play action in the backfield. He’s simulating a run blocking rep, but in his transition to pass pro against the lengthy Mills, his left shoulder gets a bit too soft, and Mills is able to collapse the pocket a bit, which impacts Mertz’s ability to throw this ball as he drifts to his left.
This is less of a narrative of Mertz, rather the impact the offensive lines’ shortcomings had on his play. The line has gotten the pass of another big, physical Wisconsin offensive line, but needs to improve to earn that moniker. A shorter rotation, or different combinations, something needs to change or improve.
The much-maligned signal caller has been an easy target for hot takes and shock jockeys over the past three weeks, some warranted, some a victim or circumstance. Here we’ll take a look at a couple plays he needs to improve on, and some other talking points that have been brought up regarding his play.
First and foremost, let’s dispel this myth. One of the first criticisms that arm-chair and Twitter quarterbacks have blurted out was Mertz’s inability to get off of his primary read. While I’m not here to blindly defend Mertz, and there’s plenty to criticize, this play is an excellent example of him going through his progressions before finally dumping the ball off.
The beauty of helmet stripes is the ability to notice what players see by the movement of their helmet. Watch this video and you can see Mertz start on the left, move from his first read to his second, and even third, before having to navigate the pocket and eventually throws a suspect checkdown to the back.
Mertz does not lack the ability to work through his progressions in pass concepts, so I’m here right now to prove that wrong.
While there are a lot of things that Badger fans are likely wrongly assuming about Mertz, this is a pretty apparent one to point out. He appears to be lacking some of the swagger that he oozes when he speaks, or at least brought to the field against Illinois and Michigan last season.
This is a huge third and three and a nice play design for what should be an easy completion and a first down for Wisconsin, who ends up not converting on the fourth and one we saw earlier in this article. He rolls out, and Kendric Pryor is open. There he is. Open. Throw it Graham. Now. Now. Now!
Mertz finally throws it, unfortunately it’s so late that Pryor has to come back to the football and brings himself in front of the sticks, forcing a fourth down. I don’t know what the hesitation was caused by, but even a novice football watcher could see that the timing on this concept was off, and stunted the offense on this possession. Something Mertz would be quick to tell you he needs to improve.
Another big missed opportunity here from Mertz. Wisconsin missed a bunch of chances to blow this game open early in the contest, and this is another one. While Mertz was clearly not overly sharp against the Irish, this is a near miss that would have been a massive change of field position.
Some general inaccuracy has plagued Mertz so far this season, and this is an example of it. This throw, along with a deep ball to Chimere Dike earlier in the game are simply throws that Mertz needs to hit on. Wisconsin’s margin for error in games against top opponents is so narrow, and when plays like this are left on the field, it just makes the need for precision on everything moving forward more prominent.
Again, Mertz would be the first to tell you he needs to hit this throw. If Wisconsin can clean up even some of these near misses, some of the more glaring offensive issues are mitigated to an extent.
Overall, Mertz played fairly poorly, but even with that Wisconsin was leading 13-10 at the beginning of the fourth quarter, and Mertz looked like the kid Badger fans expected on that scoring drive. He’s not the flawless player Badger fans hoped for, but he’s the best quarterback on the roster. I have no doubt about that.
Paul Chryst/Play Calling
The Badgers head man has also, deservingly so, bore a brunt of the criticism surrounding the football program in the losses to Penn State and Notre Dame this season.
Paul Chryst’s calling card was as an offensive coordinator, with the offenses at Wisconsin and even at Pitt. An offensive coach who knew the “Wisconsin Way” and had enjoyed plenty of success since his return to Wisconsin, but took over play calling duties after giving them to Joe Rudolph over the past couple of seasons.
Working on a film room piece for @B5Q today,— Owen Riese (@RieseDraft) September 30, 2021
I was impressed with Chryst's opening script of plays against Notre Dame. It seemed like after that is when things began to stagnate.
- Max protect to Pryor to start Mertz in rhythm
- Fake Jet Rt run to Mellusi
Wisconsin has struggled offensively this season under Chryst’s play-calling, and all of a sudden some of his warts have been put under the microscope due to the adversity faced by the Badgers.
Fans, and even a retired Wisconsin beat reporter, have questioned what happened to all of the pre-snap motion (it’s still there, just not quite to the level it has in the past), and other staples of Badger offenses.
Upon a second watch, to me Wisconsin’s first drive or so (scripted plays) were good. A lot of pre-snap motion, shifts, and easy ways to get Mertz in a rhythm.
Despite some early misses from Mertz, this is a home run from Chryst. This play was set up by the wide zone play that Tippmann didn’t take a good enough first step on earlier in this article. Tight ends Jake Ferguson and Clay Cundiff end up on the same side in this Y-Wing alignment.
Here they are again, and they fake the wide zone weak, and Mertz unleashes the long ball. Luckily for Notre Dame, No. 24 notices Cundiff streaking alone up the middle of the field, and is able to reel him in downfield, but a rare explosive play for Wisconsin on offense came early in the game against the Irish. This is the famous “Y-Leak” play that Kyle Shanahan brought to light, but Wisconsin actually ran this to Troy Fumagalli against LSU in 2016, and again to him against Nebraska in 2017.
This play is after halftime, and Wisconsin’s offense had grown a bit stagnant. Chryst reaches into the bag for this one, finally a misdirection run play. A chunk play here for Mellusi gets Wisconsin on the move, and Mertz ended this drive with a strike to Kendric Pryor on a nice clearout under concept. Mertz looked confident, and Wisconsin was rolling.
Unfortunately, and obviously, the game quickly got out of hand after this. And while I’m of the belief that Wisconsin needs to hire a legitimate offensive coordinator following this season, Paul Chryst still has some heaters in him, but as a play caller can fall victim to the execution of his players, and vice versa.
Things I Would Like To See Moving Forward
- I would like to see a shorter/more definitive offensive line rotation
- I would like to see more misdirection and variance in the Badgers’ run game (i.e. jet sweeps, more inside zone)
- I would like to see Graham Mertz get into a rhythm and find his swagger. The kid is talented and has shown it. He’s the best quarterback on the roster, like it or not, and is still looked to as a leader by his teammates.
- I would like to see fans not freak out at the first sign of adversity. These are college kids. They’re not fucking up on purpose (I promise you no one is more upset about the results of the two losses than the players and coaches).
- I would like to see the Wisconsin Badgers beat the Michigan Wolverines on Saturday.
Thank you for reading, sorry for the novel, hope you learned something! If you disagree vehemently with me on anything in this article, please feel to post in the comments that I 100% read.