The Wisconsin Badgers improved to 2-3 overall on the season (1-2 in the Big Ten) thanks to a shutout road win against Illinois on Saturday. The game was never in doubt, as Paul Chryst got the better of his former boss, Bret Bielema, to pick up a big win to potentially get his team back on track.
Let’s take a look back at some of the key takeaways from the conference victory for the Badgers.
Running game dominates
After being held to under 100 team rushing yards in back-to-back weeks, the Wisconsin running game was in sync versus Illinois. Led by starting running back Chez Mellusi (21 carries for 145 yards and one touchdown) and freshman Braelon Allen (18 carries, 131 yards, one touchdown) the Badgers ran for nearly 400 yards on the ground and averaged 6.4 yards per attempt.
Mellusi ran hard on Saturday and showed a willingness to run through defenders. He had a tough game against Michigan last weekend, so to see him bounce back with a strong performance was positive.
While Mellusi handled the most carries against Illinois, the main story though was the play of 17-year-old Braelon Allen. The freshman from Fond du Lac displayed tremendous balance and used his strength to power his way down the field. He appears to have really made a jump lately, and I would expect a heavy dose of Mellusi and Allen going forward. The two players complement one another nicely and if they can both be productive the rest of the season, the Wisconsin offense has a chance to be much better.
The other main observation from the running back room was the inclusion of Brady Schipper and the exclusion of Jalen Berger. With Isaac Guerendo out with an injury, Schipper handled the third-down role throughout the day, and he played well in pass blocking situations. Surprisingly, Berger did not play a single snap for the second time this year.
While the running backs looked better this week, the primary reason was the play of the offensive line. Even with senior right tackle Logan Bruss out with an injury, the line executed at a much higher level against Illinois. The Wisconsin front was able to open up running lanes and protected Graham Mertz is pass-pro.
The offensive line has struggled this year, so for them to demonstrate improvement was a tremendous sign for the offense overall. Illinois is not as talented as Penn State, Notre Dame and Michigan, but the progress was noteworthy. It will be interesting to see if the offensive line can string together more good performances with seven games remaining on the schedule.
Up and down day for Mertz, passing game
Graham Mertz was able to make the start against Illinois, a week removed from missing the second half of the Michigan game due to a chest/ribs injury.
Likely playing hurt, Mertz did not put together his best performance. He had multiple deep balls that he severely underthrew, one of which was intercepted, and the other was a surefire touchdown if he had hit Jake Ferguson in stride.
Mertz did put together a string of throws in the second half that was impressive, but he still has a tendency to make the hard throws look easy and the easy throws look difficult. The Badgers still need more consistency from him, because there will be games over the remaining schedule where he will need to play better to help the team win.
No. 1 wide receiver Danny Davis was once again not involved, going catchless for the second straight game. Chimere Dike and Kendric Pryor both made some nice plays, but the absence of Davis in the offense paired with the up and down nature of the passing is still a concern.
Stout defense, missed opportunities
The Wisconsin defense was once again stellar on Saturday.
Similar to the offense it can be hard to glean too much because of how bad Illinois is/was, but the defense pitched a shutout and looked good throughout. Noah Burks and Nick Herbig both played really well from their outside linebacker spots, and the defense as a whole was flying around all day long.
The only ongoing nitpick for this defense is their inability to capitalize on turnover opportunities. Against Michigan, Scott Nelson dropped an easy interception that was almost assuredly a touchdown, and this week the Wisconsin secondary had a handful of missed interceptions.
The defense is playing phenomenal this season, but the Badgers are in the bottom 5% of college football in turnover margin, and while the offense is the main culprit, the defense has not capitalized on opportunities either.
Through five games the defense has only generated three turnovers. Once again, this is nitpicking, but the chances have been there all season long.