MADISON— Unforced errors and a pair of late injuries doomed the Wisconsin Badgers (1-3 overall, 0-2 Big Ten), as they dropped their second-straight game, 38-17 to the No. 14 Michigan Wolverines (5-0 overall, 2-0 Big Ten).
Wisconsin’s season-long offensive struggles continued immediately following the opening kick against the Wolverines, as Wisconsin had -7 total yards of offense and four-straight three-and-outs in their first four series.
While the Wisconsin defense was mostly able to contain the Wolverines while Graham Mertz and co. struggled to find its way on offense, Michigan was still able to jump out to a lead with the help of a flea flicker pass from Cade McNamara to Cornelius Johnson, which went for a 34-yard score.
McNamara was 17-for-28 on the day for 197 yards and two touchdowns, both of which were caught by Johnson, who scored each time he caught the ball, including a 2-point conversion.
Michigan also benefited from yet another miscue by Wisconsin’s special team’s unit. Following a stalled Michigan drive, Wisconsin forced a Michigan punt, but after return man Dean Engram let the ball go for a potential touchback, the ball bounced and hit freshman Hunter Wohler, who was back on punt coverage. Michigan regained possession and was able to put three points on the board with the first of four Jake Moody field goals, giving themselves a 10-0 lead.
With the lead all-but insurmountable, given Wisconsin’s offensive shortcomings, Wisconsin flipped the script and found its footing for the first time in weeks as quarterback Graham Mertz started to look like the player that burst onto the scene last season against Illinois.
After starting off the game by not completing a single pass in the first quarter, Mertz went to work, connecting on a pass to Jake Ferguson for a 19-yard gain in the shadow of their own goal posts.
With the catch, Ferguson pushed his streak to 38-consecutive games with a reception prior to exiting the game early in the second half with a chest injury.
Mertz then connected with Kendric Pryor for all three of Pryor’s receptions in the game, totaling 25 yards, en route to a 34-yard field goal by Collin Larsh, ending a 15-play, 78-yard drive, covering over seven minutes of the second quarter. Following the score, Michigan was able to put three more points on the board, pushing the lead back out to 10 points with 27 seconds left in the first half.
With just 27 seconds left in the half, Wisconsin, a team that would normally just be happy to let the closing second of the half tick away, started their most impressive drive of the season. Braelon Allen started the drive off with a 9-yard rush and Wisconsin took it’s second time out of the half.
Once play resumed, Mertz completed a 36-yard completion to Chimere Dike and then another 18-yard completion to Dike for a score. It was great to see Dike get in on the action after Paul Chryst mentioned him on Thursday as a player he’d like to get more involved in the offense.
“I think whenever you’re running a route, you want to always expect it,” Dike said. “When it was outside leverage, I saw a little bit of the field open, I knew it was going to come to me and I am thankful that Graham (Mertz) was able to trust me enough and I was able to make a play.”
Following Dike’s touchdown, the first half ended with Wisconsin having what appeared to be all of the momentum, trailing just 13-10 and getting the ball first in the second half.
However, the second frame started with Mertz taking two big hits, one of which came on a sack on third down and Mertz never returned and was taken to the hospital with a chest injury.
Mertz finished the first half 8-of-10 for 115 yards and a touchdown. In his only series of the second half, he threw one incompletion.
With Mertz heading to the locker room, Michigan set off on an 11-play, 59-yard touchdown drive, which was kept alive by a 4th-and-1 conversion at midfield. The Wolverines capped off the drive with a second fourth down conversion, this time coming on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard-line, when back-up quarterback J.J. McCarthy scored on a QB keeper.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh went for it on the fourth down five times in the game and was successful four times.
“They felt like they were good enough and they felt like they could get it rolling on us,” OLB Nick Herbig said. “They converted some, which shouldn’t have happened, but they did and they just stayed with it.”
With Michigan pulling away, things didn’t get any better for the Badgers with back-up Chase Wolf in under center, as Wolf committed two turnovers (a fumble and an interception). Each turnover gifted favorable field position to Michigan and led to eventual scores, namely another field goal and Johnson’s second touchdown of the game.
To end the game, Wolf was able to find Clay Cundiff on a 25-yard touchdown pass which followed an Alexander Smith interception.
Too little too late, but this catch was a beauty pic.twitter.com/gyQ8Y3ci6p— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) October 2, 2021
Wisconsin will next face off against a familiar face next weekend in former head coach Bret Bielema, who is now coaching the Illinois Fighting Illini (2-4 overall, 1-2 Big Ten).