Saturday was a day of firsts in many ways. The Wisconsin Badgers (1-3 overall, 0-2 Big Ten) lost to Michigan at home for the first time since 2001. As a result, the Badgers find themselves with a 1-3 record for the first time since 1990.
Interestingly enough, 1990 was the first year under former head coach and athletic director Barry Alvarez, who was honored throughout the game in recognition for what he accomplished to build the Wisconsin program up in both positions.
Beyond the rough start to the season and the festivities surrounding Barry Alvarez Day, there was still plenty to glean from the performance on Saturday.
Let’s take a look back at four takeaways from the game.
Improvement from Mertz
Quarterback Graham Mertz displayed measured improvements in this game. Even with the offensive line on skates against the Michigan defensive front, Mertz appeared to get his mojo back in the second quarter.
Mertz led back-to-back scoring drives for the offense and made the types of throws that he missed against Penn State and Notre Dame. For example, Mertz missed Chimere Dike on a four-verts scheme against Penn State to win the game, but he delivered a strike to Dike on the same play for a crucial 36-yard toss to set up a touchdown (also to Dike) late in the second quarter. Those were the types of throws that he has done in practice, and it was promising to see him do it against a tough Michigan team.
Mertz put together a gritty performance that should elevate confidence in him moving forward. Even after the offense stalled the first few drives and got booed, he rallied back and made some tremendous throws. He looked more confident and in control.
Unfortunately, things went sideways in the early third quarter when he sustained what appeared to be a rib injury on a huge hit by Daxton Hill who was left unblocked. Mertz did not return and was sent to the hospital for further observation. His status for the Illinois game is up in the air, but hopefully, he will be able to play. Backup Chase Wolf struggled in his place and recorded multiple turnovers against the Wolverines.
Mertz has deservedly earned his fair share of criticism this season, but he made some big-time throws against Michigan, and hopefully, he can build on that second-quarter performance the rest of the season.
Special teams miscues piling up
For the second straight game, the Badgers made vital mistakes on special teams.
Shortly after the defense stopped Michigan to open the second quarter, punt return coverage issues popped up again. This time the ball bounced off of freshman Hunter Wohler in a “kill” situation (aka GET THE HELL AWAY FROM THE BOUNCING FOOTBALL) and the Wolverines were able to recover the ball inside the five-yard line. The punt return unit has hurt this team routinely this year, but this was the most glaring miscue. The defense only allowed a field goal on the possession, but with the offense already working through issues losing out on extra possessions can’t happen.
Jack Van Dyke also sent a kickoff out of bounds that set up Michigan with better field position, and ultimately helped the Wolverines score another field goal in the second quarter. That error is far less egregious, but it was still another example of the special teams unit hurting the overall team.
Offensive line overwhelmed
The Wisconsin offensive line continues to be a work in progress at best.
Michigan had a great scheme to put pressure on the quarterback and take away the Badgers rushing attack, but the offensive line was also downright bad. Overall they surrendered six sacks and only managed to lead the running game to 82 rushing yards without sack yardage included.
Paul Chryst acknowledged after the game that this offense is searching for an identity, and for the better part of 30 years that identity has aligned to running the ball behind a physically opposing offensive line. That has not been the case this year.
Logan Bruss continues to be the only Wisconsin offensive lineman that has not rotated in and out of the lineup, though it did appear as though the offensive line rotation tightened up slightly.
There were multiple bad snaps by center Kayden Lyles and left tackle Tyler Beach played poorly once again. Changes are needed along the offensive line, and the sooner the better with the rest of Big Ten play still to come. Joe Rudolph’s group has not lived up to expectations this year, especially the left side of the line which features two fifth-year seniors.
Paul Chryst says the #Badgers are playing the offensive lineman they believe give them the best chance to win.— Evan Flood (@Evan_Flood) October 2, 2021
It is time to try something different, because the hockey-style offensive line shifts are not working, and communication is not there. I am by no means going to proclaim to be an offensive line expert, but everyone in Camp Randall could see how bad they looked against Michigan’s front.
The offensive line has some soul searching to do, especially the veterans who have struggled all year long. I am surprised Logan Brown hasn’t gotten even more opportunities at left tackle, but maybe that is a necessary change in the coming weeks. If changes don’t come along the line, the running game will continue to falter.
I did like the way that Braelon Allen ran though. Maybe he gets more opportunities to help spark the running game given his ability to at the very least push the pile forward.
Big plays and fourth down
The Wisconsin defense has not gotten a lot of help this year.
Bad offense and poor special teams have put the defense in unfavorable conditions far too often this season. On Saturday, Michigan had starting field position in Wisconsin territory three times and had two other occasions where they began beyond their 40-yard line.
Adding insult, Michigan felt comfortable enough to go for it on fourth down five times, displaying confidence in their defense against Wisconsin’s struggling offense. The Wolverines converted on four of them to remain on the field.
Much of that is not the fault of the defense, but the secondary has given up its fair share of big plays this season.
While Michigan didn’t rush for anything longer than eight yards, the passing attack hit chunk plays of 38 yards, 56 yards and 34 yards. The 38-yard reception by Roman Wilson was well covered and was just a tremendous play on the ball, but the other two were defensive breakdowns that broke the game open. Teams continue to test the Badgers deep this season, and until they can consistently stop it, that won’t change.