The No. 14 Wisconsin Badgers (8-4 overall, 6-3 Big Ten) dropped a must-win game to arch rival Minnesota (8-4 overall, 6-3 Big Ten) on Saturday afternoon. The Gophers out-coached and outplayed the Badgers and for that they won Paul Bunyan’s Axe and denied UW a Big Ten West title and a trip to the conference championship game. Probably doesn’t get much better for a Minnesota fan to be quite honest.
A trio of our writers, J.J., Jake and Ryan, got together on Sunday morning and rehashed all of the gory details of Sunday’s game. There weren’t very many positives but we tried to find at least one!
What does Paul Chryst have to do to regain your trust after sending out the punt unit on fourth and one, down two scores, with under four and a half minutes to play against their biggest rival with a division title in the balance?
J.J.: Call good plays in the bowl game first, obviously. But I also think getting Mertz up and firing early on in 2022 is going to be crucial for Chryst. Because next year’s schedule is definitely a pretty soft one (OSU away is rough, and so is going to East Lansing. But other than that, I don’t see any games UW shouldn’t be favored in), and Mertz will be an upperclassman. The time for sophomore slumps has ended- either Chryst shows he can develop the program’s best quarterback recruit in a long time into a legitimate contending player, or he doesn’t. The back end of this season was a net positive for Mertz, but I think he still has room to grow further. And in my view whether Chryst can unlock that or not that will be as big of a reflection of his abilities as his playcalling.
Jake: I think the biggest thing is consistency. The M.O. for this team all year has been run the ball, don’t force Mertz to try to do too much and ask him to make some short throws here and there. Not sexy, but it worked.
In their biggest game of the year, on their first drive of the fourth quarter down a touchdown, Chryst threw the ball six consecutive times, three of which were consecutive deep balls that resulted in incompletions followed by a missed FG (which shouldn’t have been attempted).
I understand wanting to develop Mertz, I really do, but asking him to do something on your most important drive of the year that you haven’t asked him to do all year seems questionable. I know Braelon Allen didn’t have much room to run yesterday, but all it takes is one hole to open up and he’s gone. The clock wasn’t an issue either. Be consistent, Paul.
Ryan: Coming up with a great offensive game plan for whatever bowl game they get is a good place to start. Also, never do that again. He could also start to develop Mertz’s game some more. He has shown signs or real growth at times, but I there is still a lot of inconsistency in his game and if Wisconsin is ever going to compete in the conference, they’re going to need far more consistent play at the quarterback position.
What did you think about the play calling on Saturday? What would you have changed?
J.J.: Yeah the playcalling wasn’t necessarily bland by any means, Chryst tried plenty of passes and also threw in a few of his little gadget plays (I forget what quarter it was but the tight end screen to Ferguson up the middle comes to mind) but at the end of the day it just wasn’t working. It feels weird to call for more bread and butter run plays, but the passing game just wasn’t hitting the gear it needed to yesterday.
Jake: Mertz threw the ball 38 times, by far his most passing attempts in a game since he threw the ball 41 times against Notre Dame. I hate to say it, but this team isn’t built to win games that force Mertz to be the driving force of the offense. This team runs the ball, and when the ground game goes, the Badgers go.
Look, there were multiple times throughout this game where I questioned the play calling (most specifically the Ferguson screen pass thrown eight yards in front of the chains on third down that J.J. alluded to), but I’m not sure I can fault Chyrst for trying to open up the passing game. The run game wasn’t there and he needed to do something to try and open up the offense. Nothing was clicking, yesterday just wasn’t Wisconsin’s day.
Ryan: It wasn’t good…? I would have liked to see more rushing attempts. It is the root of UW’s offense and abandoning it doesn’t bode well for our chances. I would have loved to see more jet sweeps. I know I sound like a broken record, but it is a dynamic piece of Wisconsin’s offense that I have so rarely seen this season.
How about a positive thing! Keeanu Benton and Leo Chenal sure looked dominant, uh, what did you like about their games?
J.J.: They did their part and more. There were a few plays where it felt like they could have taken on five blockers and still gotten into the backfield. This defense really was let down by the offense this year.
Jake: They’re both incredibly electric forces on the defensive side of the ball that this team is going to miss next year. All they do is consistently beat blockers and lead one of the best defensive units in the country. They don’t take plays off. It’s been a joy to watch and yesterday was no different.
Ryan: Keeanu and Leo were Keeanu and Leo. Had it not been for them and the rest of the defense Saturday’s outcome could have been a lot worse.
Did Nebraska lay out a blueprint to gain yards on the Wisconsin defense by using the tight end slipping into space off of play action passes?
J.J.: Yes and no. On one hand, they provided a recent example. But I don’t think they were the first- against the Badgers, Notre Dame tight end Michael Mayer put up seven catches for 61 yards, many of which came on similar concepts where the tight end gets dropped by the coverage in space. I think this a weakness that had been exposed before, Nebraska just reopened it.
Jake: It’s hard to say if they were the first (J.J. mentioned ND), but them doing that last week definitely didn’t help. You have to think that P.J. Fleck saw that hole in Jim Leonhard’s defense versus Nebraska and knew if UW didn’t make adjustments, it was an easy hole he could use to expose this defense.
Ryan: It certainly exposed a weakness in Wisconsin’s defense. Minnesota only completed 11 passes, but made every single one of them count.
How disappointed were you with this game?
J.J.: I’m as much surprised as I am disappointed. I didn’t think Wisconsin had some massively superior roster, but it did feel like the team had slowly been gaining momentum for months to lead up to this and to just have everything collapse is…disappointing and fairly unexpected.
Tip of the hat to P.J. Fleck, for what it’s worth. He’s been the butt of a lot of jokes, but his team came into this game well prepared and with a good game plan, and they were rewarded.
Jake: I’m not sure if I’m more disappointed or surprised. If you watched this game, along with every other game Wisconsin played this season in random order, weren’t told which games were played when, and then asked to put the games in chronological order, you’d put this game at the front end of the season somewhere around the Penn State and Notre Dame games.
This game just felt like the games early this year where the offense didn’t have any sort of identity and struggled to move the ball. They came out flat. Losing Collin Wilder on the first play from scrimmage definitely didn’t help and Minnesota effectively took Braelon Allen out of the game. That’s how you beat this team.
Ryan: Very. Wisconsin had all of the momentum on its side heading into Axe Week and didn’t play like it at all.
What bowl game do you think Wisconsin ends up in?
J.J.: Las Vegas bowl would be my guess.
Jake: Outback Bowl.
Ryan: I think the Outback Bowl is a possible destination.