The Wisconsin Badgers football team (9-4 overall) finished off their 2021 season with a 20-13 win over Arizona State on Thursday night in the Las Vegas Bowl. Despite playing without multiple traditional starters, the Badgers managed to take care of business and leave Vegas with some new hardware.
Let’s dive into three storylines that emerged from the win.
Young player contributions
As mentioned in the lede, the Badgers were without some key pieces against ASU. On defense, without Faion Hicks and Collin Wilder in the Wisconsin secondary, Alexander Smith, John Torchio, and Hunter Wohler all saw more opportunities. Linebacker Jordan Turner acquitted himself well in meaningful snaps to spell Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal. Freshman outside linebacker Darryl Peterson earned reps throughout the game as well and bull-rushed the tackle across from him on Torchio’s early interception.
Nice throw by Graham Mertz and diving catch by Skyler Bell for 15 yards on 3rd & 9 pic.twitter.com/jap6YRehNR— ✯✯✯✯✯ (@FTB_Vids_YT) December 31, 2021
On offense, wide receivers Markus Allen and Skyler Bell each had critical grabs with Danny Davis unable to go and Kendric Pryor injured for most of the second half. 17-year-old Braelon Allen was his usual studly self with 29 carries and 159 rushing yards. Reserve tight end Jaylan Franklin and converted fullback Riley Nowakowski saw playing time as well in blocking situations. Lastly, along the offensive line, Tanor Bortolini and Cormac Sampson played well in place of Logan Bruss and Joe Tippmann.
Overall, the Badgers leaned on some of their younger players to help pick up the bowl win. At one point the weapons around Mertz consisted of three true freshmen (Braelon Allen, Markus Allen, Skyler Bell). While the results on offense were not always perfect, the extra reps from bowl prep and in the game could pay major dividends heading into a crucial off-season for the team.
It’s hard to read too much into a singular game, but there were some positives to glean from the performance at some notable positions where these young players will be called into larger roles next season. Beyond the two receivers, Jordan Turner was a player that specifically caught my eye, and I also enjoyed seeing freshman safety Hunter Wohler bounce back quickly from a misplayed deep ball with a critical tackle for loss.
Jim Leonhard’s defense was once again active on Thursday. The Badgers managed to sack Arizona State quarterback Jayden Daniels five times and also forced an intentional grounding/sack as well on a trick play.
Sophomore Nick Herbig was particularly good in pass-rushing situations as he personally got home for two sacks, but I thought that the defense, in general, put together a strong performance. The Badgers held Arizona State to only 13 points and 219 total yards, while also adding a pivotal takeaway early to help give the offense plus field position.
Wisconsin’s defense came into the bowl game as one of the top units in the entire country, and despite missing some key pieces they did not disappoint. Even when the Badgers offense was sputtering in the third quarterback, the defense was able to notch a couple of big stops to keep the lead in their favor.
The Wisconsin defense is built on creating pressure and Daniels was running for his life throughout the contest. Given the number of young players that saw playing time on Thursday night, I would imagine that the group should be great once again next season.
The Drive + Mertz
Wisconsin held a 20-6 lead at halftime. In the third quarter, the offense laid an egg, however, and Arizona State was able to make things interesting by the fourth quarter.
Pinned near their own goal line, Graham Mertz and the Wisconsin offense put together one of their best drives of the season to salt the game away. In total, the drive took nearly 10 minutes off the clock on 19 plays, including multiple impressive third-down conversions. Braelon Allen toted the rock 10 times in that period, including a 14-yard pile driver that absolutely appeared to break Arizona State’s will. Equally crucial, Graham Mertz stood tall in the pocket and delivered a huge 30-yard toss to Chimere Dike while getting blasted by an oncoming blitzer.
Mertz and the offense were far from perfect, especially in the third quarter, but the group weathered injuries to secure the win on one of the top drives of 2021. Mertz’s third-down throws were on the money most of the night and it was fun to see them come to the young guns in the wide receiver room. The interception early in the game on a poorly run route by Kendric Pryor, and off-the-mark toss by Mertz, was obviously not ideal, but it was nice to see No. 5 bounce back late in the game when the team needed it most.
That final drive was Wisconsin football, and that was a great way to cap off the season.