To begin this article I would like to apologize to you guys and Drew (our fearless editor), for the tardiness of this article. It’s somewhat due to some of my other obligations but mostly due to who I am as a person. This article will be bigger and more timely as the season wears on.
The Wisconsin Badgers struggled against the Penn State Nittany Lions last weekend in what was a disappointing home opening loss for the Cardinal and White.
While Penn State is a good team, and extremely talented on defense, Wisconsin did more to harm itself than the opposition did on Saturday. Untimely penalties, miscommunications, and even things as uncharacteristic and fundamental as mesh points and handoff exchanges between quarterback and running back were issues at times.
While I’m not here to look at those things, there was some rust that was shown and unfortunately it came against another ranked team at home in Week 1 instead of some arbitrary directional Michigan school.
Now, I posted a question asking for topics for this week, and while I apologize that I won’t get to all of them, there were a couple that I was able to see quickly that should get better, or need to get fixed quickly.
I’ll save the major one for last, but first let’s talk about:
The Offensive Line/Tyler Beach
While the running game was about the only thing that went right for Wisconsin last weekend, there were instances in both the run game and in particular, pass protection, that need to get cleaned up before Saturday.
Now, some majorly needed context for evaluating Tyler Beach’s performance on Saturday:
LT Tyler Beach owned his performance against Penn State.— Zach Heilprin (@ZachHeilprin) September 6, 2021
“I think I played poorly, to be honest. I didn’t play up to my standards personally. There’s no excuses for that.”
Beach missed most of fall camp with a foot injury. Practiced five times before playing Saturday.
While Beach is a fifth year senior and has a lot of experience, him switching over to the left side and then having very little time to practice and develop continuity with a revolving door of guards next to him plays a major role in understanding how he played against Penn State.
Let’s start with the first play:
September 10, 2021
The Badgers open up the game with what’s now called “Mid Zone” with John Chenal at fullback swiping across the formation, in what is essentially window dressing for the play.
Beach is in an extremely difficult spot on the first snap of the game. As the play side tackle, it’s his responsibility to cover up the defensive end and influence him to stretch out the front side. This is a very difficult task to do, because the biggest thing that kills zone runs is penetration in the backfield. You’re extending horizontally, but have to protect inside.
Meanwhile, the defensive end No. 17 (Arnold Ebiketie) knows at the snap he’s shooting into the B-gap. While Beach is technically at fault here, there’s not much realistically he was going to be able to do about it. The left guard and center are working to the Mike linebacker, so they’re not in a position to adjust to Ebiketie spiking inside. Essentially the perfect call to start the game for the defense, and a bad result for the Badgers.
Something I was pretty surprised to see was the amount of rotating that Joe Rudolph had the Badgers doing up front. By my count, nine offensive linemen saw the field on Saturday, the only guy who didn’t leave the game was Logan Bruss, the right tackle. Beach, Josh Seltzner, Joe Tippmann, Jack Nelson, Logan Brown (one snap due to injury), Cormac Sampson, Kayden Lyles and Michael Furtney all got significant game reps against Penn State.
While this is a benefit and generally a positive, offensive line maybe more than any other position depends on cohesion and continuity - I’ll be curious to see if this was a “they’re all good enough and deserve reps” situation or a “no one at this spot has separated themselves as THE guy” situation.
Pass protection was a problem for the Badgers, which against uber talented defensive fronts like Penn State is fairly understandable, especially in Week 1. However, there was some question throughout the weekend as to whether the protection was the issue, or if Graham Mertz was holding the ball too long. Let’s take a look.
September 10, 2021
Here is a rare occurrence of Wisconsin in “scat” or a five man protection scheme. Jake Ferguson releases out into a route, and Chez Mellusi leaks out into the flats. Beach should use a “sort” technique, meaning sort out the defense to adjust to protect the most dangerous defenders.
He starts in to help the guard, as he’s not entirely sure No. 17 will be rushing or not, but even once 17 declares himself as a rusher, Beach stays in on the interior defender and doesn’t get out to Ebiketie. This results in Mertz getting hit (though not knocked to the ground), and no doubt put a little seed in the back of Mertz’s mind that he was under pressure early.
This is something that takes reps and practice to master, but not a concept Beach shouldn’t be familiar with as a fifth year senior.
September 10, 2021
An issue that NEEDS to get fixed but you can also contribute to the lack of reps and the quality of the competition is Beach’s pass sets.
In pass protection, when you “under set” is when you don’t extend yourself as much as needed to cover the defender, typically when you’re afraid of the defender’s athleticism. It can also be unintentional, if you haven’t gotten the requisite number of reps you need at that spot to comfortably do it at full speed against good competition.
You’ll see OL gurus on Twitter like Willie Anderson, who played for 15 years in the NFL for the Bengals and Ravens, or Paul Alexander, Anderson’s coach for his entire career in Cincinnati, will mention that “outside hand down the middle equals death”. In layman’s terms: the offensive tackle’s outside hand can’t just hit the middle of the pass rusher. It doesn’t work, has never worked, and will almost always result in getting your quarterback killed.
Now, I don’t say that to infer that Tyler Beach did it on purpose, but a lack of experience at that spot can be an issue. Beach will need to improve his use of independent hands to remedy this issue. The outside hand either needs to get to the outside shoulder of the defender, or to his near shoulder, and his right hand to the near hip of the rusher.
I’m only going to post one clip in here so you guys can read this before Saturday’s game, but there are legitimate concerns regarding Mertz. I also want to clarify he has played in eight college games, and there is no reason to panic or worry, no matter how many yards Jack Coan throws for at Notre Dame.
September 11, 2021
This is the big one from last week. Joel Klatt did a nice job articulating this during the broadcast, but Penn State is in man coverage here. If Isaac Guerendo runs literally any type of route, Jaquan Brisker doesn’t have the chance to just sit and be opportunistic on this play. However, Mertz had targeted Ferguson multiple times in the red zone earlier in the game, and once Guerendo stayed in to block, that freed up Brisker to be a robber and essentially just be an athlete, which led to the interception.
To an extent, you had to tip your hat to Brisker, one of the best safeties in the country, for making a nice, instinctive play. However, it is somewhat alarming that Mertz was so locked onto Ferguson in the red zone. Now, in Mertz’s defense, it’s fourth down in the red zone with under two minutes left, and he’s got to make something happen and make a play.
See how fruitless this argument can be?
Overall, I think Mertz will be just fine. He’ll get a nice warm up against Eastern Michigan on Saturday, and an extra week to prepare for Notre Dame at Soldier Field on September 25.
The sky isn’t falling, Badger fans. I promise.