The No. 18 Wisconsin Badgers (1-1 overall, 0-1 Big Ten) picked up their first win of the season on Saturday evening, easily handling Eastern Michigan 34-7 in front of a fired-up Camp Randall Stadium crowd.
The Badgers looked much better on both sides of the ball in the victory, and there were multiple takeaways that could be gleaned from the game. Let’s dive into a few.
Last week the running game was solid. The Badgers moved the ball on the ground against Penn State routinely, with Chez Mellusi and Isaac Guerendo shouldering the load.
Against Eastern Michigan, both running backs once again saw plenty of carries and made the most of them, but Jalen Berger also got involved and ran extremely well after not seeing a carry in the opener.
Most assumed that Wisconsin would deploy a three-person running back committee this season after Mellusi, Guerendo, and Berger all played well in fall camp, so it was a bit of a shock when Berger (the leading rusher from a year ago) did not get a touch against Penn State.
The trio of backs rotated in and looked really good. In fact, all three scored a touchdown, and the Badgers ripped off two runs of over 50 yards. Mellusi recorded a 60-yard run on his second run of the game, and Isaac Guerendo busted off an 82-yard scamper in the second quarter for a touchdown as well. Last season fullback John Chenal had the longest rush of the season at just over 40 yards, so it was a welcomed sight to see Mellusi and Guerendo generate chunk plays.
Brady Schipper and Braelon Allen also earned carries in mop-up duty, but I thought that Allen specifically ran hard between the tackles and did a good job of breaking a few tackles and falling forward.
Overall, I think fans can easily see through two games why Mellusi was tabbed as the No. 1 guy with back-to-back 100-yard games, but the luxury for running backs coach Gary Brown to have three capable ‘backs that can interchangeably help out is significant.
Wisconsin has relied heavily on a strong rushing attack over the past few decades, and it appears as though Paul Chryst came into this game wanting to get back to smashmouth football. The Badgers only threw the ball 20 times, and I think that Wisconsin has their running game at a nice spot heading into the bye week.
Offensive line rotation continues
One of the more interesting aspects of this year’s team is the offensive line. Last week I discussed the offensive line rotation as a major takeaway from Penn State, and the rotation continued against Eastern Michigan. The number of players involved grew.
Last night, Wisconsin essentially had a full-on hockey line shift with the entire group, outside of Logan Bruss, coming in and out of the game in waves.
Joe Rudolph has used a rotation in previous seasons, but it usually is only at one position. For example, the left tackle rotation back in 2018 with Cole Van Lanen and Jon Dietzen. This year I think Rudolph is still trying to figure out his best five.
Even senior Tyler Beach, who struggled in the opener against Penn State, rotated in and out with former five-star recruit Logan Brown. At left guard, senior Josh Seltzer started the game, but Cormac Sampson saw plenty of reps. Joe Tippmann got the first snaps at center, but senior Kayden Lyles was also heavily involved. The right guard position was no different with freshman Jack Nelson and Michael Furtney rotating. At this point, I think it is safe to assume that senior right tackle Bruss is the only player on the line that Rudolph truly feels 100% confident in.
I know that Joe Rudolph will likely attribute the rotational approach to having nine players that the staff is excited about, but a high level of continuity and communication is so vital for this group. It will be interesting to see if the rotation tightens up for Notre Dame in two weeks.
Even with three of their best defenders unable to go against Eastern Michigan, the Wisconsin defense was nasty.
In total, the defense only surrendered 92 yards and three first downs, with one first down coming via a penalty. Jim Leonhard frequently rotated in reserves at all three levels during the game, and I thought all three levels of the defense played extremely well.
The depth that Wisconsin has built on the defensive side of the ball was on full display against Eastern Michigan.
Normal standouts such as Keeanu Benton, Matt Henningsen, Jack Sanborn and Nick Herbig were their playmaking selves, but I was also impressed with some of the reserves. Spencer Lytle had a pretty tackle for loss where he swallowed the running back in the backfield, John Torchio and Travian Blaylock made some nice plays from their safety positions, and cornerback Donte Burton snagged an interception late in the game off of a tipped pass.
While I still believe that the starting 11 for the Badgers will see the majority of snaps against Notre Dame, the ability to have depth, specifically at defensive line and outside linebacker has paid dividends so far this season. The pass rush got home for two sacks and also batted down two passes against Eastern Michigan, and made the Eagle’s two quarterbacks uncomfortable all game long.
The defense deserved a shutout last night, and I think they cleaned up some of their communication errors from the week prior. It is a long season, but so far the Wisconsin defense has been extremely good.