The No. 18 Wisconsin Badgers (1-1 overall, 0-1 Big Ten) took out the Eastern Michigan Eagles (1-1 overall, 0-0 MAC) on Saturday night by the score of 34-7. It was a nice bounce-back win for UW who now head to an early season bye week and then a neutral site showdown with Notre Dame in two weeks.
We convened a trio of writers to discuss what they liked from Saturday night, what still needs to be cleaned up and how Paul Chryst should divide the carries in the backfield. Here’s what they had to say!
What was the main improvement in your eyes between Week 1’s loss to PSU and Week 2’s win over EMU?
Belz: The level of competition is not comparable, but I thought that the offensive line did a much better job. I am still a little leery of how much rotating they are doing there, but overall I thought they got a nice push up front and were able to open up running lanes all game long. I also liked the running backs ability to break off chunk plays. That had been a missing element since 2019.
Ryan: Wisconsin cleaned up the little things that plagued them so much in the opener - handoffs were cleaner (apart from the first drive when Chez Mellusi tripped) and the snap exchange between the center and Graham Mertz were cleaner. While Wisconsin did fail to finish on the opening drive, they turned it around quickly, scoring on their next four drives.
J.J.: I agree with Belz. Though EMU’s defensive front was never going to provide the same issues as Penn State, the offensive line was a noticeable plus yesterday. Mertz had a clean pocket to work with which I think is crucial for a young quarterback, and the running backs had all sorts of holes to exploit.
How would you like to see the running back carries split moving forward?
Belz: I think the split was about right. I believe Mellusi is their best option still, and Jalen Berger/Isaac Guerendo should each see significant snaps as well. I liked how Berger ran in his 15 carries, and I am glad to see him back in action. Guerendo would have probably seen more carries if the game was closer. I think the more interesting aspect for this group, in my eyes, is how can the Badgers get the trio more involved in the passing game as well. All three need their touches for this offense to be at its best.
Ryan: I am a big believer in Jalen Berger, so any plan to get him carries is the right move in my book. That being said, looking at the stable of backs that Wisconsin has, they all bring something different to the offense and I think if Wisconsin is going to have success they’ll need a combination of Berger, Mellusi and Guerendo running the ball to win.
J.J.: I’m an on-record Berger advocate too, but I like the way Chryst indicated the backs would be used against the Eagles. Mellusi getting about 60% of the touches, Berger coming in and powering through tired legs for 35%, and Guerendo getting the chance to break games open as the change of pace speed back for that last 5% of touches.
How good can this defense be this season?
Belz: I think this defense will be as good as the secondary can be in big games. The front seven is nasty and I don’t anticipate any teams being able to move the ball much on the ground. If the secondary can limit big plays, like they did against Eastern Michigan, I think this could be a top-five defense in the country. There is a level of talent and depth at all three levels of the defense that they just did not have in 2020.
Ryan: The sky is the limit for this group. Wisconsin was without two starting defensive backs on Saturday and the defensive line took the passing game out of the equation providing a lot of pressure and in doing so, they stopped the run as well. Wisconsin is also still without one of its better defenders, Leo Chenal. Once he and the defensive backs return and Leonhard has his full complement of defenders, they will be even better.
J.J.: The defense will clearly be this team’s strength as we head into the brunt of the schedule in the coming weeks. Like Belz said: the talent is perhaps the highest it’s been in years, and the depth to back it up is there as well. This team won’t falter even if they lose a star like Jack Sanborn, and Chenal is still yet to get a chance to make an impact.
Anything that you’d like to see cleaned up during the bye week before UW plays Notre Dame?
Belz: Red zone conversions. Getting stonewalled by Eastern Michigan on that opening drive just can’t happen for a power run team. Then settling for a field goal right away in the second quarter was not great. I’m not going to worry about a backup QB interception late in the game, but against an inferior opponent I still think there were some points left out there Saturday night. They need to continue to improve in converting in the red zone and in third down situations for this offense to reach it’s ceiling.
Ryan: Wisconsin was 5-of-12 on third downs against EMU and 7-of-22 against PSU. Third down conversions will be huge against Notre Dame and the rest of its opponents this season. I would like to see the offense open up a bit more as well, to allow Mertz to throw the ball downfield. The play calling was a bit vanilla against EMU, which was undoubtedly by design, because Wisconsin didn’t have to dig deep into the playbook to win by 27 points. Look for Wisconsin to take more shots down the field against the Fighting Irish.
J.J.: Honestly, as a Notre Dame student and Wisconsin fan, I view the two teams in very similar ways. You know what you’re getting with the defense, it’s great. You’re unsure why an offensive line that’s usually a hallmark seems to be struggling a bit, at minimum it’s not dominating like in prior years. Running backs are good, but can you trust the quarterback to dig you out of a hole if you go down a score or two?
For both I’d say the answer is a resounding “who knows.” I think these two teams matchup very well, and for both I’d also say the key thing that needs to get cleaned up is the aforementioned quarterback play. If either Mertz or Coan/Buchner can hit that second gear that they’ve yet to find, the matchup odds will tilt significantly.
Game balls on offense and defense (and special teams, but we all know y’all are picking Andy Vujnovich).
Belz: I’m going to go with Logan Bruss. The running game was humming, and he was the only offensive lineman that didn’t rotate in and out. Add on the fact that he stood up for his teammates and shoved Turan Rush, and he gets my vote.
On the defensive side I am going to go with Matt Henningsen and Keannu Benton. Both players were stout against the run, and Henningsen had a big sack. Then Benton single handedly stalled an EMU possession with a tackle for loss and a pass breakup (his celebration pictured below) in back-to-back plays. That duo up front for the Badgers has been really good, and is a big reason for everything that Jim Leonhard is able to do schematically.
Ryan: On offense, I gotta go with the three-headed monster of Berger, Mellusi and Guerendo. Defensively, EMU only ran 38 offensive plays, so there weren’t many opportunities for the Badger defenders to individually light up the stat sheet. That being said, I have to go with the defense as a unit.
They really dug deep without Faion Hicks and Collin Wilder and for the second-straight game without Chenal. On special teams, Andy Vujnovich pinned EMU inside its own 10-yard-line after sitting for over half the game and then kicked a 61-yard punt. However, you can’t ignore Collin Larsh’s two field goals. So I will give it to both of them. Basically, I am in a giving mood this morning.
J.J.: Just to be unique, I’ll give my offensive game ball to Graham Mertz. This was the game he needed to start with. A low-pressure tune up where he got to operate out of a generally quiet pocket where he could go through all his motions and make all the reads he wanted. And he had a good game for himself- the kind of game he’ll now hope to build off of when he goes back into the fire in two weeks against Notre Dame. On defense my pick is Keannu Benton. Benton has gotten more dominant with each season he’s been at Wisconsin, and he had some really big plays to make sure the Eagles never broke into double digits scoring.