The Wisconsin Badgers fell to 1-2 overall on the season (0-1 in the Big Ten) after a 41-13 loss to Notre Dame on Saturday at Soldier Field. The loss is just the latest big game the Badgers have dropped the past few seasons, and once again highlighted some of the primary issues that have plagued them in those matchups.
Let’s look into some of the takeaways that emerged from the tough L.
The defense deserves better
Let’s start with something positive!
The Wisconsin defense was once again solid all day long on Saturday. Overall the group only surrendered 242 yards of total offense, including a ridiculous three net yards rushing by the Irish.
The defense forced a huge turnover and got to the quarterback for six sacks. A big reason for the pressure was the play of the Badgers defensive line. Four defensive linemen were credited with at least half of a sack, while outside linebacker Nick Herbig got home twice.
Outside of Kevin Austin getting behind the defense for a 36-yard reception, the secondary did a great job of keeping everything in front of them and forcing Notre Dame to drive the length of the field.
Through three games this season, the Wisconsin defense has proven to be excellent. In both losses this season, the defense has kept them in the game, and at this point, their play has been phenomenal. If the Badgers had even a mediocre offense, they might be undefeated based on the level of play this defense. They deserve a ton of credit, and they frankly deserve a lot better.
Special teams continue to haunt the Badgers
I thought that K Collin Larsh and P Andy Vujnovich struck the ball well for the most part. Larsh was 2-of-3 on the day, making both his attempts inside of 40 yards and missing a 52-yarder. With #collegekickers a constantly trending subject in the Twitterverse, Larsh played well enough for this team to win. Punter Andy Vujnovich nearly averaged 50 yards per punt, with two separate punts of 50+ yards and a long of 62. He did a great job of helping flip the field for Wisconsin multiple times.
Unfortunately, the play that blew the game open was a 96-yard kick return by Chris Tyree. The speedster exploited poor kickoff coverage and was off to the races. The play came on the heels of the Badgers settling for a field goal in the red zone to take a lead (more to come on that to come) and shifted momentum dramatically.
The other glaring issue that hurt Wisconsin was their struggles in punt return. Both Dean Engram and Jack Dunn looked uncomfortable fielding the ball and made poor decisions. With an offense that is already reeling, missing out on valuable field position due to the return game is tough to watch.
Just put 38 year old Jim Leonhard back to return punts— Matt Belz (@savedbythebelz) September 25, 2021
No offense to Dunn and Engram, but it is time for the Badgers to use their best playmakers in the return game and coverage. Chandler had a 33-yard return, but this team still lacks explosion in the return game in general. Penn State used Jahan Dotson as their primary return man, and Notre Dame used Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree against the Badgers. In the big games, Wisconsin needs to use their very best.
There is no reason Danny Davis/Kendric Pryor/Isaac Guerendo shouldn’t be getting a chance to return. Jim Leonhard was a multi-year All-American safety, and they allowed him to return punts. Until Wisconsin prioritizes special teams, this unit will continue to haunt them, in my opinion.
4th quarter troubles
We will get to the offense last because that is a longer discussion, but Wisconsin has a fourth-quarter problem:
The #Badgers have lost 9 games since 2019.— Matt Belz (@savedbythebelz) September 26, 2021
They have been outscored 88 to 9 in the fourth quarter of those games.
Wisconsin was tied after Jump Around in both losses this year and was leading versus Illinois (2019) and Oregon (Rose Bowl) at that point.
The main reason for these issues is directly related to offensive troubles, which I will touch on next, but the trend of faltering in the fourth quarter needs to change quickly if they want to get back on track. Collin Wilder and Chez Mellusi both called the way the Badgers finished embarrassing, so now it is time to correct the issues.
This offense is a mess, and QB is the main reason
Has the offensive line had its share of struggles? Sure.
Could Wisconsin wide receivers be better at times? Yep.
Was play-calling bland as hell? Absolutely.
All three of those points are true, but the shortcomings of Graham Mertz have drastically limited the Wisconsin offense the past two seasons.
I do not like harping on the play of a 20-year-old, but his play has been extremely poor this season. On the year he is completing under 60% of his passes and has six interceptions compared to only one touchdown. Add in multiple crucial fumbles, and his uneven play has crushed the offense.
Like everyone on Saturday, I was looking for misdirection and creativity on offense, but Mertz has floundered with simple handoff footwork and placement that I believe has relegated this offense to a shell of itself.
Add in the fact that Mertz has struggled with working through progressions, and this is a one-read offense right now. He missed multiple wide-open receivers and locked on to his pre-snap read all day long.
The Badgers have been putrid on third down this season, including 1-of-14 against Notre Dame, and have also failed to finish drives. Wisconsin was able to get inside the 25-yard line of Notre Dame four times. They finished with 13 points. That is a recipe for defeat. Until Wisconsin gets more consistent play out of the quarterback position, this offense will continue to be bad.
Unfortunately, Paul Chryst put all of his eggs in the Mertz basket by not bringing in a quarterback in the 2020 class. Chase Wolf has proven to be turnover-prone (three interceptions in 14 career attempts), Danny Vanden Boom is a redshirt senior that has not even sniffed snaps outside of mop-up duty, and Deacon Hill is a true freshman that did not enroll early. It may be time to start giving Hill extra reps in practice because there needs to be a wake-up call in the quarterback room and quick.
This Wisconsin team could still wind up winning the Big Ten West, as they only have one conference loss, but right now, the quarterback position is absolutely holding this team back.