The Wisconsin Badgers (0-1 overall, 0-1 Big Ten) fell to Penn State on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium, 16-10, in a poor offensive performance littered with mistakes and missed opportunities. The game marks the sixth consecutive loss against a ranked opponent for the Badgers, as they continue their recent struggles in the big moments.
While just one game in a much longer season, Wisconsin will have plenty to clean up before they attempt to bounce back next week against Eastern Michigan.
Before we close the book on a tough loss for the Badgers, let’s look back at some of the major storylines that emerged.
Offensive line shuffle
The offensive line was expected to be one of the better units on the offense in 2021. On Saturday though, they struggled throughout.
Joe Rudolph mixed and matched different combinations in an attempt to fix some of the issues plaguing that group up front.
After beginning the day with starters Tyler Beach, Josh Seltzner, Joe Tippmann, Jack Nelson, and Logan Bruss on the opening drive, Rudolph swapped out the entire interior of the line in favor of Cormac Sampson, Kayden Lyles and Michael Furtney for a series later in the first quarter.
From that point on, Rudolph continued to shuffle along the line between those eight players, with limited success. I thought the left side of the line, particularly, struggled in pass protection, with Temple grad transfer Arnold Ebiketie (pictured walloping Graham Mertz) forcing penetration all day long.
The running game was decent in the first three quarters, but running room was still relatively sparse for the ‘backs. The line struggled to get much of a push at times against Penn State, and once again there were multiple carries blown up in the backfield.
I believe this group has the talent to play much better as the season progresses, but their communication and technique will need to improve. Injuries in fall camp likely did not allow the eight who rotated in to gel in a way that Rudolph would have liked, but hopefully that cohesion comes with added snaps.
Running back tandem, not rotation
It came as somewhat of a surprise that Clemson transfer Chez Mellusi outright won the starting role after fall camp, but it was expected that the Badgers would use a committee approach in the opener. Mellusi, Jalen Berger, and Isaac Guerendo were each expected to make an impact on Saturday.
Chez Mellusi on Jalen Berger and his workload. pic.twitter.com/POw1Ea2Dxc— Bucky’s 5th Quarter (@B5Q) September 5, 2021
Well, Mellusi and Guerendo received plenty of work, but Berger did not leave the sidelines. Berger had dealt with a leg injury earlier in camp, so it is unclear if it was injury-related, but he did suit up and was not listed on the injury list. He looked despondent on the sidelines during the game from my vantage point. It will be interesting to see if he gets a chance against Eastern Michigan next weekend.
In Berger’s absence, Mellusi and Guerendo flashed at times. I thought that Mellusi looked shifty and ran well for the first three quarters. His 3.9 yards-per-carry average is not overly impressive, but he displayed the ability to be a workhorse with 31 carries. Overall, his play was a bright spot for the offense, especially when you consider that he was gobbled up in the backfield on multiple occasions for negative yardage (-11 to be exact) due to penetration by the Penn State front seven.
Guerendo also ran well and looked much more physical than in 2019. I think Wisconsin will be just fine at the running back position, although this group had a couple of occasions where they were an arm tackle away from a huge play. That is the next step needed from Gary Brown’s group, in my opinion.
Second-half secondary troubles
Credit Penn State for making some adjustments at halftime to open up their passing game, but Wisconsin’s secondary struggled in the second half with communication breakdowns.
Jahan Dotson and KeAndre Lambert-Smith each broke off gigantic chunk play of at least 49-yards through the air because of broken coverages, with Dotson’s winding up as an easy score over the top of the defense.
Wisconsin is one of the premier defensive programs in college football, but Xs and Os are hard to get right all the time. Let's see what they did wrong here pic.twitter.com/Q7eIfRKuei— Alex Kirshner (@alex_kirshner) September 4, 2021
Dotson entered the game as THE player to watch for Penn State, so for the Wisconsin defense to allow him to run wide open through the middle of the defense was alarming, to say the least.
Safeties Scott Nelson and Collin Wilder had a tough day in coverage but also as tacklers at times. Wilder specifically missing a crucial open-field tackle against Noah Cain that would have stopped Penn State on their final touchdown of the game.
This group has plenty to improve upon heading into week two.
Mertz needs to be better
The story of the game by far was the play of QB Graham Mertz. The redshirt sophomore was downright bad on Saturday. For a player with all the physical tools in the world, the mental side of the game got the better of him in my opinion.
Mental errors popped up routinely against Penn State and held him back from making the simple plays to win the game, and most of that can be attributed to overthinking I believe. To compound things, nearly all of those mistakes happened in the red zone, where it mattered most.
Missing the spot on a handoff just can’t happen. That is drilled each day in practice for a reason, and Mertz had his eyes up at the defense instead of guiding it into the pocket of the ball carrier. Add in the fact that he was loose with the ball and hit his fullback on his way back for a handoff to Guerendo on first and goal from the one that resulted in a six-yard loss, and the simple plays doomed Mertz. That is just not acceptable.
At the end of the game, Mertz had a chance to redeem himself and overshot an easy touchdown throw to Chimere Dike to win the game. Alex Hornibrook made that same throw to the opposite hash against Iowa to win in 2018, and Mertz has made that throw in practice plenty of times, but Mertz did not deliver against Penn State.
Two intentional grounding penalties also killed scoring opportunities, and most people will point to the two interceptions thrown in the red zone, but the easy chances each occurred before those interceptions occurred.
The first interception came after the fumbled handoff from the one, and the second came after the miss to Dike.
That late missed throw to win was a microcosm of Mertz’s entire day in which he did not look confident throwing the football. His footwork was off and he was floating back on his back foot most of the day. He seemed to try to guide the football to its intended location instead of rearing back and throwing it through the target. There was a lack of zip on his throws because of this all day long, and that generally points to overthinking.
Football is a game meant to be fun. Mertz needs to get back to the basics. Go out and throw the football. Hand the ball off. Those are things he has been doing since playing pee-wee league.
As a former mediocre high school quarterback, I can still remember my dad yelling down to me loudly (everyone could hear it) from the stands of high school games, “JUST THROW THE DAMN BALL, FIVE.” Mertz needs to get back to playing the game for fun and letting it rip instead of trying to be perfect. Football is a lot less complicated than we make it out to be at times.