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B5Q Roundtable: what exactly happened against Penn State?

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Four of our writers have taken some time to decompress and discuss Saturday’s game logically and rationally.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve had a little over 24 hours to digest the Wisconsin Badgers football game from Saturday and while we still aren’t pleased with the result, with the sobering sun of the following morning upon us, we aren’t as despondent as we were.

Penn State came into Madison and beat the Badgers 16-10 on Saturday and so we convened four of our writers to discuss what they did and didn’t like from the game. Here are their answers!

What does the Wisconsin defense need to change in order to stop getting the top blown off against good wide receivers?

Tyler: Communication is certainly key but PSU offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich did a phenomenal job setting that up. They came out second half attacking the perimeter with screens and short routes in tempo and then took the top off when Wisconsin bit. It’s early, but that secondary has played a lot of football in their career. No excuse to be that wide open.

J.J.: Clone Jack Sanborn ten times and just see what happens?

Belz: Communication is key, am I right!?!? Jahan Dotson, one of the best receivers in the Big Ten mind you, had no business being that wide open. I am confident that they can remedy this over the next two weeks though.

Ryan: They need better communication among the DBs. Faion Hicks even said so postgame. Wisconsin’s defense is amazing, but they tend to get beaten over the top all the time, which leads me to believe it could possibly be a scheme issue.

What did you think about Graham Mertz’s performance?

Tyler: It was bad, real bad. We are so far removed from that Illinois game. He looks like a completely different player. His footwork was miserable. I mean, I can get over the missed throws and even interceptions at times with a young QB but the fumbles and handoffs cannot happen. That is inexcusable for anyone. That being said, he’s young. Across the country young QB’s were BAD this week. Can’t write the kid off yet.

J.J.: Bad. Pitiful. It lost us the game…

THAT BEING SAID

It’s still not time to have the pitchforks out. These are the games where you get the negative side of the accepted risk of handing a young quarterback the keys to the program so early on. There were a fair few moments today where Mertz didn’t make the physical plays needed to rise to the occasion, but there were arguably more where he just made straight up inexperienced mental errors.

Not recognizing a blitz or a coverage, throwing a pass that would go for an intentional grounding- these are the plays that a sophomore quarterback still acclimating to an elite level will make. Many of them are the plays that, hopefully, with time, reps, and coaching, will slowly but surely be eliminated from Mertz’s game for the most part.

Belz: Mertz just needs to stop overthinking and trying to be perfect in my opinion. His footwork was way off, and he was attempting to guide the ball to his receivers instead of throwing it. Even on his handoff to Chez Mellusi his head was up looking at the defense, making what should be a simple interaction, much harder. He just needs to get back to basics and play. Mental errors usually happen when you are pressing and thinking too much, and that was overly apparent on Saturday in my eyes.

Ryan: I thought there were a lot of mental errors. Intentional groundings, not recognizing blitzes, trying to fit the ball in where he cannot. The offensive line early on wasn’t helping him much in pass protection. Like JJ said, these are due to inexperience.

I also thought the play calling today was iffy, which led to some of Mertz’s trouble. It’s important to remember that Mertz is only in his eighth career start, all of which coming against Big Ten teams, other than the Duke’s Mayo Bowl. He’s still learning the college game.

Chez Mellusi looked pretty good I suppose! What else did you like from Saturday’s game?

Tyler: Chez was solid and I think he’s going to be a really good player for UW. I loved what I saw from him. Otherwise, front seven was pretty good. Think Leo Chenal will really help push them even further. Nick Herbig got a lot better this offseason and looked really good.

J.J.: I was somewhat surprised when so early on Paul Chryst opted to make a hockey sub with his struggling offensive line, but it was a move that paid off, as evidenced by Mellusi’s strong game. And generally speaking, though some of the play calls themselves were debatable, I liked the way Chryst managed the game overall. His fourth-down decisions paid off every time, and on the final two drives he set up his teams to get forward in a methodical and efficient fashion.

But of course Paul Chryst is no longer the Badgers QB, and that’s all he can do. He put the team, twice, in a position to win, and this loss is definitely not on him (see Mack Brown last night for how easy it is for a top level coach to pooch a game in such a way).

NCAA Football: Penn State at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Belz: I thought Chez looked pretty good, and so did Danny Davis on offense, but I liked most what I saw from the front seven of the defense. They didn’t dominate the game, but they were stout against the run and recorded a couple sacks. It was definitely not their fault that Wisconsin lost on Saturday.

Ryan: I liked seeing Danny Davis back. If Wisconsin is going to have success, they’re going to need him and the rest of the receivers to step up.

Game balls for the offense and defense?

Tyler: Offense is Chez by default. Defense I’ll go Herbig. He was flying around.

J.J.: Yeah sure, Chez seems fair for offense. He rushed for over 100 yards and looked a couple times like he was one broken tackle away from a game-breaking play. Defense goes to Jack Sanborn- the dude was everywhere and anywhere today. In the backfield, the trenches, the secondary- if the Badgers needed a tackle in a position where a linebacker can make a tackle, Sanborn was there.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Belz: I will go with Danny Davis on offense. I thought he played well and really made some tough grabs that gave the Badgers a chance. Defensively, I think Herbig and Sanborn did some nice things too. That sack that Herbig had off the edge was a thing of beauty.

Ryan: Chez on offense, obviously. Defensively, I would go with Jack Sanborn and Keeanu Benton. Sanborn and Benton were everywhere on defense.

Would you make any changes to your preseason predictions about Wisconsin after the first game?

Tyler: Ehh, I’m not there quite yet. I think the game was very winnable so it’s hard for me to write them off completely from winning the West. Things need to get better though. think I’ll revisit expectations after the Notre Dame game. Get some things cleaned up this week, beat up on EMU and then use the bye week well. If they come out against ND and look miserable then it’s time to deviate.

J.J.: The worst part of this game was how totally winnable it was. Three different trips to the red zone resulting in zero points is inexcusable. But, the bright (if we take bright to mean slightly lighter than pitch black) side of this game was, at face value, Wisconsin can play awful and still be in a game with a good team. So I’m still relatively bullish on this team- there’s clearly talent there.

The running game looked solid, and the defense looked excellent. I think Penn State ends the season in the top fifteen, so it’s not a disastrous loss on that front. I still see the Badgers going something like 10-2 with a loss to Notre Dame, which is probably about where I had them at in the preseason.

Belz: They can still reach all of their goals, but the quarterback play will need to be vastly better to contend for the Big Ten and win a West division crown. If the QB play doesn’t change another lower-tier bowl is likely. So yes, that game changed what I believed the floor of this team could be.

Ryan: I still think Wisconsin can win the West and while opening the season with a loss hurts rankings, losing to a ranked team doesn’t hurt quite as much, provided you rebound. While Wisconsin did lose, the game was very winnable and once Wisconsin fixes the error they made today, they should be fine.