Wisconsin football opened the season with a tough loss to the Penn State Nittany Lions this past Saturday. Now the page turns to Eastern Michigan, a team that started their season 1-0 with a victory over Saint Francis (Pa.), 35-15.
Last year, EMU was 2-4 in the MAC’s condensed season and they return nearly every piece from their team a year ago, losing just six scholarship players. What do the Badgers need to do to right the ship and pick up a victory? Let’s take a look.
Get Graham Mertz confident
Everyone has a differing opinion on Graham Mertz early in his career, but it’s time to realize that he is going to be The Guy through the good and the bad. Sorry, Chase Wolf. Mertz is going to be the starting quarterback and the only way you get to where you want to go as a fanbase and as a team is by getting Mertz to play well, and play with confidence. That needs to start back up this week, and a team like Eastern Michigan is a good team to take on and try to tune things up.
Last week Mertz looked all out of sync and it showed in a big way. He was constantly aiming the football, throwing off his back foot and struggling to get in any sort of rhythm. This week, you’ve got a chance to clean some of that up and get confidence back in him. Sure, Wisconsin could turn and hand it off 50 times and likely win this game, but it won’t improve things long term.
I think it’s vital that Paul Chryst opens things up and lets Mertz throw it around some. I am not saying it needs to be an air raid offense, but getting him confident heading into the bye week, and the showdown with Notre Dame in Chicago, would really go a long way. Overall, this offense needs to find a lot more balance.
Additionally, in terms of Eastern Michigan, the way to attack this team is by finding that balance on offense. Last year, the Eagles gave up 5.3 YPC on the ground, but they also allowed opponents to complete 66.7% of their passes a season ago which ranked No. 116 in the nation.
Last year, EMU allowed nine touchdowns of 24+ yards, so they’re susceptible to big plays, many through the air off-play action. Getting Mertz some completions early and often will go a long way in how this season could shake out and if he hits some big throws I think it would do wonders for his confidence going forward.
Win in the red zone
Last week the Badgers struggled mightily in the red zone, going just 1-of-4, which was a huge piece of the loss to Penn State. That can’t happen again this week, especially against a team like Eastern Michigan. Last year Eastern Michigan ranked No. 1 in the FBS in red zone offense, scoring on 28 of their 28 trips to the red zone. On the defensive side of the football EMU ranked No. 8 in the FBS in red zone defense, holding teams scoreless in eight of their 28 trips inside the 20-yard line.
Yes, it was against all MAC teams, and yes it was a smaller sample size than usual, but it’s clear that this team wants to win in those areas. Wisconsin will need to do their part and convert these drives offensively but also plug up things defensively against the Eagles.
Quarterback Preston Hutchinson is very mobile, finishing second on the team in rushing a year ago and leading the team in rushing touchdowns. When he was able to get in the red zone he was money as he could convert with his legs or his arm. With their entire offense back again this will be a good test for Wisconsin to try and win in these key areas of the field.
Don’t let them hang around
Eastern Michigan may not be the most talented team, but they’re a team that is well-coached under Chris Creighton and they play very sound, disciplined football. If the Badgers are not able to come out and score points, or if they make the same mistakes that they did a week ago, then they could be in for a competitive game as EMU is one to hang around and muck up a game, or a team’s season.
In the past five years, Eastern Michigan has pulled off 13 upsets overall. Three of those were against Big Ten opponents on the road. In 2017 they won at Rutgers, in 2018 they won at Purdue and in 2019 they won at Illinois. In that three-year span, they won more Big Ten road games than Maryland and Rutgers did.
They’re also very comfortable in one-score games, as 42 of their last 48 contests have been decided by just one score. They’ve got veterans across the board, and if Wisconsin makes the same mistakes they made a week ago this team will be a pesky out if you aren’t careful. The Eagles are not afraid of Big Ten stadiums, but Camp Randall should be their biggest test yet. Putting the foot on the gas from the jump would really go a long way.