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Wisconsin football: 2021 offense year in review

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Now that the season is over, let’s take a look back at what we learned in 2021!

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

The Wisconsin Badgers football team finished the season 9-4 overall and 6-3 in the Big Ten. They won the Las Vegas Bowl and finished tied for second (I guess third because they lost to Minnesota but beat Purdue?) in the Big Ten West. Their highest AP ranking was No. 12, to start the season, and they may sneak into the bottom of the rankings after the final ones are released after the national title game, but probably won’t.

Let’s take a look at how the offense stacked up, both nationally and in the Big Ten:

Total yards: 370.9 per game, No. 89 in the nation, No. 8 in the Big Ten
Passing yards: 160.2 per game, No. 120 in the nation, No. 13 in the Big Ten
Rushing yards: 210.8 per game, No. 21 in the nation, No. 2 in the Big Ten
Points: 25.4 per game, No. 86 in the nation, No. 8 in the Big Ten

NCAA Football: Las Vegas Bowl-Wisconsin at Arizona State Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Completion percentage: 59.0%, No. 85 in the nation, No. 9 in the Big Ten
Yards per carry: 4.9 ypc, No. 35 in the nation, No. 3 in the Big Ten
First downs: 20.1 per game, No. 82 in the nation, No. 8 in the Big Ten
Penalties: 5.4 per game, No. 42 in the nation, No. 10 in the Big Ten
Turnovers: 1.8 per game, No. 114 in the nation, No. 12 in the Big Ten

SP+ ranking (after championship week): 29.9 offense, No. 58 in the nation

So yeah, the Wisconsin offense didn’t exactly light the world on fire in 2021. The rushing attack was definitely a strength, even more so once freshman Braelon Allen burst onto the scene after the fourth game of the season.

Now that we have a basic overview of how the offense performed in general, let’s get down to the specifics and look at each position group starting with, obviously, the quarterbacks.

Quarterbacks

Graham Mertz: 169-of-284 (59.5%) for 1,958 yards (6.9 y/a), 10 TDs and 11 INTs, sacked 13 times
Chase Wolf: 8-of-16 (50.0%) for 124 yards (7.8 y/a), one TD, two INTs, sacked four times

Mertz rankings in the Big Ten:

Completions: No. 9
Attempts: No. 10
Yards: No. 9
Passing TDs: t-No. 8
Interceptions: t-No. 1
Total yards: No. 10

We’ve had the debate about Mertz so many times that I’m not super interested in re-litigating it here, but the numbers from this past season aren’t exactly, uh, good. The only stat he was in the top half of for Big Ten quarterbacks is interceptions, otherwise he was a below average signal caller.

NCAA Football: Las Vegas Bowl-Wisconsin at Arizona State Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Is there room for improvement? Obviously there is, and there are a couple of throws that he made this season that very few QBs can make, but we actually need to see the improvement on the field. This is a critical offseason for Mertz (and the Badgers as a whole, but that’s another post for another time) and if (admittedly a big “if”) he makes a leap into the top third of Big Ten QBs next season, the Badgers should be the prohibitive favorite to win the Big Ten West.

Running backs

Braelon Allen: 186 attempts for 1,268 yards (6.8 ypc), 12 TDs
Chez Mellusi: 173 attempts for 815 yards (4.7 ypc), five TDs
Isaac Guerendo: 23 attempts for 160 yards (7.0 ypc), one TD
Julius Davis: 28 attempts for 128 yards (4.6 ypc)
John Chenal: 32 attempts for 78 yards (2.4 ypc), two TDs

Allen rankings in the Big Ten

Rushing yards: No. 3
Rushing attempts: No. 5
Rushing TDs: No. 5

Mellusi rankings in the Big Ten

Rushing yards: No. 10
Rushing attempts: No. 7
Rushing TDs: t-No. 13

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 06 Wisconsin at Rutgers Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The running back room was basically a soap opera this past year. There was an alleged off-campus fight involving a knife that saw two freshmen running backs leave the team, presumed starter Jalen Berger ended up being dismissed from the team, the new starter got hurt and a 17-year old true freshman took over the reins and became a freshman All-American in the process.

The Badgers will only have to replace their fullback next year as Allen, Mellusi, Davis and Guerendo are all coming back. It is unclear what Mellusi and Guerendo’s injury status will be entering spring practice, but presumably they won’t be ready yet. Is there a transfer running back coming in (like Mellusi last year) or will the Badgers be content to try out some young, unproven players in the backfield.

Clearly Allen has announced himself as the most important part of the offense, but a healthy Mellusi and Guerendo would catapult this unit into one of the best groups in the country.

Wide receivers/tight ends

Danny Davis III: 32 catches for 478 yards (14.9 ypc), two TDs
Jake Ferguson: 46 catches for 450 yards (9.8 ypc), three TDs
Kendric Pryor: 32 catches for 416 yards (13.0 ypc), three TDs
Chimere Dike: 19 catches for 272 yards (14.3 ypc), one TD
Clay Cundiff and John Chenal each had a receiving TD as well

Not surprisingly, but the Badgers didn’t have a ton of players crack the top-20 in any Big Ten receiving categories. Ferguson’s 46 catches was good enough to be tied for No. 15 in the conference, while Davis was 53 yards away from being No. 20 in the country for receiving yards and Pryor/Ferguson were tied for No. 24 in the conference for touchdowns.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 30 SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl - Wisconsin v Arizona State Photo by Jordon Kelly/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The top three receivers from last season are moving on. Ferguson was an extremely reliable target for Mertz, having caught a pass in every single game that he played in his career, and Davis and Pryor also had a rapport with the QB. You can argue that those two guys were underutilized, and I’d agree, but Wisconsin just isn’t a place where multiple receivers are going to have 45 or more catches in a season.

Offensive line

So, I’m not what you’d call an “offensive line expert.” I understand the basics of the position but for a more in-depth look at what the team did there...I’m sadly not the guy. With that being said, the offensive line wasn’t great to start the year but got better as the year went on.

Once UW settled on five guys to send out there every drive and stopped doing hockey-style line changes, the line was more comfortable and all of a sudden there were more holes to run through and Mertz wasn’t hassled as much on dropbacks. Now, was the line perfect? No, it was not. There is a reason that Joe Rudolph no longer works for the Badgers after all.

As of right now, Logan Bruss is moving on, Tyler Beach is coming back and Josh Seltzner hasn’t publicly announced his decision although most assume he is moving on. There should be some excellent competition for the starting five o-line spots next year seeing as there will be a new coach and a bunch of blue-chip prospects will be in their second and third years with the program.

Overall

The Wisconsin offense was a disappointment this past season. Mertz didn’t take a step forward in his development and the offensive line was underwhelming. Allen emerging as a legit star was nice and unexpected, but even he couldn’t drag this unit to being serviceable against teams with a decent defense.

There are changes being made on the offensive side of the ball which will hopefully help, but we’ll have to see the changes in action before any declaration can be made.