As a result, interim head coach Jim Leonhard earned his first career win in a new era for the Badgers following Paul Chryst’s firing early last week after an inexplicable 34-10 loss to Illinois.
Here are the offensive grades for this week:
Graham Mertz had his best game of the season, completing 20/29 passes for 299 yards, while tying his career high, and the Wisconsin career high, in touchdown passes with five.
Mertz consistently hit open receivers, which hadn’t been the case all season, and appeared to be much more comfortable in the pocket than normal.
Additionally, Mertz worked through his progressions on certain plays, which led to a nice 52-yard touchdown pass to Chimere Dike.
Great throw from Graham Mertz to Chimere Dike for a 52-yard touchdown.— Bucky’s 5th Quarter (@B5Q) October 8, 2022
Mertz, who has struggled to work through progressions, worked left to middle to find Dike, who did the rest for the score.
Mertz seemed to tremendously benefit from the good playcalling, which incorporated more play-action, a balance between the run and pass, and newer concepts that had the Northwestern defense fooled for most of the game.
Mertz did have some inaccuracies that will need to be cleaned up against tougher opponents, as he missed two touchdown opportunities on consecutive plays during the initial drive that forced the Badgers to settle for a field goal, which kicker Nate Van Zelst missed.
Additionally, Mertz continues to miss high on some throws, which has been one of his major flaws when it comes to accuracy.
However, Mertz also incorporated the deep ball, attempting to hit shifty receiver Dean Engram on a shot play. While the ball was inaccurate, it’s important for Mertz to continue the trend in an effort to stretch the defense and open up the run game.
Lastly, Mertz does continue to display happy feet in the pocket, sometimes bailing early on clean pockets rather than letting the play develop, but the offensive line did a tremendous job giving him space, which allowed him to extend plays and find receivers.
Despite a few miscues, Mertz executed the gameplan, limiting turnover-worthy plays, which led to Wisconsin’s most significant offensive performance of the year.
Running Backs: A-
Braelon Allen had a bounce-back game, recording 23 carries for 135 yards while throwing for a touchdown as well.
Allen, a running back that operates with patience, allowing the offensive line to create holes, did a great job identifying rushing lanes while powering through for extra yards when an opening wasn’t present.
Allen continues to be used out of the wildcat on occasion, but it didn’t hurt the Badgers significantly in this matchup, as it even resulted in a passing touchdown from Allen, who found fellow running back Chez Mellusi for the score.
Overall, it was a good game plan for Allen by offensive coordinator Bobby Engram, and the sophomore running back executed it, which kept the ball moving for Wisconsin offensively.
Backup running back Chez Mellusi was far less inefficient with his carries, rushing for just 31 yards on ten carries.
While Mellusi has been considered “Mr. Reliable” in the backfield, his lack of elite traits limits the potential of big plays, and his efficiency isn’t good enough to warrant a significant workload week in and week out.
Instead, the Badgers should look to balance the carries between him and Isaac Guerendo, who provides more as a running back who can execute the outside-zone runs, which would open up the playbook for Engram, keeping the offense less predictable, while keeping the run game flowing.
Unfortunately for Mellusi, the senior tailback suffered a wrist injury that required surgery over the weekend, which will likely keep him out until at least the bye week, according to head coach Jim Leonhard.
With the injury, Guerendo should step up as the second running back, which could provide an offensive spark if the Badgers can execute the outside-zone plays with their front five.
Wide Receivers: A
Chimere Dike was the star of the day, catching ten passes for 185 yards and three touchdowns, which were career-highs for the junior receiver.
The ball consistently found Dike, who was last week’s leading receiver as well, and the wideout made Northwestern pay, performing well after the catch and consistently getting open to give Graham Mertz an easy target.
Skyler Bell was the second-leading receiver for the Badgers, catching two passes for 36 yards and a touchdown.
While Bell has cooled off following his four-catch, 106-yard game earlier in the season, the redshirt freshman caught the initial touchdown pass of the day from Mertz, as the receiver was the beneficiary of a play-action pass that had the defense fooled.
Surprisingly, Dean Engram was featured in an offensive role this week, catching four passes for 32 yards, while being utilized in several different ways.
Engram came in for Keontez Lewis when the latter receiver departed with an injury last week, but was destined to take a backseat in Week 6 after the UCLA transfer was available for the game.
That wasn’t the case and Engram will look to build on the momentum after a very quiet year thus far.
Speaking of Lewis, the sophomore receiver played in Saturday’s game, but ended with just one catch for six yards.
However, it wasn’t for a lack of trying as Lewis sprung open in the endzone on the initial drive, but Mertz missed high, leading to a field goal attempt.
With Dike certainly being a known commodity after his performance, it’s likely that the other receivers will need to step up against Michigan State next weekend.
Tight Ends: C
Jack Eschenbach wasn’t a factor in Saturday’s game, catching just one pass for 11 yards.
While it was anticipated that one of Wisconsin’s tight ends might emerge as a safety blanket this season, given Jake Ferguson’s involvement in 2021, as well as Dean Engram’s system placing an emphasis on the position, injuries have decimated the roster for Wisconsin.
Both Clay Cundiff, who is out for the season, and Hayden Rucci were inactive for Wisconsin’s game on Saturday, leaving Eschenbach as the main tight end.
For now, it appears that the tight ends will not have as big of an impact in the passing game in 2022, given the emergence of other skill position players, and with Rucci out currently, it’s yet to be seen how they’ll impact the running game.
Offensive Line: A
The offensive line played their cleanest game of the season on Saturday and arguably had the best performance of any position group on the day.
With Tyler Beach nursing an undisclosed injury, right guard Tanor Bortolini was moved to left guard, while Michael Furtney was re-integrated into the starting lineup on the right side.
Furtney played well in the run game early, working as the pulling guard and setting up several blocks alongside left tackle Jack Nelson to create lanes for Braelon Allen to operate out of.
In pass protection, the Badgers didn’t allow a single sack, and Mertz was rarely pressured, which led to his cleanest performance of the year as well.
When the offensive line got beat initially, they recovered well, allowing Mertz to extend plays and hit targets downfield.
It was a much-needed bounce-back performance for the Badgers’ offensive line, who significantly struggled against the Illinois Fighting Illini, and while Jack Nelson did commit a penalty, the unit limited negative plays for the most part.