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Wisconsin Football: Offensive woes continue for the Badgers

In the most surprising loss of the season, Wisconsin’s offense failed to show up in a brutal 34-10 loss to Illinois.

Syndication: Stevens Point Journal Tork Mason / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Wisconsin Badgers lost their second straight game as the Illinois Fighting Illini cruised to a 34-10 victory at Camp Randall Stadium.

On Sunday, reports surfaced that Paul Chryst was out as the head coach of the Badgers after a 67-26 record over the past seven seasons, which Wisconsin confirmed while naming Jim Leonhard as the interim head coach.

Here are the offensive grades for the brutal loss that resulted in Chryst’s end at Camp Randall Stadium.

Quarterback: C-

Graham Mertz started strong on Saturday, which hasn’t necessarily been the case this season, as the junior quarterback completed his first four passes, with the final throw resulting in a nice 21-yard touchdown to Isaac Guerendo.

After stale playcalling in Wisconsin’s worst loss of the season in Week 3, offensive coordinator Bobby Engram started with a good game script, incorporating the aerial attack early against Illinois’s aggressive approach in the box.

Additionally, Engram utilized play-action on a play early, while operating Mertz out of the shotgun, giving him more time to execute the gameplan.

However, everything fell apart after the initial drive as Mertz threw an interception intended for Keontez Lewis on the following drive. The pass was underthrown and to the inside shoulder, while Lewis had outside leverage with a step on his defender, as well as a second late, which gave time for the safety to converge on the play.

Mertz doesn’t have the arm strength to consistently fit that ball over the top with a safety lurking, so he needed to get that ball out quicker after identifying the 1-on-1 matchup pre-snap.

Then, on his second interception, Mertz spun out of a sack and had an open running back in front of him and simply aired the ball high, ending straight in the arms of a defensive back.

Mertz continues to display the same issues that have plagued the Badgers' offense during its slump.

First, Mertz often is too conservative with his throws, which is surprising given his tendency to force certain plays, as he bails on plays early and looks for the checkdown.

Additionally, his accuracy continues to waver, especially downfield, and he’s not missing in just one direction. Mertz sails passes, underthrows passes, and throws too wide.

Mertz’s ability to progress through reads is shaky as well, and when he does make the correct read, the quarterback is late to throw at times, leaving opportunities on the board and limiting Wisconsin’s offense.

Lastly, Mertz’s footwork, especially out of the shotgun, is excessive, as he exhibits jittery feet and takes too long to analyze the play while getting out of his dropback.

His footwork and processing have limited Wisconsin’s ability to operate a successful quick-game passing attack, which is vital given how opposing defenses are aggressive in the box to stop the run, making the offense more predictable.

If we’re judging the game solely based on Mertz’s performance, this grade would be lower. However, Mertz isn’t getting help in several areas, which limits his performance.

Each of Wisconsin’s top three receivers had a drop on Saturday and they occurred in crucial moments where the Badgers were looking to convert first downs, while Mertz looked like he was starting to get into a rhythm.

The offensive line’s porous play from a week ago continued in Week 4 in perhaps their worst performance of the season, which severely impacted the running game, making Mertz’s job more difficult.

Furthermore, following the first drive, the playcalling was very questionable and predictable moving forward. Offensive coordinator Bobby Engram hasn’t been able to sustain momentum this season.

It’s clear that the coaching staff doesn't have full confidence in Mertz. Braelon Allen threw a pass on a 3rd & short and ran the wildcat, which essentially tells defenses the play, on several occasions.

Overall, Mertz needs to make several refinements to his game, but the Badgers’ offensive woes are only partially due to his performance, hence the C- grade.

Syndication: Journal Sentinel Tork Mason / USA TODAY NETWORK

Running Backs: D

The running game was the worst part of the Badgers' offense this week, which killed many offensive opportunities, as Wisconsin scored just 10 points against a rebuilding Illinois team.

Braelon Allen was disappointing on Saturday, rushing eight times for just 2 carries, while continuing to showcase the vision issues that have occasionally plagued his performance this season.

In a game where Wisconsin needed to bounce back following an embarrassing loss, offensive coordinator Bobby Engram schemed a good drive to begin the game by calling a balanced approach, which led to a touchdown.

Following that drive, with some threat of the passing attack visible, the Badgers should’ve been able to start involving the running game to a significant degree and just failed to do so.

Allen’s performance was even worse than the stat sheet indicated as he was involved on several wildcat zone-reads and made the incorrect read twice, leaving a significant hole open and handing it off to backup Chez Mellusi, who was met by multiple Illini near the line of scrimmage on both plays.

In a game where Wisconsin needed the best version of Allen, he couldn’t produce and missed opportunities for big plays that would’ve changed the direction of the game.

Now, the offensive line was extremely shaky in the run game, failing to execute blocks and leaving minimal space for Allen to operate from on the designed play, but the sophomore running back couldn’t improvise by visualizing other holes or getting yards after contact.

Chez Mellusi couldn’t get much going either, rushing seven times for 16 yards.

Both Allen and Mellusi primarily operated between the tackles where the Wisconsin offensive line was outmatched by Illinois’ interior defenders.

The potential adjustment would’ve been trying to incorporate the outside zone, which worked for a big gain when Isaac Guerendo was involved in a play, but a holding penalty negated the play.

After that, the Badgers rarely involved Guerendo, who had just one rush for three yards in the game, failing to adjust to the Fighting Illini’s aggressive approach in the box.

It didn’t help that Guerendo, Wisconsin’s biggest speed threat, suffered an injury in the second half and fumbled a kickoff return that blew the game open for Illinois.

Overall, it was a forgettable game for the Wisconsin running backs, but their grade is slightly saved by the poor playcalling and the porous offensive line play.

However, the Badgers, and more so Graham Mertz, needed their running backs to perform and capitalize on opportunities in a bounce-back week, which didn’t materialize, hence the D grade.

Wide Receivers: C

Chimere Dike led all receivers with five catches and 76 yards, but the junior wideout had just a 50% catch rate, while dropping an easy catch that would’ve given Wisconsin a first down at a time when they needed momentum.

Markus Allen had two catches, while Keontez Lewis, Dean Engram, and Skyler Bell had a catch a piece on the day.

Bell had a big drop on the same drive as Dike on two well-placed ball from Mertz to open receivers, but the redshirt freshman made a nice catch for 19 yards over the middle early, getting five yards after the catch.

Lewis made a great catch along the sideline for 22 yards on a contested 1-on-1 play, continuing to showcase his deep threat skills.

However, in the second half, after getting open on a curl route, Lewis couldn’t haul in a sailed pass from Mertz and got decked by his defender, which forced him to depart with an injury.

The dropped passes and occasional inability to get open in the quick keep the grade for the position group at a C, despite some nice catches and a predictable gameplan.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Tight Ends: C+

Starter Jack Eschenbach, who replaced the injured Clay Cundiff, was efficient with his workload in the passing game, catching all five of his targets for 32 yards.

However, Eschenbach committed a costly penalty on a 19-yard Isaac Guerendo outside-zone run that stalled the action for the drive.

The Badgers never went back to that outside run with Guerendo, which could’ve been a difference maker in creating explosive plays on the ground, and the reluctance to do so could be from an inability to consistently block the edge without holding at the tight end position.

Of Eschebach’s 32 yards, 11 came after the catch, indicating that the tight end’s average depth of target was fairly minimal, limiting his impact on the game.

To make matters worse, tight end Hayden Rucci suffered an injury in the game, leaving Wisconsin to their third and fourth-string tight ends.

The tight end group earns the highest offensive grade on the day, but the impact they had was mitigated, hence the C+ grade.

Offensive Line: F

The offensive line had their worst performance as a group on Saturday. And they played Ohio State last week.

Every player on the starting offensive line struggled in some capacity, as the Badgers couldn’t move the Fighting Illini’s defensive line, leaving minimal room for the running backs to operate from.

In the passing game, the offensive line consistently gave up pressure, making Graham Mertz uncomfortable, and the impact was felt even more as the junior quarterback was slow getting the football out.

Left tackle Jack Nelson, who was highly touted after making the change from right guard, gave up two sacks and looked outmatched all game long. Wisconsin didn’t seem to have confidence in running the outside zone in his direction, with limited plays of that design.

Tyler Beach gave up a holding penalty, while Nelson committed a 15-yard personal foul that backed up Wisconsin drives on first downs.

Additionally, Tanor Bortolini committed an inexcusable false start on 2nd & 1.

Considered a strength of the team heading into the season, the Badgers' offensive line hasn’t performed to expectations in the last two days, despite making the switch from Michael Furtney and Logan Brown to Tanor Bortolini and Trey Wedig.

If the offensive line cannot perform, the running game will struggle to materialize, making it an impossible task for the offense to be deemed a threat.

The Badgers do face a 1-4 Northwestern team in Week 6, where they will hopefully turn their disappointing season around.