When the Illinois Fighting Illini lost to the Purdue Boilermakers 31-24 early Saturday afternoon, there was a glimmer of hope that the Wisconsin Badgers could run away with the Big 10 West.
But, as the rest of the afternoon prolonged, those hopes simmered slowly and brutally, as Wisconsin suffered a devastating 24-10 loss to the Iowa Hawkeyes that essentially keeps them out of Indianapolis for yet another season.
Here are the grades for the quarterbacks and running backs for Wisconsin against Iowa. We’ll have another post covering the other positions later today.
This has truly been a good year for Graham Mertz, unlike the past two disappointing seasons.
This is why it hurts even more that the junior quarterback compiled all of his mistakes into one game, showcasing that he cannot win offense games on his own.
With an inconsistent running game, Mertz had the opportunity to push the offense forward with his arm, but it was the same story over his entire career: he’s had the ability to beat poor defenses, but can’t produce against good teams and good defenses.
Mertz completed 16/35 passes for 176 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions.
As usual, Mertz locked into his first read or his desired read for a majority of his throws, leaving several opportunities on his second, and potentially third reads, over the middle, which was often similar concepts.
It began on the first drive, when Mertz looked for a contested Skyler Bell, his first read, on 2nd down on a corner route, while Jack Eschenbach and Jackson Acker, his second and third reads, were open over the middle.
Mertz continues to miss high on several throws, which was a recurring theme against Iowa, ridding Wisconsin of several opportunities to extend drives, which thwarted any momentum all game.
Additionally, Mertz displays choppy footwork, getting happy feet in clean pockets, which forces him to make unnecessary off-balance throws that ended up resulting in a pick-six on one of those instances in this game.
Mertz also doesn’t step into several throws, which takes away from some of his velocity, resulting in floater passes.
On several corner-post routes from the slot, Mertz struggled to throw on a rope, instead, lofting passes, which allowed Iowa’s defense to react and make plays on the ball. The slowed delivery led to Mertz’s second interception of the game.
Mertz killed another drive by fumbling the football when looking back after the snap, as the play resulted in a loss of 14 yards on first down.
On one of Wisconsin’s staple plays this year, the deep crosser, Skyler Bell sprung wide open off a play-action, but Mertz continued his woes of missing high, overthrowing the redshirt freshman.
Overall, this was Mertz’s worst game of the year and one of the worst of his career.
Games like these are the reason that Wisconsin needs to acquire a strong quarterback in the transfer portal to compete next season if improvement truly is their goal.
Mertz can take this team to a 7-5 or 8-4 record, but he’s proving that he can’t show up in big moments, which has been a dire issue for the team for the past three seasons.
Running Backs: C-
Braelon Allen significantly struggled in this game, rushing for 40 yards on 17 carries, while having a long of just eight yards.
Allen was subject to poor blocking on some of his carries, but also tried to be a “hero” on certain plays, looking to bounce to the edge, rather than follow good blocking on the inside for a couple of yards.
Allen didn’t seem to fully trust his offensive line, especially the right side, at times, which also led to some offensive woes.
At times, it seemed like Allen was avoiding contact, perhaps due to his injuries, which negated yardage for the Badgers as they tried to establish an identity on the ground.
On Allen’s first carry, guard Tanor Bortolini whiffed on a block, allowing him to get just two yards, setting up the dreadful second and long.
Then, on Wisconsin’s second drive, after getting stuffed on a 1st & 10 after guard Trey Wedig whiffed on a block, Allen tried bouncing the next run to the edge and got nothing.
On the following drive, Allen had a huge hole on the inside on 1st & 10, but once again, bounced outside, only to gain 1 yard.
Allen’s miscues continued on the very next play as he let a Graham Mertz checkdown fly straight through his hands, setting up a 3rd & 9.
After a Skyler Bell catch-and-fumble that resulted in a Wisconsin first in the second quarter, Allen didn’t diagnose the hole between guard Tyler Beach, who pushed out his defender, and Tanor Bortolini over the middle, failing to cutback and gaining no yards.
When Allen did read the blocks well, he had strong carries, which included gains of six, eight, seven, and six yards. Now, Allen just needs to come to an understanding with his speed and develop his vision and patience more.
On Wisconsin’s third-to-last drive, Allen bounced a 2nd & 10 run, instead of hitting the hole between pulling guard Tanor Bortolini and tight end Hayden Rucci on the right side, gaining just one yard.
Then, two plays later, Allen, once again, was impatient, immediately bouncing outside instead of going with the blocking inside, gaining just two yards.
Isaac Guerendo had seven carries for 28 yards on the day, and for the second straight game, he had the best rushes in the game.
Guerendo worked within the blockers, which resulted in some strong runs and some low-yardage carries.
After a strong six-yard carry on 3rd & 11 for his first rush on Wisconsin’s field goal drive, Guerendo was tackled in the backfield on his second carry on a 2nd & 10 in the second quarter.
On that play, tight end Jack Eschenbach was immediately beaten on a block, while Tanor Bortolini was pushed in Guerendo’s direction and right guard Trey Wedig couldn’t hold up.
Then, on the ensuing drive, on the first play, Guerendo was tackled for a loss of five on a screen pass because Chimere Dike whiffed on his block on his defensive back. Additionally, Mertz threw the pass casually, causing a slower throw.
When following the blocking, Guerendo rushed for a nice 12-yard gain, while running hard for a 5-yard gain late in the second half for a necessary first down on 3rd down deep in Wisconsin territory.
Guerendo continues to showcase why he deserves more carries, especially if Allen continues to be banged up on a weekly basis.
Stay tuned for the receivers, tight ends, and offensive line grades!