The Wisconsin Badgers defeated the Nebraska Cornhuskers to earn bowl eligibility in a close 15-14 thriller on Saturday.
However, for the majority of the game, it wasn’t pretty offensively, as the Badgers trailed until 35 seconds remained in the fourth quarter before pulling away with a Graham Mertz touchdown off a quarterback sneak.
Here are the offensive grades against Nebraska:
From the start of the game, it was clear that Wisconsin had very limited trust in Graham Mertz.
In fact, Wisconsin’s signal-caller threw on first down just three times on Saturday, as the Badgers heavily relied on the running game for offensive production.
However, that choice was partially warranted, given Mertz’s inconsistent play for a second straight week.
Of Mertz’s first five passes, three were screen passes, including two third-down plays, showcasing the conservativeness due to Mertz’s inability to make plays in critical situations.
On Wisconsin’s third drive, Mertz committed a terrible interception, bailing on a clean pocket and underthrowing Skyler Bell on the run, who could’ve scored a touchdown, while also missing Chimere Dike, who was wide open at the sticks.
Poor execution like that was why Wisconsin looked to keep the ball out of Mertz’s hands.
On the ensuing drive, Mertz bailed on a clean pocket once again, this time on a 1st & 10, and floated a pass to Chimere Dike rather than firing it in, resulting in an incompletion.
Mertz was tasked with throwing on three consecutive downs on the drive in Nebraska territory and failed to deliver on all three, making a poor decision on second down by throwing to a tightly-covered Keontez Lewis, while floating an incompletion to Jack Eschenbach on third down, locking onto his first read.
Mertz didn't get much help from his pass-catchers, who failed to gain separation all game long, but struggled with decision-making, often locking onto his first read, which resulted in incompletions.
However, credit must be given where credit is due. In this case, Mertz was clutch when it mattered.
First, Mertz hit a wide-open Keontez Lewis on a bootleg for 20 yards, moving Wisconsin into Nebraska territory, before making a solid throw to Chimere Dike on 3rd & Goal, but Wisconsin’s top receiver couldn’t hold on.
Then, he delivered a touchdown pass to Skyler Bell on the run, making it a one-score game at 14-9, although he failed to convert the two-point try.
On Wisconsin’s last drive of the game, Mertz found Isaac Guerendo for a huge gain that led to 1st & Goal for the Badgers before rushing in for the game-winning score on a quarterback sneak.
Mertz struggles with touch, bails on empty pockets, and fails to be consistent, which is why Wisconsin clearly doesn’t trust him in the passing game.
But, his receivers struggled in this game and he made some clutch plays, salvaging his grade.
Running Backs: A
The running backs were the heart and soul of the offense on Saturday, as each of Wisconsin’s top three backs made key plays throughout the game that gave the Badgers life.
Braelon Allen started strong, compiling a variety of successful first-down carries, even when the defense knew it would be a run play.
Whereas Allen has struggled with hesitancy and trying to make “hero-ball” plays, the sophomore tailback consistently hit the proper holes and made the right decisions on Saturday, providing Wisconsin with a strong ground game from the jump.
However, there were several instances where Allen clearly showcased his injured shoulder, as he looked to avoid contact instead of hitting his hole, which resulted in a number of tackles for losses.
Regardless, Wisconsin’s lead back had a strong game, rushing for 92 yards on 18 carries, including an explosive 22-yard rush to the edge where he exercised patience.
Chez Mellusi played his best game of the year, consistently running hard downfield in his return from injury on Saturday.
Mellusi was the biggest component of the Wisconsin offense, as he was a consistent force that showcased capability throughout the game, relaying off of Allen’s momentum.
Mellusi isn’t necessarily explosive and doesn’t provide big-play opportunities, but he readily chipped away at the defense, gaining vital yards on first downs, which allowed Wisconsin to continue running the ball on early downs throughout the game.
Isaac Guerendo, the most explosive back of the trio, had a couple of clutch plays that were required for Wisconsin’s victory.
On Wisconsin’s field goal drive, Guerendo hit the edge on a 2nd & 10 carry, moving the chains in Nebraska territory.
Then, on Wisconsin’s final drive, Guerendo once again hit the edge for a first down before catching a vital 27-yard pass from Graham Mertz that set up the game-winning touchdown.
Each running back played a strong role in Wisconsin’s win on Saturday. This was the best position group of the day on offense.