The Wisconsin Badgers finished their season in uninspiring fashion, losing 23-16 to the Minnesota Golden Gophers after having several chances to remain in the game, summing up their tumultuous 2022 season.
Playing without Braelon Allen, the Badgers implemented a balanced offensive attack that saw sparks at times, but stalled in key moments.
To begin the game, the Badgers moved the ball down the field, utilizing a variety of runs from Chez Mellusi and passes from Graham Mertz, but the latter struggled to connect with Chimere Dike, which forced a 40-yard field goal after a 3rd & 10 incompletion.
However, Wisconsin’s defense was unprepared as the Golden Gophers ran all over the Badgers' front line, while the redshirt freshman Athan Kaliakmanis started strong, completing 6/7 passes for 90 yards and a touchdown through the first quarter.
Kaliakmanis completed Minnesota’s first drive with a six-yard touchdown pass to Daniel Jackson that provided the Gophers an early lead.
Once again, on Wisconsin’s following drive, Mertz and Dike failed to connect on a third down, resulting in a quick three-and-out for the Badgers.
Mo Ibrahim consistently hit the edge early, as the Badgers struggled to defend the run without Nick Herbig, which allowed Minnesota to consistently and patiently move the ball.
However, Minnesota’s offensive momentum stalled when Kaliakmanis failed to convert a 4th & 1 quarterback sneak, as Jordan Turner broke the play up.
Wisconsin built on that momentum, driving down the field with a heavy usage of Mellusi and two key Mertz third-down conversions.
But, after Mellusi was stuffed on 3rd & 2 for a one-yard gain, head coach Jim Leonhard chose the conservative approach, kicking a field goal to make it 7-6 at the Minnesota 24-yard-line.
Then, after forcing a three-and-out, Wisconsin once again moved down the field, but was faced with another 4th & 1 after Graham Mertz slid early on a quarterback scramble and Leonhard elected to punt at the WIS 43, choosing the conservative route once again.
That decision hurt the Badgers as Minnesota rebounded from a Keeanu Benton 1st down sack to drive down and kick a buzzer-beating 25-yard field goal on 4th & 2 from the 7-yard line as the half expired.
Coming out of the half, Minnesota originally went three-and-out, but benefitted from a C.J. Goetz personal foul penalty on 3rd & 10 to prolong their drive, eventually kicking a field goal to increase their lead to 13-6.
The decision was conservative as Minnesota had originally chosen to go for it, but reversed their choice following a timeout. Kicker Matthew Trickett missed his first opportunity, but a false start gave him a second chance, which he drilled.
Graham Mertz stepped up on the next drive, hitting a nice throw to Chimere Dike on the sidelines off a bootleg, although he made it harder than needed as Keontez Lewis was wide open on the crosser as well, which was the throw Mertz made last weekend.
Then, Mertz found Dean Engram between the levels on the left corner for a nice 24-yard gain.
But, on the easiest throw of the three, Mertz sailed a touchdown pass to a wide-open Jack Eschenbach, which killed the drive and forced yet another Wisconsin field goal.
Offensive coordinator Bobby Engram was getting into a groove here, calling a good game for the second consecutive drive, although Wisconsin wasn’t able to capitalize.
Good plays from Semar Melvin and Nick Herbig spearheaded a three-and-out for Minnesota deep in their territory, giving Wisconsin good field position at their own 46-yard line after a punt.
After an unnecessary chop block from Jack Nelson, the Badgers moved forward and scored their first touchdown off a creative Chimere Dike end-around to gain a 16-13 lead.
Then, the defenses started kicking in as each team committed two straight three-and-outs.
However, Athan Kaliakmanis stepped up afterward, completing passes of 14, 19, and 34 yards, which allowed for a redzone field goal after Alexander Smith broke up a pass on 3rd down.
It was a similar story on the following drive as Wisconsin committed another three-and-out, while Lemeke Brockington increased the Gophers’ lead to 23-16 with a 45-yard touchdown catch.
Wisconsin had the perfect opportunity to tie, but Graham Mertz sailed a pass intended for an open Chimere Dike that resulted in an interception at the 2:48 mark of the fourth quarter.
After a missed field goal from Minnesota, the Badgers got another opportunity at the 1:48 mark, but Mertz injured himself on a scramble on a 1st & 10 at their 41-yard line, forcing Chase Wolf to enter with the game on the line.
Isaac Guerendo made a clutch 4th down carry, converting a 4th & 1 with a 14-yard carry before Wolf connected with Dike on a 16-yard completion to bring Wisconsin into the redzone.
A pass-interference penalty provided a golden opportunity for the Badgers, who had a 1st & Goal at the 5-yard line.
But, chaos ensued as Riley Mahlman committed a holding penalty on 1st down, to which Tanor Bortolini followed with a false start, backing the Badgers up to the Minnesota 20-yard line on 1st down.
Following a Wolf-to-Dike incompletion in the endzone, left tackle Tyler Beach and Mahlman each committed a false start on consecutive plays, providing the Badgers with a 2nd & Goal from the 30-yard line.
Wolf completed a short pass to Skyler Bell after firing to the endzone for Keontez Lewis, leaving the Badgers with a 4th & Goal at the MIN 25 with five seconds remaining.
Down a touchdown, Wisconsin had to attempt a pass for the endzone and Wolf couldn’t hit Lewis way short of the sticks, sealing the loss for the Badgers.
Graham Mertz’s inconsistencies were, once again, the biggest storyline of the game, as he failed to produce in key moments, finishing with 16/27 passing for 170 yards and an interception.
The running backs didn’t have that extra juice without Braelon Allen, but managed 4.3 yards per carry on significant volume to move the offense.
Mertz and Dike were the big storyline, as the top receiver caught just five passes on 11 targets, while deep threat Keontez Lewis was limited to two receptions on six targets.
Mertz was simply outdueled by Gophers quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis, who threw for 319 yards and two touchdowns on 19/29 passing.
The Badgers did fare better in the second half in run defense, as Mo Ibrahim was limited to just 70 yards on 27 carries.
But, the secondary was consistently picked apart, while several players missed tackles.
While Leonhard is expected to be named the next head coach, Wisconsin will have several changes that they must evaluate in the offseason to improve for next year.