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Wisconsin Football offensive grades: Graham Mertz, offense sputters in 52-21 thrashing

The Badgers offense couldn’t get anything going early, ending with 21 points against a top-ranked Ohio State team.

Wisconsin v Ohio State Photo by Gaelen Morse/Getty Images

The Wisconsin Badgers suffered their biggest loss of the 2022 campaign in their most-anticipated matchup, falling 52-21 to the Ohio State Buckeyes on a Saturday Night matchup.

Here are the offensive grades for the Badgers in Week 4:

Quarterback: C

After a fairly strong start to the season, quarterback Graham Mertz was inaccurate in an 11/20 showing for 94 yards, throwing for a touchdown and an interception as well.

While the Badgers’ offense was outmatched by the strong play of the Buckeyes’ front-seven, Mertz did the offense no favors, playing fairly conservative, electing to throw short of the sticks instead of challenging the field.

Now, there are certain instances where looking to push downfield can be a detriment to one’s offense, but this wasn’t the case last Saturday. Ohio State dared the Wisconsin offense to throw the football, leaving 1-on-1 coverages on the outside, despite sporting an inexperienced secondary, while stacking the box against the rushing attack.

On one play, Mertz had Keontez Lewis coming open on a dig-route over the middle that would’ve given Wisconsin a first down. Instead, Mertz opted for a checkdown well short of the sticks to Clay Cundiff, which the linebacker sniffed out easily as the play was developing, forcing the Badgers to punt on that drive.

Later, Mertz had Lewis, who appeared to be his favorite deep-threat option thus far, open on a 1-on-1 deep post without any safety help, but didn’t let the play develop and instead targeted Skyler Bell in a tight window on 3rd & Long, throwing an incompletion due to great defense by the cornerback.

While Mertz made a fairly good throw in a tight window, the Badgers needed to capitalize on every major opportunity they had in this game to give themselves a chance, and they didn’t.

Additionally, Mertz was fairly inaccurate when on the run, which was a significant amount in this game, due to the consistent pressure and what I perceived as a lack of trust in his offensive line, as the quarterback bailed on plays early while operating out of cleaner pockets.

Mertz’s biggest mistake came on an interception during Wisconsin’s first offensive drive in which he threw a pass several yards behind Chimere Dike running a simple stick option route.

While an option was implemented in the play, a miscommunication between the duo that has shared experience for years shouldn’t occur, leading to the above point of Mertz operating too early at times rather than letting routes settle, which could be tied into the issue with trusting his offensive line.

Now, Mertz was operating under a questionable gameplan from Bobby Engram, as well as a depleted offensive line against a strong front-seven for the Buckeyes.

Specifically, I wasn’t a big fan of the number of five-step dropbacks under center that Mertz had in this game, due to that opposing front-seven, as it would require quicker processing from Mertz, who had a tough task ahead of him already.

However, in a game where Wisconsin needed Mertz to be elite and make plays that weren’t common for him, the quarterback could not deliver consistently.

Running Backs: A-

This grade is primarily focusing on Braelon Allen, as Chez Mellusi and Isaac Guerendo combined for just eight yards on six carries.

For one of the first times this season, I was ultimately pleased with the performance that I saw from Allen, who had been inconsistent with his decision-making and vision at times, although the statlines remained intact.

Against Ohio State, Allen ran hard, looking to hit the correct hole and making decisive reads, while exhibiting patience on plays that required them.

When the hole was created, the sophomore running back usually acted on the opportunity, gaining a couple of yards while moving the offense forward.

However, the offensive line play was spotty in this game, failing to consistently create rushing lanes for Allen and company, limiting the offense’s ceiling early as they tried to compete with Ohio State’s high-powered dual-threat attack.

Allen ended with 23 carries for 165 yards, including a breakaway 75-yard touchdown on Wisconsin’s last legitimate offensive drive, while serving as a bell-cow back on the drive before.

The Badgers debuted the wildcat look, relying on Allen to produce by himself or even work a zone-read from the offensive look.

An increase of usage for Isaac Guerendo was a suggestion of mine early, given the senior running back’s speed, which could’ve provided the element of a “home-run” play from the backfield.

But, Guerendo was stopped for a loss of five yards on a potential outside-zone run as Ohio State’s defensive line blew up the play, and the Badgers didn’t utilize their speedy halfback much afterward.

Overall, the Badgers’ running backs, and primarily Braelon Allen, were not the reason for the loss, but the productivity of the position group in this offense is dependent on the offensive line, which didn’t perform to expectations against a tough matchup.

Wide Receivers: B-

The wide receivers didn’t have much production as a unit, as Mertz threw for just 94 yards on the day.

Skyler Bell paved the way with four catches for 55 yards, but no other wideout had over 10 yards or one catch on the day.

But, the lack of production wasn’t necessarily an indictment on the receivers, as they were open on several plays, however; execution didn’t occur.

As I mentioned earlier, top deep threat Keontez Lewis was open on two separate routes, including one that may have resulted in a touchdown, but wasn’t targeted on either play as Mertz looked for more conservative options on the plays.

Additionally, on the second offensive drive, the Badgers looked to target Lewis in a 1-on-1 go-route, but Mertz overthrew his receiver, who had just a step over the defending cornerback.

Chimere Dike and Mertz continue to struggle on the crossing routes to the sidelines, as the duo misfired on a separate wide-open incompletion from the interception.

Dike did commit a crucial holding penalty that negated a Braelon Allen first down, killing an offensive drive on a day in which the Badgers needed to capitalize on every opportunity they had.

However, the overall outlook was that receivers were running solid routes, but the complete offensive execution didn’t happen, be it on the quarterback or offensive line.

Tight Ends: C

Similarly to the receivers, the tight ends didn’t see much action in the passing game, with only Jack Eschenbach and Clay Cundiff catching a ball a piece, with the former gaining ten yards and the latter earning three yards on their respective plays.

So, why does the tight end group earn a lower grade than the wide receiver group?

As a whole, the unit struggled with blocking on the edge and that involves Hayden Rucci, who’s been primarily known for that facet of his game.

The Buckeyes dominated both edges, limiting the Badgers’ rushing attack in bouncing rushes to the outside from the initial jump, while also keeping Graham Mertz moving in the passing attack.

From a physicality standpoint, the Badgers, and their set of tight ends, were outmatched, limiting explosive plays and forcing them to be extremely disciplined, which didn’t end up being the case.

While running routes, it’s hard to fault the tight ends for their production, especially with the route tree produced by offensive coordinator Dean Engram, but in blocking situations, the unit arguably had their worst performance.

Offensive Line: C-

The Badgers suffered another loss to their supposedly stout offensive line when left tackle Jack Nelson was inactive with an illness, to which head coach Paul Chryst suggested the team knew on Thursday of last week.

That required yet another shift on the offensive line as underwhelming right tackle Logan Brown, who rotated with Trey Wedig last weekend, was shifting to the blindside protector, while the latter started on the right side alongside guard Tanor Bortolini.

When I asked Bortolini last weekend about his experience playing alongside Wedig at right guard and right tackle respectively, the redshirt sophomore acknowledged that the duo started practicing together in that alignment just last week.

So, there was a lack of continuity on either side of the offensive line on Saturday as the Badgers were facing their toughest opponent of the year, making the game an even harder uphill battle before a single snap took place.

The results went fairly close to expected as Brown struggled in pass protection, leading to Mertz consistently being on the run, while the offensive line as a whole failed to consistently create holes and get to the second level against a tough Buckeyes’ front seven.

When every player was in cohesion, the result went smoothly as the Badgers were able to get spurts of offensive life, but the unit rarely pieced together for an entire drive until the game was well out of reach.

As an offense, Wisconsin averaged just 5.3 yards per play and when taking away the 75-yard Braelon Allen run in garbage time, the offense averaged just 4.0 yards per play, while gaining just 3.4 yards per carry on the ground.

Wisconsin’s offensive line should have a bounce-back performance against Illinois in Week 5, especially with the expected return of Jack Nelson which should provide some extra continuity to the unit.