We’re back with another roundtable, as the Wisconsin Badgers found themselves in the win column once again, defeating the Rutgers Scarlet Knights 24-13 in their first game after the bye week to improve to 4-1(2-0) on the season.
There were several takeaways from the comfortable victory, including the improved defense, midway reflections, and an evaluation of the coaching staff.
For this roundtable, I combined with our football writers, Nick Snow, and Ritvik Gudlavalleti once again to answer some critical questions.
Q: Thoughts on the defense vs. Rutgers?
Rohan: I thought the defense had their best outing of the season against Rutgers, effectively shutting out the run game, which led to too many tough situations for an uninspiring Scarlet Knights’ passing attack.
The Badgers forced a first-half shutout of Rutgers, while the Scarlet Knights only scored points on drives that started at their own 43-yard line and Wisconsin’s 21-yard line. Something that stands out was Wisconsin’s change to a predominant four-down front with two down linemen and the outside linebacker, lightening up their personnel in coverage to get more of a presence in the trenches.
That’ll be important going forward, as Wisconsin doesn’t have the personnel to dominate at the line of scrimmage with just three down linemen. The tackling was also another highlight, as the Badgers didn’t seem to miss many, wrapping up well, while shutting down the inside runs, which had been a problem in the past.
The Badgers did get caught on some quarterback keepers and outside zone concepts, but it was an effective performance against an offense that had been scoring well due to their efforts on the ground.
Nick: This is the type of performance I was waiting to see from the Badgers defense.
The defensive personnel is built for Big Ten running offenses more than it’s built for the pass-happy offenses that they had played in the first four games. Rutgers was pretty one-dimensional coming into the game and the Badgers made sure they weren’t going to get beaten by that. Really positive sign heading into the Iowa game who will likely be just as one-dimensional.
Ritvik: The Badgers' defense against Rutgers this past weekend played by far their best game of the season.
The run defense was exceptional, and the use of safeties Kamo’i Latu and Hunter Wohler in the box proved quite helpful in stopping the run. Another thing that I thought was a great improvement was the one-on-one coverage, granted that Rutgers is not nearly as strong of a passing team as we will see down the road.
We saw great individual performances from Ricardo Hallman and Jason Maitre, who were tested numerous times in man coverage. If our secondary can continue to improve on their 1 on 1 coverage and Cover 0 concepts, head coach Luke Fickell can then look to integrate more blitzes and stunts into the game plan.
Q: Biggest strengths/improvements at the halfway point?
Rohan: The biggest strength I’ve seen is the involvement of Tanner Mordecai’s legs, both when taking off and when extending plays for teammates. I’ve been clamoring for the involvement of Mordecai in the running game, given his comfortability and offensive coordinator Phil Longo’s usage of the quarterback at North Carolina, and we’re finally seeing it come to place a little more.
Additionally, even without Chez Mellusi, the Badgers fielded a strong rushing attack thanks to the ascendance of Jackson Acker and Mordecai’s running ability, setting aside those concerns.
Improvements-wise, I do think Wisconsin still has lengths to go to clean everything up, as the overall product still hasn’t looked very pretty, but has been enough to get the job done. In the passing game, efficiency at all three levels of the field needs to increase, while the Badgers need to be as well-rounded as they were on Saturday defensively on a consistent basis.
Nick: Strength: QB play. Mordecai is exactly the type of player this offense needs playing quarterback while they try and get everyone up to speed (it’s been clear this offense is a work in progress). Anytime a play breaks down he can rely on his legs to make things happen. The stats won’t wow anyone but this is a breath of fresh air compared to what we were seeing under the previous regime.
Improvements: It would be nice if Mordecai didn’t have to leap a foot in the air to grab every other snap. If that continues, it’s gonna cause a turnover and I’m worried it’ll happen at a critical point in a game against a team like Iowa or Ohio State. It’s also been frustrating to see some of the drops by receivers and tight ends. If the ball hits someone in the face mask, that ball should be caught. I know it’s easier said than done but at some point some of these balls need to get caught, especially on the ones that are “big plays”.
Ritvik: The biggest improvement has to go to the Badgers offense.
Starting the season, it was hard for them to get a rhythm going early which led to extremely slow starts and a tired-out defense. These past two weeks Tanner Mordecai and Phil Longo have orchestrated longer, sustaining drives, and the mental miscues have gone down significantly.
Mordecai has also done a great job running the ball, adding this new three-pronged attack with the RPO action. Looking ahead, with the more ways to attack, Phil Longo can look to give the power run game some help and provide a new dimension to this offense
Q: Evaluation of the Coaching staff?
Rohan: I think the coaching staff has done a solid job through the first half of the season for the Badgers.
Offensively, you can slowly start to see the sprinkles of what coordinator Phil Longo wants to do, with some deep shots being dialed up, while the quarterback’s mobility is being utilized. I do think the Badgers are missing a true deep threat on the outside that caps the potential of their offense, but the passing game has shown to be a factor when Mordecai and Co. can be consistent and move fast.
Defensively, Mike Tressel has gone through an experimentation period early with his different alignments, leading to some early issues both in the pass and the run game. It seems he’s adapted to his personnel, running with different fronts and lightening up in the backend, which may not be exactly what he envisions, but what’s best for the team at the moment. It’s taken some time, but Tressel had a good gameplan on Saturday and will look to continue that next weekend.
Overall, head coach Luke Fickell seems to have instilled a level of resilience in his team, who have fought hard in each of their outings, while the culture seems to be at a high level across the board. Obviously, off-the-field, recruiting has been an early success for the Badgers, who have compiled a solid 2024 class overall and are looking to push that into 2025 as well.
Nick: This is gonna sound lame, but I was really bothered by the decision that head coach Luke Fickell made to go for it on that 4th & 2 early in the 3rd Quarter. I’m fine with going for it at times but Rutgers turned that short field into points and made the score 17-6.
If they punt there and try to pin them deep, Rutgers likely won’t score with how well the defense was playing. Rutgers only scored on short fields yesterday. It was little and it didn’t end up mattering, but it was a bad call to go for it and a poorly executed play.
Otherwise, Tressel had his best game and Longo made it work even though the offense had a tougher day than it needed to be.
Ritvik: With the coming of new head coach Luke Fickell and offensive coordinator Phil Longo, the Badgers football team was in for a full revamp. So far, the revamp is looking good. Will Pauling, the transfer from Cincinnati, has come in and brought with him the right attitude and play that Luke Fickell expects. As the players get more and more comfortable in this new system, this team is bound to be very scary.
Offensively, we have seen the team slowly integrate more and more components of the offense by the week. As Ohio State inches closer and closer, week-to-week preparation and film have to be increased.