The Wisconsin Badgers are set to face off against the Nebraska Cornhuskers in Week 12, with both teams currently sitting at 5-5, including 3-4 in conference play, and still vying for bowl eligibility.
It’s been tough sledding for the Badgers as of late, with the team losing each of their last three games to drop from 5-2 to 5-5.
During the losses, the Badgers have struggled to play complementary football, scoring just 10, 14, and 10 points over the last three games, while the defense has been suspect in the first half of the last two contests.
The Badgers offense has been riddled with issues, as injuries, the lack of a run game, inefficiency in the pass game, and penalties have been killer thus far.
The last factor has been especially crucial, as penalties have consistently served as drive-killers for the Badgers this season.
Offensive lineman Tanor Bortolini delved into some of the offense’s issues this season ahead of the Nebraska contest and pointed to the penalties as a major issue, especially with the spiraling effect they have on the offense.
“I think just as an offense, especially just been executing, especially from an online standpoint, I think just the penalties are really killing us. I think just a lot of self inflicting mistakes,” Bortolini said. Eliminating those penalties [will be important] because they do kill us.”
“We’ll be on a drive, we’ll be rolling, then it’s 2nd & 20 and it’s hard to. What do you get a call on second and 20. I mean, you got to gain 20 yards. They know you got to gain 20 yards, and you don’t have a lot of plays in your playbook for that. So just keeping ourselves out of those spots and finishing in the red zone.”
How do the Badgers fix those issues?
It comes down to hand placement and being smart about the positions the Badgers put themselves in, according to Bortolini, who understands the whistle may come more often, given the team’s holding issues thus far.
“The big emphasis is hand placement, not letting the guy get off your body. And if he does, you have to let go. And at some point there’s a benefit, kind of risk reward. If you do hold, you might get away with it one time, but if you don’t, you lose ten yards and you really have to be smart about it,” Bortolini said.
“I think especially because teams are looking for it, I think officials are looking for it more now that we kind of have a tendency to hold, and it’s just really making sure that we’re good with our hands, we’re smart about the positions we’re putting ourselves in, and we don’t allow the officials to kind of get in that 50 50 spot where they got to make a call.”
Another issue for the Badgers has been their redzone issues. Overall, the Badgers haven’t been bad statistically, but still leave opportunities on the table, which Bortolini pointed out as well.
“I feel like we move the ball well. We just don’t put it in the end zone. I think [there are] redzone frustrations as well,” Bortolini said. “We haven’t been finishing drives the way we kind of started off the year doing. And when you go down there and you get three or zero points instead of seven, it really kills you and it makes it a lot harder to win games. You’re not going to win a lot of games with field goals and you can score touchdowns and we haven’t been doing that. And I think going forward it’s what can we do to do that.”
Upon some of the team’s injuries over the past few weeks, head coach Luke Fickell has said that the offensive line must take on more of a responsibility, which Bortolini and Co. are looking to embrace.
However, with more younger guys seeing playing time amid those injuries, the margin for error decreases, which means the offensive line has to play much cleaner than they have been.
“I think [taking on a bigger responsibility] is just doing our jobs and doing it at a high level. I think when you have everyone, you can make more mistakes and kind of lean on those guys that have a lot of experience to kind of get you out of those situations. When you’re put in a position with a lot of younger guys, you can’t make those same mistakes,” Bortolini said. “You got to be a lot cleaner. You got to strive to be perfect because they’re not quite as experienced, and you have to give them even more of an opportunity to get more comfortable, have those opportunities and find those holes and make those passes.”
“And as an offensive line, just how can we do our job every time to give those guys an opportunity to make a play and we have to do it well. We have to hold our blocks for a long period of time, and I think that’s kind of the burden we want to take on.”
In addition to some of the penalties, another issue with the Badgers offense this season has been the struggle to be a regular threat vertically.
Two weeks ago, head coach Luke Fickell acknowledged the need to have defenses respect the Badgers offense in all facets of the field, which meant the team had to become better vertically, but not only via deep shots.
Well, against Northwestern, Tanner Mordecai completed just four passes over 10 air yards through his first 40 attempts and the Badgers scored just 10 points, with seven coming when the game was well out of hand.
With the way the Badgers operate offensively, given the number of shorter passes and the desire to be up-tempo, does it put even more pressure on the offense line to be perfect?
“Absolutely,” Bortolini said. “Because like I said, once you get to 2nd & 20, let’s say even if you get ten yards, it’s 3rd & 10, and you get the D-line kind of teeing off like they know it’s going to be a pass, you know it’s going to be a pass, and they’re kind of dropping their coverage guys to the sticks. And now if you gain nine yards, it’s still not a first down. And I think that’s really where it hurt us.”
The Badgers offensive attack has a number of issues with the passing game, as the lack of a vertical presence has been exposed by defenses throughout the season, leaving the offense vying for different ways to move the ball.
With the lack of a run identity recently with Braelon Allen’s injury, the Badgers have become one-dimensional offensively, adding even more of a burden on an inconsistent passing game.
Then comes the penalties, which are the cherry on top, as they push the Badgers back and essentially serve as drive-killers, as the offense can’t solve the problem with shorter passes.
There are a number of issues with the Badgers offensively, and the offensive line needs to play cleaner if Wisconsin is to keep its current offensively philosophy in order to win.