There were several takeaways from the comfortable victory, but the biggest revolves around running back Chez Mellusi’s injury, which has been confirmed as a season-ender.
For this roundtable, I combined with our football writers, Scary Alvarez, and Ritvik Gudlavalleti once again to answer some critical questions.
Q: Biggest takeaways from Week 4?
Rohan: I think the biggest takeaway was definitely the strong start that the Badgers had, and it wasn’t just on one side of the ball.
Wisconsin’s offense finally looked the part early, scoring three straight touchdowns to begin the game, but the defense limited Purdue to one field goal and forced three three-and-outs in the first half. The Badgers will make mistakes, but the biggest way to alleviate those concerns is fast starts, and that’s exactly what we saw on Friday night, which hadn’t been the case through the first three weeks of the season.
Another important takeaway was the implementation of the quarterback run. Tanner Mordecai rushed for 59 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries, of which some were designed and others were via scrambles at the end of plays. For a few weeks, I’ve been clamoring for the implementation of the quarterback design, partially because of how successful it was for Phil Longo at North Carolina, but also because Mordecai himself has shown comfortability in that realm over the past two years at SMU.
Not only does it incorporate that element for Mordecai, but utilizing the quarterback run opens up the zone-read for the run game, while also forcing defenses to play 11-on-11 football, which causes linebackers to make tough reads and improves efficiency in the run game. Let’s see if the Badgers continue to utilize the quarterback run throughout the season.
Scary: The biggest takeaway, and this goes beyond Wisconsin’s surprisingly easy win at Purdue, is that the Big Ten West is shaping up to be a two-team race between Wisconsin and Iowa.
Minnesota losing to a potentially generationally horrific Northwestern team in OT after blowing a 21-point fourth-quarter lead, Illinois struggling to beat another marginal squad at home, and Nebraska having more issues at quarterback than the Packers in the 1980s, demonstrate that those teams are all pretenders. Purdue showed flashes against Wisconsin and has one of the West’s two best quarterbacks, but is still at least a year away from flourishing in a new system.
This leaves Wisconsin and Iowa.
The Hawkeyes’ offense going peak Brian Ferentz at Penn State filled my heart with hope that their offense may not be good enough to help a near-elite defense over the West finish line. Obviously, there are many ways this could go sideways for Wisconsin, but it’s tough to argue against them being, at worst, one of two teams to beat in the atrocious Big Ten West, and very possibly the top dog right now which much room for growth.
Ritvik: One noticeable improvement from the Badgers this week was their fast start on offense. Phil Longo looked ready to go this week against Purdue, scoring touchdowns on the first two offensive drives and finishing the first half with 21 points.
In the second half, we saw another somewhat of an offensive slowdown, as the team couldn’t really get in rhythm. This is still a major improvement from the past weeks where the Badgers tallied only one touchdown in the first quarter.
This offensive show was in part thanks to a great game by Tanner Mordecai running the ball. Mordecai as a third running option is huge for the Badgers and opens up a whole new attack for this offense in weeks to come.
Q: Where does Wisconsin still need to improve?
Rohan: While allowing just 17 points on Friday, Wisconsin’s defense needs some improvements still.
Like I said last week, I think an underrated issue is the team’s run defense. With spread offenses taking a majority of the focus against Wisconsin’s defense through the first three weeks of the season, the run defense hasn’t been highlighted as much, and it was an issue again versus Purdue, specifically on inside-zone concepts. The Badgers allowed 212 rushing yards, giving up 7.2 yards per carry, and that kept Purdue’s offense moving, despite a 21/38 passing, 202-yard, and two-interception performance from quarterback Hudson Card.
The Badgers still have issues in the passing game, which could be more attributed to the debate of whether their personnel fits the scheme that defensive coordinator Mike Tressel still wants to run, but the glaring issues in the run game could be exploited even more with Big Ten play on the way.
Scary: Not trying to be cute here, but the answer is everywhere.
Friday night in West Lafayette showed us some very positive signs in several areas—I’ve been beating the drum on Mordecai’s legs for a while now and the defense is proving it can generate the turnovers it needs to survive while still giving up tons of yards—but the reality is, the Badgers still need to improve across the board in order to hit their potential in 2023.
As much as I like what QB1 is doing with his feet, our lack of downfield passing success is still notable. Yes, some big play drops have plagued this offense, but the short passing game, while good to see, won’t be enough against Ohio State or Iowa. Especially given that the team won’t be able to lean on the run as much due to Mellusi’s horrific injury (more on this, below).
The offensive also needs to keep improving, especially in pass blocking and penalties (!), and Jake Renfro should help in this area. I fully accept that Tressel’s unit is a bend-don’t-break defense. I get it. But, it still gives up too many big plays to truly flourish, and the tackling can be iffy at times. These are things Leonhard’s units generally did very well, so the drop-off is pretty stark.
That said, the turnovers have been a positive for the Badger defense lately, and there’s definitely room for growth within a unit that may not have a star beyond Hunter Wohler, but has more playmakers than I initially thought it did, which has been a nice surprise. In any given game, there are several guys who can step up and have a moment. That’s a good thing.
Ritvik: An issue that Wisconsin has continued to show throughout this season is consistency. The team is resilient for sure and they have the right attitude to win, but their overall execution has been off. Blown coverages, misreads, and miscommunication were still there throughout the Purdue game. The hope is that as the season progresses, these mental errors will be fixed, and the team can execute consistently every play.
As I mentioned last week, this is a new offensive system for these players and it is still on training wheels. Once Phil Longo gains enough confidence that the team knows the system and can execute, we are going to see a whole different level of the Wisconsin Badgers offense.
Q: Confidence level in the offense after Chez Mellusi’s injury?
Rohan: I was more confident in the Badgers offense, despite the slow start, because I expected them to eventually start clicking after showing glimpses of their potential through the first three weeks.
But, Chez Mellusi’s impact as a consistent running back who could just eat up necessary volume was a big factor in that. Admittedly, my confidence level is now down for the Badgers compared to before, as I thought the timeshare between Mellusi and star Braelon Allen was integral in keeping the Wisconsin offense churning, while taking off a portion of the load for the latter, who has dealt with numerous injuries over his career. Unfortunately, Mellusi’s injury is a season-ender, meaning the Badgers will have to find one of their backups to take his role, with Allen potentially in line to earn an even bigger share of touches as the true lead back in the offense.
I definitely still think their ceiling of a Big Ten Championship appearance is still in the grasps, but it now places even bigger pressure on the offense to strike a good balance and running back Braelon Allen to remain healthy because that strong security blanket no longer lasts behind the star.
Scary: If someone had asked me to name the players that Wisconsin could least afford to lose this season, Chez Mellusi would have been in No. 5, after Mordecai, Allen, Dike, and Wohler.
He was that important to the way this offense functions in a season where the running game has proven to be more vital than expected. It’s a tremendous blow with potentially huge repercussions for this offense and its comfort zone. This is no knock on the talented and hard-running Braelon Allen, but he’s a much better back with Mellusi healthy. Not only did Mellusi give Allen necessary breathers (sometimes to the point of head scratching, but that’s simply a reflection of how much Longo loved Mellusi), but the stylistic differences between the pair gave this offense more layers.
Allen’s workload is now likely to increase, which isn’t ideal for a guy who is already a bit banged up, but the Badgers still badly need another running back to step up. That isn’t an abstract concept, it’s a fact that must immediately be addressed. Whether it’s Jackson Acker, Cade Yacamelli, Nate White, or a guy totally off the board, someone needs to take meaningful carries going forward, and if this doesn’t happen, Wisconsin’s offense will suffer, as will Allen’s effectiveness as the season grinds on.
Acker probably gets the first crack at these totes, but his style being so much more like Allen’s than Mellusi’s makes that prospect less ideal. This week of practice should be very interesting for the Badger running back room and Coach Devon Spalding will definitely be earning his keep going forward.
Ritvik: Chez Mellusi’s injury was a big blow to this promising Badgers offense.
Mellusi was having a great season this year and the dual-back threat was looking scarier every week. Without Mellusi, the Badgers do lose a major piece, but they will be okay. Mordecai and Braelon Allen have both shown they are a formidable threat on the ground, and the Badgers' passing offense is slowly taking off.
This past Friday night, we saw Phil Longo dial a couple of big plays, one of them a drop by Skylar Bell that could have gone for a touchdown. With Phil Longo getting more comfortable and trusting his players more, we can see him unlock the deep and medium passing game to help alleviate the loss of Mellusi and keep Braelon fresh.