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Mailbag: Will Tanner Mordecai’s deep ball skills start to show with the Badgers?

In a new mailbag, I teamed with BadgerNotes’s Dillon Graff to answer some of your questions.

It’s the bye week, which means it’s time to evaluate the Wisconsin Badgers through the first few games of the season.

The best way to do so? Hearing your questions and producing a mailbag episode with a special twist.

In this edition, I’m collaborating with BadgerNotes’s Dillon Graff to answer some of your Badgers’ related questions.

Q: What would you say has been the biggest disappointment or area for concern on the defense through four games?

Dillon: My biggest disappointment on the defensive side of the ball — outside of the concerning amount of chunk plays allowed — would have to be tackling. According to Pro Football Focus, the Badgers are averaging 11.25 missed tackles per game — that’s simply not good enough for a team that lacks the high-end talent to overcome these kinds of miscues.

As it stands, Wisconsin has seven rotational defensive players missing 20% or more of their tackles — and this is an area that the Badgers have to clean up, or the run defense will continue to get gashed.

Honorable mention: the pass rush hasn’t wowed me.

Rohan: The biggest issue defensively is honestly the run defense.

Now, is the run defense the most glaring hole on the team? No, but the issues there are the most surprising. Wisconsin struggled to tackle last season, and that has continued to this year.

Defensively, they’re prone to getting beat on explosives due to the lack of height with their cornerbacks. And, the pass rush hasn’t been to standard, but I felt that was a significant concern coming into the season.

So, I’ll point to the run defense, as the Badgers have seemed prone to the ground game, especially up the middle. To become a better defense, Wisconsin first needs to figure out its personnel, and then shore up the run game to make things easier for them in the passing game.

Q: Where would you rank Wisconsin among all Big Ten football programs this season?

Dillon: Call me a homer, but Wisconsin football comes in at No. 4 for me, behind Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State. With that being said, there’s a significant gap between the Badgers and the trio of college football playoff contenders located in the Big Ten East.

The Big Ten West, on the other hand, is down bad. Even if Wisconsin can’t quite put it all together, they have a manageable schedule and, at least on paper, boast more talent than their divisional rivals. That alone should be enough for UW to win nine or 10 games and return to Indy for a David vs. Goliath matchup in the conference championship.

Rohan: At the moment, I’d place the Badgers at No. 5, slightly behind the Maryland Terrapins, who come in at No. 4 behind the three top contenders after a strong 4-0 start. While the opponents haven’t been amazing, Maryland has looked good on both ends, marked by a 31-9 victory over the Michigan State Spartans this past weekend.

Now, do I expect this to be the way for the remainder of the season? No, and that’s primarily due to schedule and division, as the Badgers seem in a two-headed race with Iowa for the Big Ten West, and face a relatively easier schedule down the stretch after a bout against Ohio State in October.

Q: I understand the advantages of a running qb, but will these plays be called depending on the defenses faced by the Badgers? And if not, is it worth the risk of losing Mordecai to injuries?

Dillon: From my observations, Wisconsin has been gradually incorporating Tanner Mordecai into the running game with each passing week. In the Purdue game, his mobility became a valuable asset, allowing him to generate plays on the ground and create enough pause for the running backs to benefit in between the tackles.

Even though Chez Mellusi is out — Wisconsin will likely deploy Mordecai as a runner on a case-by-case basis. To your point, the Badgers offense can’t afford to expose Mordecai to potential injuries caused by taking unnecessary hits.

There’s a difference between running quarterbacks and quarterbacks who can run when needed, and Mordecai falls into the latter category.

I anticipate he’ll still have chances to run in each game, but I’m skeptical that it will become a central focus like we witnessed last week.

Rohan: I’ve actually been an advocate of implementing the quarterback run with Phil Longo as coordinator and Tanner Mordecai under center. Longo has significant experience with the threat of a running quarterback, and Mordecai operated as a dual threat at times during his SMU career.

Now, Mordecai’s runs haven’t been all by design; in fact, a majority have been scrambles, so I wouldn’t get too worried with his statistical volume on the ground.

A value of the quarterback run in a zone scheme is the 11-on-11 football that’s played, forcing the linebackers and defense to respect the threat from the quarterback, which slows their response against the running backs.

I think Wisconsin should continue to implement it situationally, while also anticipating regular scrambles from Mordecai.

Q: Mordecai was tied for 8th in the country last year with Caleb Williams on deep throws. When do we see that skill materialize at Wisconsin, or has he mysteriously lost the ability to stretch the field with consistency?

Dillon: Not to be a glass-half-full guy, but I don’t think Tanner Mordecai and the Wisconsin Badgers offense will suddenly start connecting on deep balls with any regularity.

QB1 has done a wonderful job of distributing the football accurately on those short to intermediate throws. However, Mordecai is only completing 33% of his passes on throws 20+ yards downfield this season. Some of those thrown should have been completions, but the point remains.

The wide receiver room, while vastly improved, doesn’t have a lot of true deep threats either — so I’m doubtful we’ll see the Badgers hit very many home runs this season (they’ll get a few, though).

Rohan: I agree with Dillon here. I don’t know if the deep ball will originate with consistency this season for the Badgers, given their personnel and the issues we’ve seen thus far.

Mordecai has misfired on a number of deep passes this season, as there hasn’t been much separation to allow for a bigger window for the completion, nor has there been great accuracy from the quarterback.

Wisconsin’s best deep threat may be Will Pauling, given his speed and explosiveness, but he hasn’t been used in that way out of the slot, with the Badgers focusing on getting him targets in space instead.

Additionally, the Badgers have been content primarily hitting the short and intermediate areas of the field, with Mordecai looking to get the ball out of his hands quickly, which can deter some of the deeper options.

If there can be some consistency with Green down the sidelines on 1-on-1s like the wideout had at Oklahoma State, then there’ll be some promise, but that’s yet to occur four games in.