B1G 5: QB play remains a strange but true issue for Wisconsin
Each week, college football insider Matt Hayes tackles the hottest topics in the Big Ten.
1. The B1G Story
Let’s play coach association, shall we?
In the last 6 non-Covid seasons, this Big Ten coach who doesn’t work for Ohio State or Michigan has won 10, 11, 13, 8, 10 and 9 games.
Think that’s impressive? Get a load of this:
In those 6 seasons — as the game has evolved into one dominated by quarterback-driven offenses and the position has become be-all, end-all — this coach’s quarterbacks were Joel Stave, Alex Hornibrook, Jack Coan and Graham Mertz.
If Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst isn’t one of the 10 best coaches in college football, who is?
“It’s one thing that has really been perplexing all these years,” an NFL scout told me. “Paul is one of the brightest offensive minds and best teachers of the position at any level. But he hasn’t had a difference-maker at that position. Part of that is because of the style of offense they play. I’m sure that turns off elite guys.
“I’ve always wondered just how good (Wisconsin) could be if they had an elite guy at quarterback.”
Don’t expect that to happen in 2022. In fact, get ready for more Mertz, a former elite recruit who hasn’t played any better than the three average quarterbacks before him.
Unless Oklahoma transfer Caleb Williams does the unthinkable – don’t laugh, Williams and his family are reportedly intrigued by how Chryst, as the Badgers OC/QB coach in 2011, got graduate transfer QB Russell Wilson prepared for the NFL – and signs with Wisconsin, the Badgers will begin the 2022 season with another huge question at the most important position on the field.
Take away the first 2 games of Mertz’s college career – when he had 7 TDs and 0 INTs against an awful Illinois team and Covid-hampered Michigan – and he enters 2022 with a career TD/INT ratio of 12/16 in 18 games. That, everyone, isn’t winning the Big Ten West Division – much less the conference championship.
In 7 seasons under Chryst, Wisconsin’s quarterbacks have thrown 111 TDs and 77 INTs (the latter, the problem), and have completed 60 percent of their passes.
It’s system, it’s players, and frankly, you can’t ignore the lack of elite talent.
“I didn’t think I’d ever see a quarterback coached by Paul look so uneasy back there,” a Big Ten coach told me. “But now you’ve got a guy who will be in his third year with Paul? You have to like your odds there.”
Especially considering everything else is set up for unique success.
After his first season at Wisconsin in 2015, Chryst hired beloved former Badger Jim Leonhard as defensive backs coach and was so impressed with his organization and technique, he moved him to coordinator in 2017.
Since that season, Wisconsin’s scoring defenses have ranked No.3 in the nation, 34th, 10th, 9th and 4th. The Badgers are giving up 17.4 points per game over those 5 seasons, and only Georgia and Alabama have more complete defenses over that span.
The problem: Wisconsin’s passing game is averaging 16 TDs and 11 INTs over those 5 seasons. Those numbers aren’t a problem against mid- and lower-tier Big Ten teams.
But they’re game-changers against the conference elite.
For those who argue Georgia just won the national title with a run-based offense and an elite defense, understand that Bulldogs QB Stetson Bennett – far from the elite at his position – had a TD/INT ratio in 2021 of 29/7.
Chryst has to replace offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph (Virginia Tech), and one obvious option is former Badgers QB Darrell Bevel. Chryst likes to hire former Badgers (another option is former Badgers QB Scott Tolzien), but plucking Bevel from nearly two decades of NFL coaching would have to include control of the offense, quarterbacks and play calling – the very things that have built Chryst’s coaching resume.
No matter who runs the offense and/or calls plays, Mertz must play better. The best sign for Wisconsin this offseason would be redshirt freshman Deacon Hill and freshman signee Myles Burkett pushing Mertz into a breakthrough season.
Or one of the two freshmen winning the job from Mertz.
Either way, the Badgers must get better at the most important position on the field, or accept another 9- or 10-win season as the program’s ceiling.
2. Run to win
Forget, for a moment, about the offseason narratives swirling around Penn State quarterbacks Sean Clifford and Drew Allar.
The super senior and freshman signee aren’t the key to Penn State finding an offensive rhythm and big-play ability.
A running game is.
A running game that hasn’t produced a 100-yard game from a tailback in the last 16 games.
Numerous times last season, Penn State coach James Franklin had to remind offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich to run the ball. Even though the offensive line was struggling, and the running backs had lost confidence, Franklin didn’t want to abandon what has been the foundation of his offenses dating back to his days at Vanderbilt.
He wants to run with power and explosion, and wants to set up a play-action passing game. Penn State averaged a measly 3.2 yards per carry in 2021, and had 44 plays of 10+ yards (12th in the B1G) and 8 plays of 20+ yards (13th in B1G).
Like it or not, Penn State will get significantly younger on the offensive line and in the backfield. Two players from the top 10 recruiting class will push for immediate playing time on the line (JC transfer JB Nelson and Drew Shelton), and 4-star TB Nicholas Singleton will press Keyvone Lee for carries in the backfield.
Penn State had little identity offensively in 2021, at times trying to force the run against the worst pass defense in the Big Ten (Michigan State), and throwing the ball 43 times against a Michigan front it couldn’t block, and against the best secondary in the conference.
The Lions lost those key East Division games by a combined 7 points.
Translation: Look for Penn State to zero in on running the ball more effectively in spring practice, giving the offense an identity and more balance.
3. The waiting game
Time is the answer to all the Jim Harbaugh questions. More specifically, the 7 days until National Signing Day.
Don’t expect Harbaugh to wait until after Signing Day to make a decision on the NFL. It’s not fair to Michigan, and more important, it’s not fair to the high school players committing to play for the Wolverines in 2022.
“I would imagine by the end of this week we should hear, one way or the other, where (Harbaugh) will be coaching next season,” an industry source told me. “He loved coaching in the NFL. Loved the competition at the elite level. He just got stuck in a bad situation.”
Harbaugh clashed with then-San Francisco 49ers general manager Trent Baalke for most of his wildly successful 4 seasons, and left for Michigan because of it. It took 7 years at Michigan, but he rebuilt the program and made it to the national elite in 2021, including a spot in the Playoff.
Remember, Harbaugh left a Stanford program he set up to win big nationally — not just in the Pac-12 — to take the 49ers job. Michigan is clearly a different dynamic because it’s Harbaugh’s alma mater, but there is a track record of leaving a college team set up for success for the NFL.
Unless the new opening in New Orleans plays a factor in his decision, it appears that only the Las Vegas Raiders – Harbaugh was an assistant coach with the Raiders in the early 2000s and knows owner Mark Davis — can pry Harbaugh from Michigan.
4. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll, and one big thing: pre-spring concern.
1. Michigan: DEs Mike Morris and Taylor Upshaw, top backups in 2021, get first chance to produce at a critical position.
2. Ohio State: A smooth defensive install is vital. If this defense fails, it quickly points to coach Ryan Day’s ability to hire assistants.
3. Michigan State: Can DE Khris Bogle finally reach his elite potential and become a disruptive force?
4. Penn State: New DC Manny Diaz makes first moves to replace highly successful Brent Pry.
5. Wisconsin: No one needs the 15 spring practices quite like QB Graham Mertz. One-on-one with Paul Chryst.
6. Minnesota: Four of five starters on the offensive line must be replaced: OTs JJ Guedet and Aireontae Ersery are first up.
7. Purdue: The lines of scrimmage will be retooled, and can’t be overmatched like they were in big games.
8. Iowa: How can offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz tweak the offense to gain more explosive plays?
9. Nebraska: How does it all fit together? New players, coaches, schemes – with a now-or-never mandate.
10. Maryland: Terps won’t climb in the East Division until the defensive front is more productive.
11. Indiana: Find the ball-hawking defense of 2020. Hoosiers forced just 9 turnovers in 2021.
12. Rutgers: Can Gavin Wimsatt take control of the QB job ahead of starter Noah Vedral?
13. Illinois: A near anemic passing game needs a boost from Syracuse transfer QB Tommy DeVito.
14. Northwestern: The focus of any improvement begins on the interior of the lines of scrimmage – center and guards on offense, and defensive tackles.
5. The Weekly Five
The top 5 replacements for NFL early entry or transfer portal players.
1. WR Marvin Harrison Jr., Ohio State, for Garrett Wilson.
2. RB Jalen Berger, Michigan State, for Kenneth Walker III.
3. QB Casey Thompson, Nebraska, for Adrian Martinez.
4. WR Milton Wright, Purdue, for David Bell.
5. DE Jaylen Harrell, Michigan, for David Ojabo.