Thanks to its improving offense, Wisconsin is once again the prohibitive favorite in the West
If someone told you 2 months ago that on Halloween, Wisconsin would be in the driver’s seat in the Big Ten West, you’d have nodded and said, “Yeah, that sounds about right.”
But as of a month ago, Wisconsin felt more likely to finish last in the West than first. That sounds like hyperbole, but the Badgers were an absolute mess. They couldn’t complete a pass. But over the last month, they have steadily improved, culminating in a convincing win over No. 9 Iowa, 27-7, to once again take control of the West.
This technically qualifies as an upset but it didn’t feel like anything close to that. Wisconsin (5-3, 3-2) controlled the game throughout, scoring 20 points before Iowa even netted a first down. At halftime, Wisconsin had allowed just 16 total yards and 1 first down (which was picked up in the final 2 minutes of the first half).
It’s been quite a journey to reach this point, especially when Iowa looked like it could’ve walked to the West title as of a few weeks ago. But Wisconsin has come alive after getting embarrassed by Notre Dame and Michigan, allowing just 20 points total in 3 B1G games over the last month.
Wisconsin’s defense has been great all season, and now that the offense is finally starting to make some progress, the Badgers are the prohibitive favorite in the West once again, even though they still trail Minnesota by a game in the loss column and have to play in Minneapolis in the season finale.
Whether Wisconsin could finally get its stagnant offense in gear was definitely more of an “if” question rather than “when.” This was far from inevitable because of how terrible the Badgers have been on that side of the ball. Their 17 turnovers entering Saturday was 127th in the country. Not only could they not score, but they have actively hurt their defense.
Out of all teams, the Badgers finally found their groove against … Iowa? The defense that last year led the country in yards per play allowed and this year leads the country in interceptions? Yup.
And don’t let the final numbers (270 total yards and 104 passing yards for Graham Mertz) fool you. Wisconsin scored 20 points in the first half to seize control, and while it should’ve been more, putting up that many points in a half — especially without committing a turnover — is going to win a lot of games with this defense. The Badgers outgained Iowa 192-17 in the first half. In this game, which had an over/under of 36.5 points, that’s an enormous advantage.
There are a lot of ways to run an offense, and there isn’t one foolproof method. The one thing you can’t do against a good defense, though, is be predictable. So I loved that Wisconsin came out and passed 8 times in the first quarter after passing 8 times in the entire game last week against Purdue. It seems counter-intuitive to attack Iowa that way, but it was the right move with star corner Riley Moss out and Terry Roberts out as well, meaning Iowa’s No. 4 corner was in the starting lineup.
Mertz’s box score line of 11-of-22 for 104 yards and a TD won’t wow anyone, but he didn’t turn the ball over, converted a couple of TDs in the red zone (one on a sneak and one to tight end Jake Ferguson) and generally looked more comfortable, even with a few misfires in the second half.
Speaking of Ferguson, it’s a wonder that this was his first TD catch in 13 games. He caught 4 TDs in Mertz’s first 2 games last year and looked like he was going to be a go-to option for the Badgers. It hasn’t worked out that way, and if Mertz can find him more, Wisconsin surely won’t have the No. 9 red-zone offense in the B1G.
The emergence of true freshman Braelon Allen (20 carries, 104 yards) makes Wisconsin a more dynamic offense, too. He has 4 straight 100-yard games and is the Badgers’ best back after starting the season as their No. 4 back, at best. Allen is a nice complement to Chez Mellusi, and it’s clear Paul Chryst is starting to trust him more, as the 20 carries were a career high.
This offense has the ingredients to at least be an average unit, which is all that the No. 2 defense in the country needs in order to be successful.
The West is wide open, as usual, and if Wisconsin’s offense can deliver that type of performance on a weekly basis, the Badgers are a good bet to reach Indianapolis and play for a Big Ten title for the 7th time in 11 years.