What should Wisconsin do now that Graham Mertz can't play?
The Wisconsin Badgers and their fans saw what a top-level college quarterback looked like on their side for the first time since Russell Wilson when they opened their season with a dominant victory Friday night. Fans may need to wait a while to see that type of play again because Wisconsin’s redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz reportedly tested positive twice for coronavirus. He’ll miss 3 weeks.
It’s also been reported that backup quarterback Chase Wolf, a redshirt sophomore, also tested positive.
— Jeff Potrykus (@jaypo1961) October 27, 2020
Players who test positive for COVID-19 must sit out a minimum 21 days, and Wisconsin’s next 3 games include a road game at Nebraska, home against Purdue and Michigan on the road.
So, with Mertz out and possibly Wolf, too, what does Wisconsin do from here?
Next man up
The depth chart did not list Jack Coan, who would be the obvious replacement if he were healthy, but there has been no update on whether he will return this season after being ruled out indefinitely with a foot injury.
The Badgers appeared to have incredible depth at quarterback, but after 1 game, they may need to turn to their 4th-string quarterback if that’s the route the coaching staff decides to go.
The only other quarterbacks listed on Wisconsin’s roster are redshirt junior Danny Vanden Boom and true freshman Daniel Wright.
Vanden Boom has appeared in 1 game, in 2018 against New Mexico and completed his only pass for a 3-yard touchdown. If the Badgers elect to go with a quarterback on their roster, he would likely be the guy. While he probably did not expect to see any playing time in 2020 with 3 players ahead of him, at least he would receive a full week of practice with the No. 1 offense to get ready for Nebraska on Saturday.
Running game better improve quickly
For as good as Wisconsin’s passing game looked Friday night, its rushing attack was a bit underwhelming. If Vanden Boom starts and is going to be successful running this offense, the running game needs to be better than it was against Illinois. While it’s impossible to expect the Badgers to be able to replace Jonathan Taylor’s production immediately, fans probably expected to see more than what they saw in the opener.
Nakia Watson had the most carries (19 for 62 yards), but Garrett Groshek was the most efficient runner (13 carries for 70 yards), and he caught 4 passes for 29 yards. Isaac Guerendo rushed for 36 yards on 11 carries. Among the 3 running backs, the Badgers averaged just 3.9 yards per carry.
The inability to find running lanes and put together chunk plays on the ground was masked by Mertz’s incredible performance. The running game better figure it out soon, especially if Wisconsin’s top 3 quarterbacks are forced to miss multiple games.
Wisconsin has a long history of a dominant running game, so eventually finding success on the ground should be achievable.
Let’s get creative
If Wisconsin goes with a quarterback under center, it’s likely going to be Vanden Boom. If not, the Badgers could get creative and run Groshek in a wildcat formation all game long. Groshek can be trusted with the ball in his hands and played quarterback in high school, where he was named the state of Wisconsin’s offensive player of the year award. He also won a state title playing the position but moved to running back when he arrived to play for Wisconsin.
There has been recent history for this. Last season, Kentucky suffered injuries and poor play at the quarterback position, so it simply decided to move its best player Lynn Bowden Jr., a wide receiver, to quarterback, and it was successful. Kentucky did not put the ball in the air often, but in the 8 games where Bowden Jr. was the primary QB, the Wildcats went 6-2 overall. And Bowden led the SEC in rushing with 1,468 yards.
Kentucky shortened games and relied on its solid defense that allowed more than 21 points just once in those 8 games. The Badgers could go this route with a running game that is generally successful with an outstanding defensive unit in 2020.
Defense needs to continue excellence
Wisconsin’s defense did not allow a point against Illinois. The Illini’s only points came on a scoop and score after a fumble from Wisconsin tight end Jake Ferguson. The Badgers’ defense is elite and should be among the better groups in the country. It’s difficult to find a whole lot of flaws, especially after pitching a shutout in the opener.
A strong defense should lighten the pressure on whoever plays quarterback. If the Badgers continue to play the way they have been defensively, there will be significantly less pressure on the QB to feel like he needs to win games by himself as the Badgers find themselves in a nightmare scenario one game into the 2020 season.