Wisconsin football: 10 takeaways from the 2022 regular season
Twenty-six seconds might have cost Jim Leonhard his dream job. Maybe that’s not the worst thing for Wisconsin fans.
With the 23-16 loss to Minnesota, the Badgers finished 6-6 on the regular season. Sure, there’s a bowl game to be played. Yes, some players will grow from the season and be better for it. Still, where do the Badgers go from here?
Where can they go from here? Is there upside under the current staff?
Here are 10 of the biggest takeaways from the 2022 season in Madison:
1. Graham Mertz’s time is up as QB1
Remember when Mertz committed to the program? A 4-star recruit with 5-star skill?
Those skills have yet to be put to full use in a full season. It’s Year 3 of the Mertz era, and things have gone from bad to worse. The reality is it probably won’t be getting better anytime soon.
Last season, Mertz threw for 10 touchdowns against 11 interceptions and completed 59.5 percent of his throws. This season, he’s thrown for 19 touchdowns against 10 interceptions and completed 57.3 percent of his throws. In both years, his passer rating has ranked in the bottom half of qualifying B1G quarterbacks.
Mertz has the skills to be a talented player, but not the consistency. The Badgers need a new signal-caller after mixed play from Mertz since Wisconsin’s 7-game 2020 season. The Badgers are 19-13 since he took the reins. Mertz needs a fresh start. So does Wisconsin.
For the 3rd time, Mertz failed to throw a touchdown pass in the battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe. Fool me once, shame on you. Three strikes? You’re out.
2. Braelon Allen is the man
Allen did not play in Saturday’s loss to the Golden gophers due to a leg injury. Rumors have swirled over the past several weeks that he could be looking to transfer following a lackluster season.
That can’t happen for Wisconsin if it wants to contend for a B1G title in the coming years. He’s the offense. The driving force. The reason for any type of positive production.
In 11 games, Allen rushed for 1,121 yards and 10 touchdowns. Over his 5 games with 100+ rushing yards, the Badgers won 3. In games in which he scored a touchdown, Wisconsin won 4.
These numbers don’t lie. The sophomore outrushed the next nearest Badger by 771 yards and averaged over a full yard more per carry than Chez Mellusi. He also excelled in pass protection and only fumbled once all season.
Mertz was the only other player to surpass 1,000 yards in any fashion this season, and that felt like a struggle. Allen was the reason for hope in Camp Randall. If he had played in the final game, maybe a 7-5 record would’ve been possible.
3. Not your Dad’s offensive line
The Big Ten has been known for its ability to transform young promising offensive linemen into 1st-round NFL talents. Outside of perhaps Iowa, no one does it better than Wisconsin.
But this year’s unit was not your Mom or Dad’s old-school style group of blockers.
The Badgers allowed 25 sacks this season, 6th-most among B1G teams. Iowa and Illinois went crazy against them, totaling 4 and 5 takedowns, respectively. Maryland and Michigan State each tacked on 3, while Illinois State registered 2.
Whoever is named the next permanent head coach will need to be aggressive with the transfer portal. No one should be safe from being replaced in the coming months, especially OLs Riley Mahlman and Tyler Beach, both of whom were flagged for penalties — including a hold and back-to-back false starts — during the final drive Saturday against Minnesota, turning a 1st-and-goal from the 5 into a 2nd-and-goal from the 30.
4. Run defense a positive
Leonhard was always going to have his defense playing up to the standard regardless of his new role. For the most part, teams struggled to move the sticks on the Badgers’ front 7.
Illinois averaged 3.3 yards per carry and only totaled 8 rushing yards aside from Chase Brown’s 129. Iowa averaged 1.2 yards and Michigan State averaged 2.8. Minnesota, with star running back Mo Ibrahim, averaged 2.6.
Outside of Ohio State, which finished with 258 yards on 43 carries, teams didn’t carve up Wisconsin on the ground.
As a unit, Wisconsin finished 12th nationally in run defense, allowing 103.2 yards per game on les than 3 per carry.
5. Too close for comfort
How many times did Badgers fans say “Boy, that was too close for comfort” this season? Once? Thrice? Every Saturday?
The Badgers lost by 3 in Week 2 against Washington State. They fell short in double overtime to Michigan State by 6 and then by 7 on Saturday at Camp Randall.
What was even crazier were the narrow margins in wins. Wisconsin needed 12 unanswered points in the 4th quarter to take down 4-win Nebraska. They needed to recover an onside kick to secure a 35-24 win over Purdue after leading 35-10.
Five games were decided by a total of 25 points. For a program like Wisconsin, that’s considered a step in the wrong direction.
6. Nick Herbig is a difference-maker
Being able to pressure the quarterback can be the difference between a win and a loss.
One of the biggest breakout stars from Leonhard’s defense, Herbig registered 11 sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss — both B1G bests. He had 3 multi-sack performances, 2 of which came in wins over Illinois State and Maryland.
Due to a targeting call against Nebraska, Herbig missed the first half of the Axe game vs. Minnesota. That might have been the difference in the 1-score loss to the Gophers.
7. A hit-or-miss offense
Wisconsin only scored more than 40 points twice in 2022. One time came against Group of 5 program New Mexico State, the other against Northwestern, which hasn’t won on American soil since last October. Take those away, and the Badgers averaged 21 points per game.
And it’s not solely about the points.
On multiple occasions, the offense would go 3-and-out for drives at a time. One punt would turn into 3. Then 5. Then 7. And if stalled drives weren’t hurting the offense, turnovers were. Mertz’s inconsistencies in passing led to interceptions. The Badgers ranked 12th in the B1G in producing first downs, not good for a program that prides itself on ball control.
8. A surprisingly active secondary
Much like the defensive line, Wisconsin’s secondary had a knack for making plays at the right time. Despite allowing 14 touchdowns in coverage, the Badgers also forced 15 interceptions.
Senior John Torchio finished with 5 takeaways and 5 pass breakups. Kamo’i Latu tallied 2 picks and 3 pass deflections, while 8 other Badgers recorded an interception. Jay Shaw led the way with 6 pass breakups while Cedric Dort had 4.
As a unit, Wisconsin only allowed quarterbacks to average 6.7 yards per pass attempt. Opposing quarterbacks averaged a passer rating of 120.98, 35th lowest nationally. And while 202.3 yards per game allowed through the air might seem like more than expected, that still was good enough for 31st in the country.
9. Firing Paul Chryst was the right move
It’s never easy to send one of your own packing, but in this case it needed to be done.
Chryst’s impact won’t soon be forgotten in Madison after his 8-year stint at the helm. He led the Badgers to 4 10-win seasons and 3 B1G West titles. Under his regime, Wisconsin was ranked in the Top 25 4 times, including twice in the top 10.
But the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. By the time Chryst was willing to make changes, the damage was already done. He had failed to win the West in back-to-back seasons, and the offense had taken a step back due to mundane and predictable play design. The talent was there, but the execution wasn’t.
Athletic director Chris McIntosh wanted a fresh start. He wasn’t the one to hire the 57-year-old, and in times of trouble, sometimes making a switch can do wonders.
In a sense, it did. Wisconsin went 4-2 under Leonhard entering Rivalry Week. The Badgers became bowl eligible once again before slipping up at home in the season finale.
Speaking of that …
10. Jim Leonhard might be in over his head
Sometimes, a person is good at one role. In movies, it’s called typecasting.
In football, they call them coordinators.
Leonhard nearly blew it against Nebraska. He nearly cost the Badgers a win against Purdue late in the 4th quarter. And on Saturday, in a game that would have likely locked him up as the permanent coach, his last-second play-calling, plus the undisciplined nature of his team, did end up being the difference on which program won Paul Bunyan’s Axe.
McIntosh might already have his mind up. Reports have surfaced that Wisconsin will hire Luke Fickell away from Cincinnati, and that it may become official as soon as Sunday evening.
Is that a good thing? On multiple instances, Leonhard has seemed stuck on the interim tag rather than separating himself from other candidates as a legit head coach. And much like Chryst, he made only minor and undramatic changes on either side of the ball.
Since Week 10, the Badgers have averaged 16 points per game. They’ve averaged 308 yards per game and have converted just 38% of their 3rd down attempts. Also, 2 of Leonhard’s most convincing wins came against teams with a combined 5-19 record this season.
Without its 12-point 4th-quarter rally against Nebraska, the Badgers wouldn’t even be going bowling this year.
So perhaps Fickell makes much more sense the Leonhard, who seemed like the surefire successor just a few weeks ago.
It’s clear Wisconsin plans to remain a serious player in the expanding and enriched Big Ten.