Wisconsin football: 3 things we didn't like and liked from the Badgers' loss to Illinois
It was the least competitive game in Big Ten play this weekend. Surprisingly so.
Illinois departed Madison with a 34-10 victory against Wisconsin on Saturday for its first win in 20 years at Camp Randall Stadium.
To make matters more humiliating for Wisconsin, 2nd-year Illini coach Bret Bielema got a victory over the program he oversaw for 7 seasons, from 2006-12.
What we didn’t like …
1) Turnovers and penalties
Forget competing for the West Division title. The Badgers need to take better care of the ball if they don’t want to further tumble into the West abyss. Illinois turned 2 Graham Mertz interceptions into points. The other turnover was a third-quarter fumble by Isaac Guerendo on a kickoff at the 16-yard line.
Wisconsin also had 10 penalties for 77 yards. That mark was 1 shy of the Badgers’ 11-penalty effort (for 106 yards) in their 17-14 loss to Washington State on Sept. 3.
Wisconsin had 7 penalties for 51 yards in the first half, including 3 for defensive pass interference. Cornerback Jay Shaw had 2 pass interference penalties.
2) 2 rushing yards
The Badgers had TWO rushing yards on 24 yards in the loss.
The Illini held the Badgers to their lowest single-game rushing total since the 2015 season, when Wisconsin had minus-26 yards on 26 carries in a 13-7 loss to Northwestern.
Chez Mellusi led Wisconsin with 7 rushes for 16 yards, while standout Braelon Allen had 8 rushes for 2 yards.
Allen had rushed for at least 100 yards in 7 of 9 games.
Obviously, if the Badgers can’t run the ball, their chances to win diminish significantly.
It doesn’t help that an injury bug and inconsistent play have dealt blows to the offensive line.
Center Joe Tippmann, left tackle Jack Nelson, left guard Tyler Beach, right guard Tanor Bortolini and right tackle Trey Wedig played against Illinois. That lineup was the Badgers’ 4th in 5 games.
Riley Mahlman is out indefinitely with a right-leg injury. Bortolini is working his way back from a knee injury from camp.
Consistent effort from the offensive line is one of the cornerstones at Wisconsin. As that group succeeds, the run game will follow.
3) Get with it, Graham Mertz
Graham Mertz is struggling in his 3rd season at quarterback at Wisconsin, but hopefully, the junior will get his groove back. He’s thrown 5 picks in 5 games this season. In 2021, Mertz threw 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
The Illini sacked Mertz 6 times Saturday, which obviously didn’t help the situation.
What we liked …
1) Mertz matters
Mertz has eclipsed the 200-yard passing mark in 4 of 5 games this season. Minus the interceptions, his stats are not bad.
He completed 17-of-32 passes for 206 yards, 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions against Illinois.
2) Inside linebackers make impact
Fresh off a career-high 9-tackle effort at Ohio State, redshirt junior linebacker Maema Njongmeta had 8 tackles (3 solo) against the Illini. Redshirt sophomore Jordan Turner posted a career-high 8 (4 solo). Njongmeta has a team-leading 36 tackles through 5 games, while Turner is 3rd with 22.
Njongmeta and Turner came into the season with a combined 10 tackles.
3) Walk-on kicker steps up
In his first season seeing playing time, sophomore kicker Nick Van Zelst booted the 2nd field goal of his Wisconsin career against — a 39-yarder that gave Wisconsin a 10-7 lead in the second quarter.
Van Zelst is a walk-on from Chicago’s Loyola Academy. Wisconsin kickers Jack Van Dyke and Vito Calvaruso are sidelined with injuries.