Wisconsin football: Badgers need quick improvement from backup skill position players
Wisconsin started its season with a full-on sprint before completely falling apart offensively. It would be a disservice to the phrase limping to the finish line because Wisconsin crawled its way to the end of the regular season. After reaching the 40s in points in each of their first two games, the Badgers haven’t scored more than 7 in any of their last three.
Before a potential bowl game, Wisconsin (2-3) will play Minnesota for Champions Week on Saturday at 3 p.m. CT (TV: BTN) at Camp Randall Stadium. This rivalry game certainly doesn’t offer its normal juice: both teams are coming off disappointing regular seasons, the stands will be empty, and the game will be take a backseat to the conference title games happening throughout the day.
For Wisconsin to get the win, the Badgers will likely need plenty of help from offensive skill position players who may not have expected to see the field that much. The offense has been slowed by injuries and positive COVID-19 tests, but at a certain point, somebody needs to step up and get this unit moving.
Wisconsin’s defense is among the best in the country, but the other side of the ball isn’t doing it any favors. Here’s a breakdown of the skill positions on offense, aside from tight end, which is locked down by Jake Ferguson, who cannot do it all on his own.
Should redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz be considered a backup? Probably not anymore, because I don’t think he’s in danger of coming off the bench anytime soon, but I don’t think he would’ve started to begin this season if not for Jack Coan’s preseason injury. Mertz played very well in his first game as a starter, putting his name into the Wisconsin football record books, and looked okay against Michigan. But the passing game has looked completely lost in each of the last three games. Receivers likely aren’t getting too much separation, but Mertz is missing throws that quarterbacks of his skill level should be making.
After Saturday’s 28-7 loss to Iowa, Paul Chryst told reporters that Coan was unavailable, though he was suited up in full uniform. It seems likely Mertz will see the rest of the snaps at quarterback this season barring an injury, but he needs to play better so he can go into the offseason with some confidence, which he has clearly lost.
While he has struggled, the inexperienced wide receivers have exacerbated the problem.
At this point, we don’t know whether starting wide receivers Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor will be in the lineup against Minnesota. Both of them have missed plenty of time during the regular season, and it’s taken a toll on the Badgers passing game. In addition, reserve wideouts Stephan Bracey and Adam Krumholz have missed time.
So who’s left? True freshman Chimere Dike seems to be a player who has all sorts of potential, and Jack Dunn at least has plenty of experience. Neither has found consistent success as a go-to player for Mertz. After them, it’s more inexperience with freshman Devin Chandler and sophomores A.J. Abbott and Taj Mustapha. Nobody has done a whole lot with increased opportunities at the wide receiver position.
Wisconsin fans got some potentially good news this week when offensive coordinator Joe Rudoph sounded optimistic that both Davis and Pryor will return to the team next season, taking advantage of the extra year of eligibility due to the coronavirus.
True freshman Jalen Berger did not play in the first game but quickly emerged as Wisconsin’s best running back this season, but he also might not be able to go against Minnesota. Wisconsin hasn’t announced positive COVID tests this season, but Mertz mentioned COVID-19 when talking about Berger after the game on Saturday.
Berger has been far and away Wisconsin’s best player in the backfield, and the Badgers should’ve been using him more, especially when the passing game was struggling as much as it was. Now, Wisconsin will likely head into Saturday’s game with the duo of Nakia Watson, who is averaging 3.6 yards per carry, and Garrett Groshek, averaging 3.5 yards per rush though he’s a bigger threat in the passing game.
After them, Isaac Guerendo has played in just one game this season, and that’s been it from the rest of the running back room. Wisconsin will need help in the ground game for the Badgers to be successful and get back to .500 before a potential bowl game.