Wisconsin football: Grading the 2021 Badgers regular season
The Wisconsin Badgers closed out their 2021 regular season in disappointing fashion with a 23-13 loss to Minnesota on Saturday afternoon in Minneapolis. The Golden Gophers snapped Wisconsin’s seven-game winning streak, and denied the Badgers the Big Ten West Division title. Wisconsin would have clinched a spot in this week’s B1G Championhip Game in Indianapolis with a win, a remarkable turnaround after a 1-3 start. Instead, Wisconsin finished 8-4 overall, 6-3 in conference play.
As Wisconsin looks ahead to whatever its bowl game is, let’s take one final look at the team’s report card for the entire season.
This unit improved in the middle of the season, but the first month cannot be ignored. Wisconsin’s offense is the reason the team’s College Football Playoff hopes ended a quarter of the way into the season.
If Wisconsin put together average offensive performances in each of its first four games, the Badgers would’ve received plenty of national attention down the stretch this season. Instead, Wisconsin turned the ball over a combined 11 times in the three losses to Penn State, Notre Dame and Michigan. The Badgers struggled to score points early, which took them off the national radar.
The Wisconsin offense had an identity crisis, and it was difficult to find reasons to be optimistic. The Badgers were turning the ball over at a high rate, the passing game looked embarrassing and with a struggling offensive line, Wisconsin wasn’t even running the ball well.
Enter true freshman running back Braelon Allen.
Allen re-classified to start college early and was originally recruited to play defense. But news broke over the summer that he would start his college career at running back. Since fall camp began, 3 running backs departed from the team and 2 more suffered season-ending injuries. Allen took advantage of the lead role and is in position to become the next great Badgers running back.
Allen ran for more than 100 yards in the first 7 games after becoming a significant part of the offense. He did not find a whole lot of running room against Minnesota in the regular-season finale but finished his true freshman season with 1,109 yards rushing (7.1 yards per carry) and 12 touchdowns.
Chez Mellusi started the first nine games, and the Clemson transfer ran for 815 yards with 5 touchdowns before a torn ACL ended his season.
The offensive line played much better as players settled into their roles. The linemen not only opened holes for Wisconsin’s running backs, but Graham Mertz was protected much better and saw significant improvement down the stretch. A passing game that was a liability over the first half of the season developed into a strength toward the end.
In his first four games, Mertz completed 56.4% of his passes for an average of 170.3 yards per game, turned the ball over 8 times and did not throw a single touchdown pass. In his final four games, Mertz completed 65.3% of passes for 193 yards per game with 6 touchdowns and 3 turnovers.
Mertz did a great job spreading the ball around to Wisconsin’s top pass catchers over the team’s 7-game winning streak, something that did not happen early in the season. Danny Davis led the team in receiving yards with 478 on 32 receptions with 2 touchdowns. Jake Ferguson had a team-high 43 catches for 417 yards and 2 touchdowns. Kendric Pryor’s 3 receiving TDs led the team; he had 31 receptions for 406 yards. Chimere Dike could develop as the go-to receiver next season, and he caught 18 balls for 242 yards with a touchdown.
Mertz finished the regular season completing 58.7% of his passes for 1,821 yards with 9 TD and 10 INTs. These are not the numbers fans hoped for from him, but Mertz did enough over the second half of the season to prove he is the guy to lead Wisconsin at quarterback heading into 2022, which was not as clear early on.
There is no other grade you can give a unit that was this dominant for most of the season. Wisconsin’s defense was one of the best in the country, and it’s a shame the early-season struggles on offense took a lot of national attention away from what the Badgers did defensively all season.
The only area for criticism early on was Wisconsin’s inability to force turnovers, but the Badgers quickly fixed that. Wisconsin had chances to make difference-making plays but failed to make them for the most part over the first month of the season. The Badgers forced 4 turnovers over the first six games of the season, but then that became a strength as they had 19 takeaways over the final six contests.
Wisconsin’s front seven could compete with just about any team in college football, and opposing offenses really struggled to run the ball against them. The Badgers finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in fewest yards per rush attempt allowed against FBS opponents.
The Badgers played very good team defense, but inside linebackers Leo Chenal and Jack Sanborn developed into one of the best duos in the country. After missing the first two games with COVID-19, Chenal led the team with 106 tackles, including a team high 17 tackles for loss with 7 sacks. Sanborn had 88 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss with 3.5 sacks.
Nick Herbig tied for the team lead with 7 sacks. Collin Wilder and Caesar Williams each led the team with 3 interceptions.
The line rarely gets much attention in a 3-4 defense, but starters Keeanu Benton, Matt Henningsen and Isaiah Mullens were a huge reason for the Badgers’ success, especially in stopping the run.
Wisconsin has had plenty of fantastic defenses since former coordinator Dave Aranda brought in the 3-4 prior to the 2013 season, and Jim Leonhard’s 2021 unit might be the best the Badgers have produced over the past decade.
Special Teams: B
Field position plays an important role especially in the old-school division of the B1G West, and Wisconsin punter Andy Vujnovich turned into a star. At 45.8 yards per punt, he is in position to set a new single-season record for punt average at Wisconsin. Of his 46 punts, 12 sailed at least 50 yards and 16 were inside the 20-yard line.
Wisconsin did not have a ton of excitement in the punt return game, and the Badgers’ lone highlight on kick returns came when Stephan Bracey took the opening kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown against Nebraska on his first play of the season after he battled back from an injury. The worst came when Wisconsin allowed a Notre Dame kickoff return for a touchdown. The Badgers went ahead early in the 4th quarter but wound up losing 41-13.
One of the question marks of Wisconsin’s team during fall camp was kicking, but Collin Larsh held his own for the most part this season. His final kick that bounced off the crossbar against Minnesota was a crusher, but he made 15 of 20 field goals in 2021 and missed just one extra point.