Wisconsin football: Handing out team superlatives for the 2021 season
The Wisconsin football regular season cannot be considered anything but a disappointment as the Badgers failed to take advantage of a golden opportunity by losing to Minnesota on Saturday. Wisconsin won 7 consecutive games to get itself back into contention for the B1G West, but that will not be what fans remember about the 2021 version of the Badgers.
Wisconsin dug itself into a hole early with a 1-3 start and needed to be perfect the rest of the way to win the West for the 5th time in 8 years. Instead, the Badgers played their worst game of the season in a loss to their biggest rival to finish 8-4 overall including 6-3 in B1G play.
Wisconsin will find out its bowl destination on Sunday, but let’s take another look at the Badgers regular season and hand out some awards.
Team MVP: Braelon Allen
No single player proved to have more value to Wisconsin’s success than running back Braelon Allen. As the passing game struggled out of the gate, the Badgers’ rushing attack didn’t have much success early on either. Wisconsin had an identity problem before Allen became a significant piece to the offense. His first game with a large workload came against Illinois, which was the start of the Badgers’ 7-game winning streak, and Allen rushed for more than 100 yards in every one of those victories.
Allen became the savior for a Wisconsin backfield that dealt with all sorts of issues, with 3 scholarship running backs no longer on the roster and 2 that suffered season-ending injuries. For the final 3 games, it was a one-man show in the backfield. Allen finished the regular season with 1,109 rushing yards on 7.1 yards per attempt with 12 touchdowns and is set up to be the next great Badgers running back.
Offensive MVP: Braelon Allen
I would’ve loved to pick somebody else for this award, but it’s hard to go with anybody but Allen. Wisconsin quickly returned to its status as a dominant rushing unit once his role increased, and we saw how truly valuable he is to this offense against Minnesota. Allen was ineffective for the first time since he started to be used more, and the Badgers’ offense was held without a touchdown, which did not even happen during the team’s struggles in the first month of the season.
Defensive MVP: Leo Chenal
Wisconsin’s defense ranks as one of the top units in the country, and the front 7 proved to be elite in stopping the run. Credit needs to go around to just about every key contributor in the linebacker and defensive line rooms, but Leo Chenal developed into a star down the stretch of the regular season as he and Jack Sanborn became one of the top inside linebacker duos in the nation.
Despite being sidelined for the first 2 weeks due to COVID, Chenal led the Badgers with 106 tackles, including a team-high 17 tackles for loss, and tied for the team lead with 7 sacks along with Nick Herbig. Chenal also forced 2 fumbles on the season and was a constant force in backfield during the Badgers’ winning streak.
True Freshman of the Year: Braelon Allen
This will be the 3rd and final award that goes to Braelon Allen, because there’s no other true freshman on the roster who came close to his level of production in Year 1. Speaking of awards, I should receive some sort of honor or recognition for getting this far without mentioning he is just 17 years old and will not turn 18 till after the bowl game.
Allen graduated from high school early and re-classified because he clearly already had the strength and size to be effective in college. Another interesting twist to Allen’s story is he was not recruited to play on offense. A popular discussion surrounding the 2021 recruiting class was whether his size would be best suited for linebacker or safety. Over the summer, news broke that he would start his college career at running back, and that’s where he will be staying after such a big season.
Transfer of the Year: Chez Mellusi
Chez Mellusi started the first 9 games of the season at running back for Wisconsin, and while he is not as explosive as Allen, he played well with a larger workload. He transferred from Clemson this past offseason looking for just that — an offense that featured the running backs heavily. Mellusi rushed for 815 yards on 4.7 yards per carry with 5 touchdowns before suffering a season-ending leg injury against Rutgers.
Maybe this is cheating the rules, but I’ll mention Collin Wilder as well even though he transferred to Wisconsin prior to the 2018 season. He developed into a true leader on the defensive side of the ball and clearly has a strong passion for the Badgers program when you listen to his interviews. He picked off 2 passes against Nebraska, and his final regular season game ended on the first play from scrimmage when he was ejected on a targeting call against Minnesota.
Most Improved: Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor
I was prepared to make an argument for Graham Mertz because he was certainly better over the second half of the season than he was in the first half, but this is an award comparing 2021 to 2020. Instead, we’ll go with the top 2 wide receivers, Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor, as the most improved players.
The 2 senior wide receivers took advantage of the NCAA’s extra year of eligibility brought on by COVID-19, and both missed most of last season with concussions. Davis and Pryor played big roles in the passing game that improved down the stretch. Davis led Wisconsin with 478 yards on 32 receptions with 2 touchdowns, and Pryor caught a team-high 3 touchdowns on 31 catches for 406 yards.
Biggest Surprise: Losing to Gophers
Because this cannot all be positive, the biggest surprise is Wisconsin falling short against Minnesota in the regular season finale. The Badgers caught plenty of breaks to get back into a position to win the West after an 0-2 start in B1G play but failed to take advantage. Once Michigan upset Ohio State, there were a few hours on Saturday afternoon where it felt like Wisconsin was in good position to win the conference for the first time since 2012.
Instead, Wisconsin’s defense struggled to get off the field for the second consecutive game, and the offense returned to its early-season struggles. Allen couldn’t get going on the ground, and Mertz did not have his best day. The Badgers were outplayed and outcoached, highlighted by a bizarre 4th down situation late in the 4th quarter in which Wisconsin originally brought out the punt team trailing by 2 possessions. It didn’t really matter in the end, but it was certainly not one of Paul Chryst’s best days as Wisconsin’s head coach.
Play of the Year: Kick return TD
The play of the year came on the opening kickoff in Wisconsin’s final home game when Stephan Bracey started the game with a 91-yard touchdown return to get things going against Nebraska.
First game back? First touchdown.
— Wisconsin Football (@BadgerFootball) November 21, 2021
Bracey suffered a torn quad last season and was cleared to play earlier that week. On his first play back from the injury, he found the end zone and helped Wisconsin beat Nebraska.
Win of the Year: 35-28 over Nebraska
Speaking of which, the Badgers’ victory over the Cornhuskers earned the win of the year status. Nothing outside of the 3-9 record suggests Nebraska is a bad football team if you look at just about any statistic on either side of the ball. Most of Wisconsin’s wins were blowouts, but this was anyone’s game down to the final seconds.
For the only time all season, the Badgers’ defense did not have any answers and really struggled to get stops. Wisconsin’s offense had a big day led by Braelon Allen, who had a season-high 228 yards rushing with 3 touchdowns, and his 53-yard go-ahead score late in the 4th quarter could’ve easily won play of the year, but he’s earned enough awards in this article.
.@BraelonAllen can’t be stopped. 😱
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) November 20, 2021