Wisconsin football: How to fix the Badgers' offense
Wisconsin would likely be undefeated through four games if it just played average offense in the past two games, losses to Northwestern and Indiana.
Wisconsin turned the ball over 7 times in those two games, and the offense has fallen apart after a hot start (45 and 49 points to start the season). Since then, Wisconsin (2-2) has 1 touchdown and 13 points. According to Jesse Temple of The Athletic, the last time the Badgers scored in the single digits two games in a row came in 1991, which was Barry Alvarez’s second season as head coach.
While watching the turnovers and punts is frustrating for Wisconsin fans, it’s even more irritating knowing the Badgers are wasting a pretty incredible defense this fall. Wisconsin ranks fourth in the country in yards per play allowed. It’s only a four-game sample size against not the greatest of offenses, but this unit deserves better, especially with its ability to stop the run, allowing just 2.9 yards per rushing attempt.
The offense should be good enough to win in games where the defense allows just 17 and 14 points. Unfortunately, that side of the ball has been pretty brutal, and it’s why the Badgers head into the final game of what turned out to be a five-game regular season on Saturday against Iowa as a .500 team.
So where are the issues, and how does Wisconsin go about fixing them? Let’s take a look.
Feed Jalen Berger
The first step to curing what ails the Badgers’ offense is pretty easy. Wisconsin’s coaching staff needs to tell Graham Mertz to turn around and hand the ball off to true freshman running back Jalen Berger at the very least 20 times per game and, ideally, more than that. Berger has been the lone bright spot to the Badgers offense in each of the last two weeks, but Wisconsin appears to be limiting his touches.
Berger has been limited to 15 carries in all three of the games he’s played in this season, and he has emerged as the most talented player in the Wisconsin backfield. For whatever reason, the offense has been reluctant to ride him like the Badgers traditionally have done with their great running backs for years. He is averaging 5.9 yards per carry, and he did not touch the ball in the final 13 minutes against Indiana, which included two drives in which Wisconsin trailed by one possession.
Let Paul Chryst call plays
During a Zoom press conference earlier this week, Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst revealed he is no longer calling plays on offense. Instead, he gave those duties off to offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph. The two undoubtedly have the same philosophies as they have been on the same staff together since 2008 — at Wisconsin twice with a quick stop at Pitt in the middle.
It might not be much of a difference and maybe it’s too late in the season to make this change, but it’s puzzling why Chryst would be getting rid of play-calling duties when that is the skill that helped him create a name for himself. His ability to score points in the Wisconsin offense led to a head coaching opportunity at Pitt and now with the Badgers. The offense certainly couldn’t look any worse than it has in the last two weeks, and maybe changing who’s calling the plays could help Wisconsin as it closes out its season, which has a maximum of three games left.
Pass catchers need to emerge
This is pretty broad as it factors in quite a few pieces, but the passing game has been a mess the last two games. Mertz turned the ball over 6 times, so certainly he has struggled, he doesn’t have much help among the pass catchers. Wisconsin needed to replace an incredible amount of production from last year’s star wide receiver Quintez Cephus, who is looking more and more valuable to that 2019 team by the day.
Unfortunately, the Badgers top wideouts have been unable to stay healthy. Danny Davis continues to be listed among the inactives prior to game time, and Kendric Pryor has been in and out of the lineup as well. Additionally, reserve receivers Stephan Bracey and Adam Krumholz were inactive against the Hoosiers. The one constant in the passing game has been tight end Jake Ferguson, but Indiana did everything it could to keep him under wraps on Saturday.
Wisconsin isn’t discussing why players are being held out of games this season, so the Badgers might remain shorthanded at the wide receiver position. Somebody needs to step up and help out Mertz and keep all the attention away from Ferguson so he can make a bigger impact. The No. 1 candidate is true freshman Chimere Dike, who appears to have plenty of potential to be a playmaker in the B1G for years to come, but after him is a group of unproven players outside of Davis and Pryor.
We’re just over halfway through what’s been a bit of a lost season for Wisconsin, but the Badgers’ offense has three games left to prove something and head into the offseason with some confidence.