Wisconsin football: Report card after embarrassing loss to Notre Dame
With a little more than 14 minutes left in the fourth quarter on Saturday, a chip-shot field goal gave No. 18 Wisconsin a 13-10 lead over No. 12 Notre Dame in Chicago. The first three quarters were nowhere close to flawless, but the badgers put themselves in great position for a huge win over one of the biggest brands in college football.
What happened following Collin Larsh’s 27-yard field goal can only be described as a total collapse that seemed like it would never end for Wisconsin fans. On the very next play, Notre Dame’s Chris Tyree took the kickoff to the house, and it was the start of one of the worst quarters of football Wisconsin is likely to see.
Over the final 14 minutes, Notre Dame scored 31 unanswered points as the Badgers turned the ball over 4 times, including two interception returns for touchdowns, for a 41-13 loss to the Fighting Irish.
If you’re a Wisconsin fan eager to check out this article the morning after such an embarrassing final quarter, you’re either the most diehard of diehard fans or you simply enjoy putting yourself through misery. Regardless of your situation, we’ll get through this one together.
Here’s a look at the report card for the Badgers’ loss at Soldier Field on Saturday.
I’ve been out of school for a few years but if there’s now a letter that’s worse than F, that’s the actual grade for what we saw on offense for Wisconsin. The Badgers have a major Graham Mertz problem, and there isn’t a clear solution for what should be done at quarterback. The sophomore finished with 4 interceptions, 3 of which came in the final 5 minutes, and his final 2 throws of the game went for Notre Dame touchdowns.
One of the most obvious keys heading into this game was for Mertz to limit his mistakes. But with 5 turnovers on Saturday, he has turned the ball over 8 times in 3 games this season with 14 total in his career through 10 starts.
This could’ve been even worse as Wisconsin barely avoided a brutal end to the first half. With the Badgers trying to run the clock out and get into halftime from their own 17-yard line, Mertz mishandled a low shotgun snap, regained control, then fumbled the ball, which was recovered by Wisconsin tight end Jake Ferguson.
Mertz completed 18 of 41 passes for 240 yards and threw his first touchdown pass of the season to Kendric Pryor, who led Wisconsin in receiving with 6 receptions for 69 yards.
A lot of the blame for this offensive performance will be thrown toward Mertz, but the running game did not perform well either. No matter who was playing on the Wisconsin offensive line, running backs had very little room to run, even with Notre Dame starting nose tackle Kurt Hinish out. Chez Mellusi dominated the workload with 18 attempts for 54 yards on the ground for the Badgers.
With how dominant the defense is, the Badgers do not even need to have a fantastic offense to win. If Wisconsin was just average offensively, it would be 3-0.
It’s unusual to think that a team allows 41 points but plays a great game on defense. But that’s exactly what happened on Saturday. The Badgers had an obvious advantage heading into the game with their dominant front seven against a young, inexperienced Notre Dame offensive line that was dealing with injuries, and Wisconsin took advantage.
The Badgers finished with 6 sacks, and one of them took Notre Dame quarterback Jack Coan out of the game in the third quarter. He finished the final few plays of the drive but left for good thereafter. Tyler Buchner is a talented backup quarterback for the Irish and had appeared in every game this season, but he was unavailable with an injury, so Notre Dame turned to its No. 3 option, Drew Pyne.
Turnovers and a kick return touchdown led to 38 of Notre Dame’s 41 points, so there is not a ton of blame on Wisconsin’s defense. The drive in which the Badgers went ahead with a field goal in the fourth quarter started with a sack from Rodas Johnson, and Jack Sanborn recovered the loose ball for the lone Wisconsin takeaway of the game. The front seven will continue to be the biggest strength on this team, as the Badgers have allowed just 69 yards rushing so far this season through 3 games after holding ND to 3 yards on 31 carries.
Wisconsin has a B1G Championship-level defense, but it’s probably not going to matter unless the offense gets its act together.
Special teams: C-
Wisconsin took the lead early in the fourth quarter, but hopes were crushed on Chris Tyree’s 96-yard kick return on the very next play. That was a gut punch the Badgers never recovered from. Wisconsin didn’t come all that close to stopping Tyree, who made a move on kickoff specialist Jack Van Dyke and took it all the way.
Wisconsin had a long kick return called back because of a block-in-the-back penalty and lost plenty of field position by not making fair catches on punts and letting the ball roll down the field instead.
Andy Vujnovich punted well, averaging 49.8 yards per kick with a long of 62 yards on 6 attempts. Larsh knocked in the lone extra point attempt and made 2 of 3 field goals. The missed kick was important at the time as it would’ve cut the lead back to a one-possession game midway through the fourth quarter, but it’s tough to be too upset about a missed field goal from 52 yards.