Wisconsin football: Badgers report card after first win of the season
The Wisconsin Badgers did to the Eastern Michigan Eagles what the Wisconsin Badgers should do to the Eastern Michigan Eagles on Saturday night. A week after a disappointing loss to Penn State to open the season, the Badgers took care of business and overmatched their opponent in a 34-7 home victory.
Wisconsin (1-1) played much better in all three phases than it did in Week 1, though Saturday’s game is likely to be the Badgers’ easiest win of the year. Still, after the Penn State debacle, this is probably what they needed. We’ll see if the first victory of the year can bring some confidence into the program as the Badgers face tougher competition. After a bye week, the Badgers head to Soldier Field for a Sept. 25 matchup with Notre Dame.
Before we turn the page and prepare for what should be a huge game, it’s time to wrap up the second game of the season. I dusted off my trusty red pen and got to grading following Wisconsin’s first win of the season.
I was in the building on Saturday night, and the groans from Camp Randall Stadium came on the first possession when Mertz tripped running back Chez Mellusi on a handoff exchange that nearly resulted in a fumble on first and goal from the 7-yard line. The Badgers turned the ball over on downs a few plays later, which was very reminiscent of Week 1’s loss in which they failed to score inside the 8-yard line three times.
After that opening sequence, Wisconsin’s first team offense did not have to much trouble the rest of the night. Mertz’s numbers were unspectacular as he completed 14 of 17 passes for 141 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions, but he was sharp in getting the ball out to open wide receivers for first downs with accuracy, which is what the coaching staff needed to see out of him.
Every Saturday, Wisconsin fans will take a close look and evaluate every throw that comes out of Mertz’s hands. He didn’t ask for it, but that’s what comes with being such a hyped recruit. On Saturday, Mertz did not make many mistakes. Kendric Pryor had the best statistical performance from any of the Wisconsin pass catchers with four catches for 54 yards, both of which were team highs.
The running game looked like many had expected going into the season, with Mellusi and Jalen Berger expected to split most of the work and Isaac Guerendo operating as a change-of-pace back. Mellusi finished with a team-high 20 carries for 144 yards with a touchdown and Berger rushed 15 times for 62 yards and a score. Guerendo carried the ball 4 times for 92 yards, highlighted by an 82-yard touchdown run late in the second quarter that showed his incredible speed.
This is more of what had been expected with this running back rotation. We still don’t know why Berger, Wisconsin’s leading rusher from last season, did not play in Week 1 and seemed to know he’d never see the field. The Badgers could have a three-headed backfield with plenty of talent moving forward.
Eastern Michigan could not do much even against a Wisconsin defense that was without three starters: cornerback Faion Hicks, safety Collin Wilder and inside linebacker Leo Chenal. Hicks and Wilder dealt with unspecified injuries, while Chenal missed his second game after testing positive for COVID-19. Their absence did not make too much of a difference as the Badgers held Eastern Michigan to one first down until the final drive when the Eagles moved the chains twice in garbage time.
The Badgers allowed just 92 total yards in this game, 16 of which came on the ground. Wisconsin should be credited with a shutout because the only points Eastern Michigan scored came on a 98-yard interception return for a touchdown on a pass thrown by Badgers backup quarterback Chase Wolf in the fourth quarter. Wisconsin forced one turnover when Donte Burton picked off a tipped pass in the fourth quarter.
Special Teams: A
Wisconsin had a great day on special teams. The Badgers’ return game set up their offense in decent spots and the kicking game was strong all around. Wisconsin did not see any return opportunities on kickoffs with one touchback and one play when the Badgers were set up to recover an onside kick. Dean Engram returned three punts for 30 yards with a long of 20 and Jack Dunn returned his lone attempt 16 yards.
In the kicking game, everybody did their job. Jack Van Dyke sailed six of seven kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks and Andy Vujnovich punted twice for an average of 55.5 yards and a long of 61. Both punts resulted in Eastern Michigan taking over inside its own 20-yard line. Collin Larsh knocked in all four extra points and connected on field goals from 33 and 39 yards.