Wisconsin football: Report card after win over Rutgers
The Wisconsin Badgers moved into a tie for first place in the B1G West with Saturday’s 52-3 road victory over Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights are a much-improved program with a bright future, though the 2021 version is still pretty bad. This game was an example of what good teams should do when they play bad teams.
Wisconsin looked impressive in its most complete game of the season for its fifth consecutive win. The Badgers improved to 6-3 and became bowl eligible for the 20th consecutive season, which is the third-longest streak in the FBS behind only Georgia and Oklahoma. The Badgers moved to 4-2 in conference play and, with Minnesota’s loss to Illinois and Purdue’s win over Michigan State, there is now a four-way tie at the top of the division. The Badgers are tied with Minnesota, Purdue and Iowa.
If the Badgers continue to play like they did on Saturday, they should have no trouble taking care of business over the next three weeks and returning to the conference title game.
Before we move on to next week’s home matchup against Northwestern, let’s take a look at the Badgers’ report card from a blowout victory.
Wisconsin drove into field goal range on its first drive before the dreaded third-and-long situation struck. That scenario has created problems for the Badgers. Inside the Rutgers 30-yard line, Graham Mertz forced a throw into double coverage to Jake Ferguson, who was nowhere close to being open, and Rutgers intercepted the pass.
It was one of those shake-your-head, what-did-you-see throws that we’ve seen far too often this season. But Mertz should be given a lot of credit because he responded by playing his best game of the season. He threw the ball downfield with accuracy for huge chunk plays as the passing game finally got into a rhythm.
Mertz completed 11 of 16 passes for 240 yards with three touchdowns and the interception. Nine of his 11 completions went for more than 10 yards including his final throw, a 72-yard touchdown on a short completion to Danny Davis, who took it to the house in the third quarter.
That was Davis’ lone reception. Kendric Pryor caught four passes for 72 yards with a touchdown, Chimere Dike had 55 yards on three catches and Ferguson finished with two receptions for 40 yards. The Badgers got all of their most talented pass catchers involved and they made big plays.
A few easy passes that should be completed were missed but overall, but this was an important day for Mertz and a passing game that has been a struggle in 2021.
True freshman Braelon Allen continued to show why he is going to be the next great Wisconsin running back. He became a major part of the offense five games ago, and he has rushed for more than 100 yards in each one of those matchups. Allen was battling an injury coming into the game and did not touch the ball until late in the first quarter on the Badgers’ third drive of the game. Still, he ran for 129 yards and a TD on 15 carries.
Chez Mellusi went down with a non-contact injury, which is never a good sign. As of Sunday morning, there was no announcement or report regarding his status. He carried the ball 15 times for 75 yards with a touchdown.
Running back depth could be a major issue nobody could’ve thought possible coming into fall camp. If Mellusi is out for an extended period of time, the Badgers will likely need to lean on Allen a ton and hope he doesn’t get injured. Since fall camp started, the Badgers have lost Jalen Berger, Loyal Crawford and Antwan Roberts, all no longer on the team, and Isaac Guerendo is out for the season with an injury.
Julius Davis received a carry in the first quarter; he came into Saturday with one rushing attempt in his career. He finished the day with seven rushes for 32 yards and all of a sudden could be a contributor down the stretch of the season depending on Mellusi’s status.
What else can we say about this defense? Early in the season, Wisconsin was fantastic in just about every statistical category on defense other than takeaways. Now, the Badgers have forced 12 turnovers over the past three games including four on Saturday.
Right after Mertz’s interception, Rutgers quarterback Noah Vedral threw a pass, and the only question was which Badger would catch it. Wisconsin linebacker Noah Burks made the grab, returning it 24 yards to Rutgers’ 15-yard line, setting up Mellusi’s touchdown.
Nose tackle Keeanu Benton busted through the line for a big hit on Vedral, forcing an underthrown pass that Caesar Williams caught for a 29-yard pick-six, giving the Badgers a 24-3 lead.
Wisconsin finished with six tackles for loss including two by Nick Herbig, who had one of the two sacks.
The Badgers allowed just two drives to go more than 30 yards and despite allowing an early field goal, it was clear Wisconsin wouldn’t have much of an issue with the Rutgers offense. It was another dominant performance from this group, which leads the nation in total defense, allowing 213.8 yards a game.
Special Teams: B-
The only two missed field goals Collin Larsh had heading into Saturday came on a block and another that was from 52 yards. But Saturday, he missed a 35-yard field goal in the second quarter with Wisconsin leading just 7-3. He made a 29-yard field goal on the next drive and connected on all seven extra points.
After the field goal gave the Badgers a 10-3 lead, Wisconsin got the ball right back when kickoff man Jack Van Dyke forced former Badger Aron Cruickshank to fumble at the Scarlet Knights’ 29-yard line. That led to a 1-yard touchdown reception for John Chenal a few plays later. Cruickshank was injured on the play and never returned.
Wisconsin did not punt until the fourth quarter, and Andy Vujnovich sent one 34 yards. Conor Schlichting punted the next one for 37 yards that reached the end zone, though it easily could’ve been downed inside of the 5-yard line.
The Badgers did not return a single punt or kickoff.