Wisconsin football: Badgers report card after season-opening loss
The Wisconsin Badgers opened up their much-anticipated 2021 season in disappointment with a 16-10 home loss to Penn State on Saturday. Wisconsin, ranked No. 12 in the preseason Associated Press poll, had every chance to start its season 1-0, but unforced errors and crucial mistakes came back to bite the Badgers in the season opener.
Before we turn the page to next week’s game against Eastern Michigan, I took a day to process what went down, pulled out the report card and graded each unit from the loss to No. 19 Penn State.
Wisconsin dominated the stat sheet in a few areas. The Badgers finished with more total yards (359-297) and first downs (29-11) and controlled the ball for 42:51. For how good those statistics look, it doesn’t matter when you score just 10 points.
The Badgers moved the ball down effectively on several drives but once they got into the red zone, things did not go so well. It seemed like the closer Wisconsin got to the goal line, the more mistakes players would make. Three possessions really stand out looking back on this game, and the Badgers went scoreless in all three despite taking snaps inside the 10-yard line.
On first-and-goal from the 2-yard line, a false start moved Wisconsin back in a drive that ended with a blocked field goal early in the second quarter.
The Badgers were at the 8-yard line on the next drive when a botched handoff between Graham Mertz and Chez Mellusi was recovered by the Nittany Lions.
Then in the fourth quarter, Wisconsin had a first-and-goal from the 1-yard line in a crucial drive trailing by 6. The ball slipped out of Mertz’s hand as he went to hand it off for a 6-yard loss. A few plays later, he threw a fourth-down interception.
Mertz was a part of three turnovers in crucial moments, and this passing game will need to play better considering how many tough games are on the rest of the schedule. Wisconsin’s rushing attack wasn’t overly impressive as Mellusi saw a massive workload in his Badger debut with 31 carries for 121 yards and the lone touchdown on the day. Isaac Guerendo ran 13 times for 56 yards. Jalen Berger was the team’s leading rusher in 2020 but did not touch the ball once, and it doesn’t appear to be an injury issue. Mellusi has taken over the No. 1 running back role in this offense.
Awful red zone production and brutal turnovers are the reasons for this low grade and why the Badgers did not win Saturday’s game.
This sentence could be taken from plenty of Wisconsin losses over the last few years, but the defense deserved better and put the Badgers in a great position to win. Jim Leonhard’s unit played well, aside from some explosive plays from the Penn State offense.
Teams will struggle to run against this Wisconsin defense, and Penn State did not find much running room on Saturday. If you took away one 34-yard burst from Noah Cain, he and Keyvone Lee combined for just 1 yard per carry. The Nittany Lions did not even try to get the ground game going against the Wisconsin front as they gave their running backs just 11 total rushing attempts. This is especially impressive considering the Badgers were without starting inside linebacker Leo Chenal, who announced prior to the game he tested positive for COVID-19 and will miss next week’s game as well.
Big plays against the Wisconsin secondary could be a major issue when it sees ultra-speedy wide receivers this season. Penn State wide receivers got behind the Badgers secondary often for big gains including the first score of the game when Sean Clifford found Jahan Dotson for a 49-yard touchdown on their first possession of the third quarter. That was likely miscommunication in the secondary, but the Badgers struggled to keep receivers in front of them; if Clifford would’ve thrown better deep balls, this grade would likely be a lot worse.
Special Teams: B-
Wisconsin’s special teams had an uneventful day, but the Badgers will get dinged when they cannot convert on a 25-yard field goal. Collin Larsh’s kick was blocked as Wisconsin tried to take an early lead in the second quarter. The Badgers did not give up any big plays to Dotson and the return game, and nothing notable happened on Penn State kickoffs or punts.
Andy Vujnovich punted well for the Badgers with a 46.7-yard average that included a long of 59 and one punt inside the 20-yard line. His continued success will be crucial as the field position battle will be very important during the many close games Wisconsin figures to see this fall.