Wisconsin football: Badgers report card after win over Michigan
The Wisconsin Badgers put on another fantastic performance in only their second game of the season on Saturday night in a 49-11 victory over the Michigan Wolverines.
For the second consecutive season, Wisconsin held a 28-0 halftime lead over Michigan and did not look like a team that missed a ton of practice and hadn’t played a game in 22 days. To make it even more impressive, Wisconsin’s roster wasn’t fully assembled.
For weeks, Badgers fans were left wondering: When will this team return to the field and which players will be available when they finally get back? Though it had been reported quarterbacks Graham Mertz and Chase Wolf tested positive for the coronavirus in the aftermath of the B1G opener against Illinois, the program did its best to not acknowledge any of that. Then, 30 minutes before kickoff the Wisconsin football Twitter page sure made it known Mertz would be available for the game.
— Wisconsin Football (@BadgerFootball) November 14, 2020
While Mertz returned, Wisconsin was left without plenty of starters including running back Garrett Groshek, defensive end Garrett Rand, offensive lineman Josh Seltzner, linebacker Izayah Green-May and cornerback Rachad Wildgoose. Head coach Paul Chryst said previously he would not be announcing which ones, if any, were positive COVID-19 cases.
It was good to see Wisconsin back on the field again and hopefully we’ll get to see the Badgers in action every week the rest of the way. Until then, I pulled out my report card and graded Wisconsin on all three phases of Saturday night’s game.
Mertz was the story leading into this game and rightfully so because Wisconsin hasn’t seen too many quarterbacks like him. But he was definitely rusty on Saturday night. It would be unfair to expect him to duplicate his performance against Illinois every week. But against Michigan, the freshman was missing throws he shouldn’t have and the numbers didn’t look great. He completed 12 of 22 passes for 127 yards with two touchdowns.
Mertz wasn’t helped all that much by the pass catchers, most notably the wide receivers, who were a bit of a question mark coming into the season. Wisconsin doesn’t have one player that can replace the production of Quintez Cephus, but we haven’t really seen a Badger receiver step up in the passing game through two games. Danny Davis had two fumbles overturned when they were both ruled as drops instead. He recorded his only reception on the final play of the third quarter, for 6 yards.
Tight end Jake Ferguson sure looks like the Badgers’ top pass catcher this season and that’s okay, but it would be nice to see a receiver establish himself as a dependable player to go to. Ferguson has four touchdowns this season in two games and finished Saturday with four catches for 51 yards and a touchdown.
The running game looked better than it did in Week 1, but there is room for improvement. Nakia Watson got the start at running back with Groshek and Isaac Guerendo ruled out. Watson carried the ball 12 times for 65 yards with two touchdowns. The Badgers found a lot of success on end around and reverse runs against the Michigan defense.
Wisconsin saw promising contributions from two true freshmen with running back Jalen Berger and wide receiver Chimere Dike taking advantage of early playing time. Berger finished with 87 yards on 15 carries with a touchdown and Dike had 59 total yards on three touches.
Not a whole lot to complain about here for Badgers fans. Wisconsin shut Michigan out for the first 32 minutes of this game, aided by a goal-line stand in the second quarter. This is especially impressive considering the Badgers had three defensive starters out. With Rand out at defensive end, the other starter, Matt Henningsen, left the game early with an injury to his elbow. In addition, freshman defensive end James Thompson Jr. was helped to the locker room.
One feel-good story for the Badgers’ defense is safety Scott Nelson’s performance. He did not appear in the season opener and hadn’t played since the first game of the 2019 season when he tore his ACL. On his very first play back on the field, Nelson came away with a deflected interception of a Joe Milton pass. On the very next drive, Nelson swooped in and recorded a tackle for loss. Nelson co-led the Badgers with five total tackles.
Leo Chenal came away with the easiest interception you’ll ever see from Milton and returned it 31 yards to set the Badgers up in great field position. He also came away with Wisconsin’s lone sack of the game.
Because Illinois’ only points came via a turnover from the Wisconsin offense, the Badgers defense gave up its first points of the season on Saturday. Overall, it was a solid effort, though it would be nice to get some key players back for a big game at Northwestern next weekend.
Special Teams: A
What was noteworthy about the Badgers special teams? Well, Michigan picked up a little bit of momentum after scoring its first first touchdown midway through the third quarter and followed it with a three-and-out. On the punt, Wisconsin punter Andy Vujnovich hung in there and drew a running into the kicker penalty to keep the drive going as the Badgers extended their lead to 42-11 after a touchdown.
Vujnovich punted three times with one touchback and two downed inside the 20-yard line. Jack Van Dyke kicked off eight times with four touchbacks.
Colin Larsh did not attempt a field goal but made all seven extra points. Stephan Bracey had a solid 33-yard kick return and Danny Davis returned one punt for 9 yards. It was mostly an uneventful day for the special teams unit.