Wisconsin football: Way-too-early look at 2022
Wisconsin closed out the 2021 season with a 20-13 win over Arizona State in the Las Vegas Bowl as the Badgers’ bowl game success under Paul Chryst continues. Wisconsin is now 6-1 in bowl games since his return to Madison, as the Badgers finished the year at 9-4.
Nobody should call Wisconsin’s 2021 campaign a success, but the Badgers rallied to win 8 of their last 9 games after a brutal 1-3 start. Things could’ve gotten ugly in the hurry after the first month, but a solid culture of winning football kept players focused and playing hard through the bowl game.
It’s probably unfair to take much out of 2020, when Wisconsin played just 7 games, but this marks 2 years in a row where the Badgers failed to meet the minimum expectation, which is to win the B1G West. This is the most important offseason of the Chryst era, as another underwhelming year would show further evidence this program is headed in the wrong direction.
What worked in 2021
Former Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen can be criticized for a lot during his brief tenure with the Badgers, but landing Dave Aranda to run the defense continues to pay off. Aranda brought the 3-4 defense to Wisconsin in 2013, and that side of the ball finished outside the top 20 in yards per play nationally just once since then.
Aranda and his successor Justin Wilcox have Power 5 head coaching jobs, but Jim Leonhard seems content in Madison despite how often his name is mentioned for high-level coaching positions. That should continue, because his defense was about as good as it can get in 2021.
Wisconsin’s defense finished No. 1 in total defense against FBS opponents, allowing at least 30 fewer yards per game than every team in the country. Nobody had success running the ball against the Badgers top-ranked rushing defense, and Wisconsin ranked No. 3 in passing defense.
It’s a shame the Badgers finished with the record they did despite having the best defense in program history.
Wisconsin’s running game took a while to get going thanks to dismissals, injuries and transfers, but Braelon Allen emerged after the first month of the season and is the next great Badgers running back. He was a major part of the Badgers’ offense for 9 games, and he rushed for more than 100 yards in 8 of them.
Punter Andy Vujnovich was fantastic all season in a division where field position is extremely important, and he set a program record for yards per punt.
What didn’t work in 2021
Wisconsin’s passing game left plenty to be desired, and Graham Mertz did not come close to taking enough of a leap that would’ve instilled confidence that he can be the guy to take he program to the next level. Mertz improved down the stretch after a really bad start for the passing game in which he turned the ball over far too often.
Mertz turned the ball over 10 times with 2 touchdown passes in the first half of the regular season, and he threw 8 touchdowns with 5 turnovers in the second half plus the bowl game.
In his third season in the program, Mertz completed 59.5% of his passes for 1,958 yards with 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He took a small step in the right direction in 2021, but he didn’t show nearly enough of a progression, especially as Jack Coan led Notre Dame to an 11-win season with far better statistics than Mertz. The passing game needs to be better, and we’ll see what changes are made in the offseason on that side of the ball.
This is likely Mertz’s team in 2022. There is not a quarterback on the roster ready to step in and even challenge Mertz for the starting job heading into the fall, and the only way he’s not starting Week 1 outside of an injury or some unforeseen circumstance would be if the Badgers decide to make a move on a QB in the transfer portal.
The portal is extremely active right now with highly talented players coming and going, but I’d bet against Wisconsin bringing in a quarterback for a few reasons. A quarterback looking for a new home should have better options if he’s good enough than the Badgers’ run-heavy offense.
A potential transfer QB would likely need to know he has a great chance at starting right away because if not, that’s his one-time transfer, and he’d be stuck if he does not beat out Mertz for the job. Would the coaching staff be willing to admit Mertz isn’t the guy and commit to somebody else from the outside? I don’t think so.
Wisconsin is losing quite a few key starters from its defense including linebackers Leo Chenal, Noah Burks and Jack Sanborn, and also the entire secondary — cornerbacks Faion Hicks and Caesar William, safeties Scott Nelson and Collin Wilder. Defensive end Matt Henningsen is also moving on. For as much as the Badgers are losing defensively, I wouldn’t be all that concerned because they seem to reload every year regardless of player turnover.
Wisconsin will lose its top 3 pass catchers in Danny Davis, Jake Ferguson and Kendric Pryor, in addition to Jack Dunn. Fullback John Chanel announced he will not return, and Wisconsin will need to replace starting offensive linemen Logan Bruss and Josh Seltzner.
Chryst still needs to find a permanent replacement for former director of player personnel Saeed Khalif, who left for Michigan State in June. Additionally, offensive line coach Joe Rudolph left for a job at Virginia, so there could be some reshuffling of coaching roles. Maybe Wisconsin brings in somebody with new ideas on the offensive side of the ball? Badgers fans can only dream.
The most important returning player is Mertz. If he shows significant improvement, there is no reason Wisconsin cannot be back in the B1G Championship Game.
Wide receiver Chimere Dike will be the team’s No. 1 wide receiver, and Wisconsin will return 3 starters on the offensive line — Tyler Beach, Joe Tippmann and Jack Nelson — to block for Braelon Allen.
Keeanu Benton will be back at nose tackle, and Isaiah Mullens at defensive end. Nick Herbig is set up for a big season at outside linebacker.
Wisconsin will likely have a ton of competition in various position battles throughout the offseason without a ton of returning starters on both sides of the ball, so we’ll be learning plenty of new names as we get closer to spring practice.