The Wisconsin Badgers’ offense looked about as bad as an offense can look against the Northwestern Wildcats and on Saturday against the Indiana Hoosiers.

After scoring a combined 94 points in the first 2 games, Wisconsin’s offense has gone silent, putting up a combined 13 points in the past 2 as the Badgers have dropped to 2-2. One question many Badgers fans have: With such a struggle on offense, why has running back Jalen Berger had such limited carries despite consistent success?

Blame can go in a variety of different places on offense. Highly touted redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz looked fantastic in his 1st college game against Illinois, looked just okay against Michigan and played poorly against Northwestern and Indiana. There are some worthy excuses for the struggles; I’m sure having 3 of the first 6 games canceled did not help the chemistry between Mertz and the pass catchers. Additionally, the Badgers have been without a bunch of their wide receivers because of injuries, including starters Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor, with multiple backups unable to play as well. The last excuse would be that Mertz is playing, well, like a freshman.

With the passing game clearly not working out, why has Wisconsin not reverted back to the ground-and-pound running game that has been so effective the past few decades? Berger has really been the only effective part of the Badgers offense in each of the past 2 weeks, and Wisconsin’s coaching staff appears to have some sort of cap on the number of touches he is getting.

Jalen Berger emerges

A true freshman from New Jersey, Berger quickly emerged this season as the Badgers’ best running back, surpassing Nakia Watson and Garrett Groshek in touches. Berger did not appear in the season opener, but in Game 2 he led Wisconsin in carries and rushing yards and has done so in every game since. Berger has been very effective, rushing for 87 yards against Michigan, 93 against Northwestern and 87 against Indiana.

Berger has averaged at least 5.8 yards per carry in every game and is averaging 5.9 on the year. Watson averages 4.1 yards per carry, and Groshek is gaining 4 yards per rush.

Berger’s numbers are not fluky or based on a few large runs. He is gaining chunk plays on a consistent basis, with his longest rush of the year being only 23 yards. In the past 2 games, Berger has gone against pretty good run defenses, especially Northwestern’s. This has all been done on just 15 carries in every game.

It’s pretty clear Berger is the most talented player in the Wisconsin backfield, and he’s well on his way to being the next great Badgers running back. With that and the struggles in the passing game, why has he not been used like the workhorse back we’ve seen with this program over the years?

New play-caller

During a Zoom press conference on Monday, Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst said he handed play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph this season. In addition, he told reporters Berger is not on a carry limit.

It didn’t matter much what Wisconsin did in wins over Illinois and Michigan because the defenses weren’t going to stop anything the Badgers threw at them. But just looking at box scores from the past 2 games, the number of passes thrown in a passing game that wasn’t working compared to the number of runs Berger was getting doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Against Northwestern, the Badgers finished with 42 pass attempts. It’s typically not a good sign when Wisconsin throws that much. Mertz turned the ball over 4 times when he dropped back to pass and played the worst of his 4 games so far. With Wisconsin’s top 2 wide receivers inactive and best pass-catching tight end, Jake Ferguson, in and out of the game with an injury, Berger was by far the most effective part of the offense, rushing for 6.2 yards per carry. But for some reason, the Badgers kept throwing to no success and were shut out in the 2nd half.

In the loss to Indiana, not using Berger late in the game was tough to understand. Wisconsin’s passing game was slightly better but still wasn’t getting the job done, and the Badgers had 2 4th-quarter drives down by 1 possession. Berger carried the ball on the 1st play of the 1st 4th-quarter possession and never saw it again. The Badgers desperately needed to score, and they went the final 13 minutes without getting the ball to their best offensive option. Wisconsin’s last 21 offensive plays did not include Berger as both drives stalled.

With a maximum of 3 games left, it will be interesting to see if Wisconsin’s coaching staff gives Berger more of an opportunity to take over a game like we’ve seen from so many Badgers backs over the years.