Wisconsin somehow controls its destiny in the wild, wild West
Heading into last week, the thought of Wisconsin playing in the Big Ten championship game was preposterous.
Iowa was ranked second in the country and rolling toward a sure December showdown against whomever won the Big Ten East. Wisconsin was 2-3 and not even a sure thing to beat Army.
To be frank, the idea of this Badgers team playing for a title still makes me feel like I’m taking crazy pills. But after its 30-13 win at No. 25 Purdue, there is a path for Wisconsin to return to the State of Indiana this season.
The Big Ten West is a hot mess, and the Badgers have the ability to burrow their way to the top. Only 2 teams remain ahead of Wisconsin in the standings — Iowa and Minnesota. The Badgers host the Hawkeyes next week and finish the season at Minnesota.
Which means if Wisconsin wins out, the Badgers are in the Big Ten championship game. End of story. Somehow.
Your quarterback can’t hurt you if you don’t throw it
Depending on your statistical measure, Graham Mertz is either the worst or second-worst starting quarterback in the Big Ten.
He came into Saturday averaging a league-low 148.8 passing yards per game. He was 16th in touchdown passes and 2nd in interceptions. Twelfth out of 13 qualifying starters in completion percentage, yards per attempt and passer rating.
You get the picture.
And for the first time this season, it looks like Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst gets the picture too.
Mertz’s line against the Boilermakers: 5-for-8 for 52 yards.
Perhaps Chryst was inspired by what he saw from Army’s option attack last week.
The Badgers broke out their own version of a multi-headed rushing attack, racking up 290 yards on 51 carries. Chez Mellusi (27 carries, 149 yards) and Braelon Allen (12 carries, 140 yards) each accounted for more rushing yards than Iowa in its 24-7 loss to Purdue the prior week.
Can Wisconsin make a habit of it?
Next week will be the crucible. Iowa is only allowing 2.7 yards per carry, and the Badgers don’t have a weapon to pick apart Iowa’s secondary the way Purdue receiver David Bell did last week.
Wisconsin can win every other game on its schedule by minimizing Mertz, but against Iowa he will need to make plays.
Third down problematic
Surely a team can’t reach a conference championship game converting third downs at the rate Wisconsin is.
After going 1-for-11 on third down against Purdue, the Badgers have converted 28.4% of their attempts this season. That figure puts Wisconsin at 126th out of 130 teams nationally. The only worse teams are some of college football’s ugliest ducklings — East Carolina, Louisiana-Monroe, UConn and New Mexico.
This is where Mertz’s inability to pass to his own teammates will continue to be a factor. Third-and-long is almost always unmanageable. And third-and-short will always be predictable, because the Badgers are only capable of running the ball.
To overcome that deficit, others have to step up in a big way.
Is the defense good enough for a miracle run?
If Wisconsin is going to pull this off, it will require a legendary finish to the season from its defense. Against Purdue, at least, the Badgers D looked capable of the task.
Wisconsin forced 5 turnovers against an offense that didn’t give any away against Iowa, which boasts the nation’s best ball-hawkers. It limited Purdue to minus-13 rushing yards. Indeed, Purdue’s offense couldn’t even reach the end zone — its only touchdown was courtesy of a strip-sack returned 56 yards for a score.
Iowa doesn’t exactly boast a formidable offense, as Purdue aptly demonstrated last week. The most explosive offense remaining on Wisconsin’s schedule is Nebraska, but there’s no telling what caliber weapon the Cornhuskers will use to blow off their own feet in that game.
Thus, we may very well end up in a scenario where the winner of Paul Bunyan’s Axe in the season finale will be swinging it all the way to Indianapolis for an unexpected Big Ten title game berth.