The University of Wisconsin football team’s offense has spent the first half of the season searching.
Searching for an identity. Seeking a consistent person, play or scheme that the Badgers can build around. Grasping onto the positives and trying to eliminate negatives.
After hanging on to defeat visiting Army 20-14 on Saturday night at Camp Randall Stadium, is the Badgers’ offense fixed? No. But the base of an identity has started to come into form in victories the past two weeks.
That identity, with cornerstones of power running and avoiding mistakes, is familiar to the UW program, but it wasn’t what many believed the Badgers would have to resort to this season. But it’s the identity that could lead the Badgers to a Big Ten Conference West Division title if executed properly over the final six games of the regular season, a stretch that gained even more significance after Purdue defeated No. 2 Iowa.
“I think that in the first couple weeks, we were kind of missing our identity: power football,” freshman tailback Braelon Allen said. “Once we found that last week … that was probably the moment where we showed our potential and set a standard of how we need to run the ball. Once we do that, I think it opens up a lot more things.”
The thought that redshirt sophomore Graham Mertz would take such a leap forward this season that opponents would fear the Badgers’ passing game as much if not more than the rushing attack hasn’t worked out. Mertz’s improvement hasn’t shown in a major way and issues with ball security and pass protection have masked the good things he’s done this season.
UW is having to grind out victories by leaning on its defense instead of being able to blow out teams. If that’s the result, the Badgers will take it at this point, but there are things they can do to make achieving that goal easier.
“I didn't feel like we're real good on third down in the third quarter,” UW coach Paul Chryst said. “So now all of a sudden you're talking about fewer possessions, fewer plays in the possessions.”
UW was 3 of 10 on third down and 0 of 2 on third downs in the third quarter.
The emergence of Allen over the past two weeks is an easy place to start when looking for positives on offense. He became the first UW freshman to rush for more than 100 yards in back-to-back games since Jonathan Taylor in 2017 after gaining 106 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries and his physicality has added a spark to the offense it was lacking.
“I think a lot of that identity has been focused on playing hard football and battling,” senior tight end Jake Ferguson said. “It’s really easy when you’ve got Big 0 (Allen) back there running the ball like that. Just being able to build off that. When you see a guy putting his body on the line and throwing it in there with some violence, it’s really easy to get behind.”
Allen’s chances going forward only will increase after junior Isaac Guerendo was ruled out for the season, leaving the Badgers with Allen, junior Chez Mellusi and junior Brady Schipper as the only tailbacks with game experience in the backfield.
Ferguson also showed he could be counted among the matchups UW can take advantage of more frequently in the home stretch. Ferguson caught four of Mertz’s eight completions against Army and accounted for 58 of the team’s 112 yards receiving.
All four of Ferguson’s catches created first downs, with the first two grabs converting a third-and-7 and a third-and-5. Those third-and-medium and third-and-long scenarios have been particularly difficult for UW this season, which sits at 26 for 84 (30.9%) on third down this season.
Mertz went 4 of 7 passing on third down at Illinois last week and 3 of 5 against the Black Knights. Two of those completions against Army went for first downs, and the third was a screen that was blown up by the defense. He scrambled for third-down conversions as well in both games, including a 9-yard run to move the chains on third-and-8 in the fourth quarter against Army.
This is the type of play UW needs from Mertz going forward, and he attributed it to seeing the field better and making quicker decisions on whether to throw or run. UW likely can’t afford mistakes like his fumble on a sack on the game’s first drive or the near interception he threw in the third quarter. He admitted he got greedy on a first down in the third quarter and threw a deep ball to senior Danny Davis, one that was in danger of being intercepted, instead of following his progression to find an open Ferguson.
Mertz said the group’s in a better place than it was a few weeks ago despite chances where he and the offensive could’ve done better against Army.
“The cool thing is I know we’re going to get better,” Mertz said. “That’s the whole mindset of our team.”
UW won’t see an opposing offense that limits possessions like Army’s again, but the Badgers' toughest tests of the second half like Iowa (Oct. 30), Nebraska (Nov. 20) and Minnesota (Nov. 27) will grind clock if given the chance.
Focusing on what the Badgers could’ve been or hoped to be offensively before the season began doesn’t do them much good right now. But being the best version of what they are — a team relying on defense to win — just might be enough.
“I appreciate the resilience of the group,” Chryst said. “There's some stuff to build on that we’ve got to continue and if that can become kind of who we are the rest of the year, it’d be good.”
Badgers fans on Twitter see some signs of life after Wisconsin takes down Army — but not everyone's sold
High hopes crushed againUpdated
Every time I watch Mertz I think it’s going to be the game he turns it around and shows something and every game it’s more underwhelming play. I really don’t know how anything we see from this passing game puts us in position to beat Purdue and Iowa coming up— Andrew Zimdars (@andrew_zimdars) October 17, 2021
Room for debateUpdated
Won’t matter with this QB— Fred Ehle (@FredEhle) October 17, 2021
Holding out hopeUpdated
Wisconsin’s defense got the job done. Their offense did just enough to win. Graham Mertz is still a work in progress, and I’m not optimistic that he can lead the team to a win at Purdue or Iowa at home in the next two weeks.— Jeff Ostach (@jeff_ostach) October 17, 2021
Nothing new to see hereUpdated
Other than Braelon Allen's emergence, this is the same team we have seen all season. Offense cannot impose its will on teams and they eventually hang the defense out to dry.— Craig Smith (@smithcp1) October 17, 2021
Dinner and a (boring) showUpdated
Just got back to hotel after being at that game. I was as bored as my wife was watching that one. The best part was the brats and Mac n cheese from the concessions.— Eric M. Tostrud (@EricTostrud) October 17, 2021
Working with what they've gotUpdated
Russ, you are right but, unfortunately, the playbook is limited with the talent they have.— Jon Ahlgrim (@JonAhlgrim) October 17, 2021
Stuck on cruise controlUpdated
It reminded me of watching Packers games in the 70s.— Howie (@WhoIsRoark) October 17, 2021
I’m starting to think the whole Athletic Department is living off the heydays of when Barry had it humming along.
Any week now!Updated
Every week I hope they show some progress and get better but it hasn’t happened. Outgained 218-80 in the second half. Tough to win with that formula when Mertz averages 2.5 TO’s per game.— Chad Steinmetz (@CSteiny24) October 17, 2021
Running at full powerUpdated
Let's go!! I'm pumped about beating a pretty tough Army team. Love our new RB combo! Mertz umm— BigCat5969 (@TylerBouressa) October 17, 2021
Bowl a bit out of reach?Updated
God bless your optimism. I am struggling to see what three teams this Badger team can beat to become bowl eligible? The die is cast. A down o line, unimaginative offense with a struggling QB, a defensive backfield that can’t cover and shambolic special teams. #ouch— Patrick Brzezinski (@glenlivit_guy) October 17, 2021
Take what you getUpdated
Enjoy it. Won’t be surprised if this team does not win another game this season sadly.— Michael Burger (@Burgscom) October 17, 2021
Prepping for a Boilermaker beatdownUpdated
Purdue will roll this team next week— Will Clausen (@willclausen2) October 17, 2021
Not getting any easierUpdated
Probably their last win of the season.— Mr. Joshua (@quinntile76) October 17, 2021
Good enough ... for nowUpdated
Mertz and the offense weak again but the Badger D was good enough. This won't work with the better teams they play.— John Husmoe (@JohnHusmoe) October 17, 2021
We've seen worseUpdated
Making a pointUpdated
This is THE question that needs to be asked. Is Chryst just not thinking at all in that situation???— Dan (@drkoz23) October 17, 2021
Their offense had the ball the bulk of it— Mark Benson (@MarkBen23939436) October 17, 2021
Buck stops hereUpdated
He is the guy recruiting them.— rich carlson (@richwcarlson) October 17, 2021
In the driver's seatUpdated
Control our destiny in the West! Tons to play for.— Douglas Greenberg (@DougGreenB) October 17, 2021
Well, it really didUpdated
I thought the volleyball team played great today— Pat Richards (@pgrichards0407) October 17, 2021
Standing their groundUpdated
We went toe to toe with the best military in the country! On Wisconsin!— Dan Paulson (@kuatolives11) October 17, 2021
At least the defense is strongUpdated
Offense is terrible. Mertz looks lost. Defense is pretty good. Boring all around. That's all.— Troy (@troy_angus) October 17, 2021
It couldn't hurtUpdated
Will need to play much better to have a chance next week. Passing game will be needed.— Erik Grinde (@egrinde) October 17, 2021
Never count out a gladiatorUpdated
Not great, but I will tell you this: His name is Braelon Allen, football player for the Wisconsim, alumnus of Fon du Lac, loyal Badger. 17-year-old Freshman, converted defensive player. And he will have his starring role as lead RB, in this season or the next.— Rob Vitense (@BadgerCubinMN) October 17, 2021
On to the nextUpdated
Relieved and glad this game is out of the way.— Kurt Sagendorph (@ksagendo) October 17, 2021