Despite winning its fewest games since 1995,* Wisconsin football ended the season with a record above 0.500 for the 19th straight year. (4-3!) This stat, in addition to notching a turnover-laden Duke’s Mayo Bowl win over the Wake Forest University Demon Deacons tells you all you need to know about how the season went: Medicore-ly.
* Wisconsin finished 4-5-2 (lol remember ties?) in ‘95, despite having future Lions Interim Head Coach Darrell Bevell and his 137.8 QB rating on the team. Also, strongly and empathically cringing at this kicker stat line from John Hall: 7/14 FGs, 27/29 XPs. And ugh, check out punter Brian Alexander, who tallied 50 punts for a 36.3 yard average. Woof.
Jack Coan, the starting QB, got hurt before the season started and transferred to OTE’s favorite Independent, Notre Dame, as soon as the season ended. Wisconsin tied for first in the Race To Cancel Cuz COVID (with Illinois!), tied for the conference lead in Games Canceled Cuz COVID (with national blowout runner up Ohio State), and nearly missed the Axe game entirely. I can count on one finger the number of Wisconsin games I watched this year, but I’m the best OTE has to offer on this topic, so here we go!
As we said, expected and better-than-you-think starting QB Jack Coan suffered a pretty significant injury just before the season. In stepped future and former Heisman-after-one-game winner Graham Mertz to finally attempt to live up to the insane hype. He lived up to it in a huge way...for one game. Then games against Illinois and someone else...Purdue? got canceled and Chase Wolf and Danny Vanden Boom got meaningful QB reps and then Mertz just wasn’t very good.
Let’s get this out of the way: Wisconsin’s offense was absolutely decimated by COVID this year, with many starters missing many games. Turns out, believe it or not, Wisconsin is not yet on the Next Man Up level with Ohio State, Bama, or your typical civilian jury. Point is, it sucked and isn’t worth dwelling on.
The Unpopular Playcalling monster reared its head again this season, most notably in the choice of running back load sharing. Former QB Garret Groshek, true freshman Jalen Berger, and now-in-the-portal Nakia Watson split carries relatively evenly (67, 60, 53), despite Berger averaging 5 ypc (versus 4.5 for Groshek and 3.6 for Watson). Groshek served as a good passing down RB (and blocker?) again, but the utterly unqualified part of me wonders whether Wisconsin would have been better served with Berger getting, say, 100 carries, with Groshek getting 40-50 and Watson the rest.
Finally, in a sentence that will immediately horrify Wisconsin fans who’ve not checked in since the preseason previews, Jack Dunn led all wide receivers with 28 receptions, and even that was 16 more than the next best WR. At least Barry’s grandson was very, very good again (congrats Jake Ferguson and your 30 catches! And thanks for coming back next year).
The defense was absolutely stellar this season, despite having almost no pass rush to speak of. (just 11 sacks in 7 games, most of which were against the Big Ten West. Yikes.) Nonetheless, this defense ruled. Gave up only 17.4 PPG (9th best in the country), As has been the theme the past few seasons, the defense didn’t really have any superstars on it. Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal led the team in tackles, and a third linebacker, Nick Herbig, tied with Chenal for most tackles for loss on the year. The Linebacker U of the mid-twenty-teens carried on into the 2020s just fine, thank you.
Despite the lack of star power, Wisconsin’s D held the explosive offenses for the Indiana Hoosiers and Minnesota Golder Gophers to just 31 points combined. No I am not purposely omitting very important context about key injuries for the opponents’ offenses in those games why do you ask.
Look can I be honest with everyone here? It’s REALLY hard to opine or review or recap a college football defense when you didn’t see them play much. But based on the bowl game—most of which I watched—here are my takeaways: The defense remained susceptible to big plays, but it also shined in forcing back-to-back-to-back turnovers by the quarterback, some of which weren’t picture perfect throws directly into the chest of a stationary Wisconsin defender. Also, if I’m remembering correctly, the turnovers literally came on back to back to back offensive plays by Wake Forest. It was hilarious and awesome and Wisconsin should have scored on at least one of the interceptions, but (a) they are too impatient to wait for their blockers, and (b) I’m starting to doubt my “back to back to back offense plays” stat. Don’t check it.
Jack Coan is gone for good to Notre Dame, and Wisconsin fans genuinely wish him well! He played well for most of one season, and he helped Wisconsin bridge the gap from whoever came before him to future Heisman long shot Graham Mertz. Nakia Watson is gone for good to somewhere (TBD or its BD but I didn’t catch the news). Wisconsin returns a really good running back in Jalen Berger, a really good defense across the board, and both a punter and a kicker, I think. Look, with the wacky COVID eligibility rules there’s no telling who’s doing what, which really adds a fun level of excitement to the offseason!
Oh! Wisconsin has some fun non-con next year too, assuming, well, you know...
Notre Dame—possibly led by a former Badger?!?!—hosts Wisconsin at Soldier Field next year, which will be a nice change of pace for locals hoping to watch the home team actually beat a team from Wisconsin.* Also Wisconsin hosts Army, which is a baffling and brave choice and should be a lotta fun around here, especially with how brave it is for Wisconsin to schedule them and how well rewarded they should be if they win.
* The joke here is that Soldier Field is the home field for the Chicago Bears, who annually host the Green Bay Packers (from Wisconsin!), and who annually are terrible and who very commonly lose to the Packers (from Wisconsin!) at home.
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