Go ahead and call me an entitled Wisconsin fan, but 9-4 seasons don’t get much more mediocre than that. The season-opening loss to Penn State was infuriating because the offense couldn’t get out of their own way. It was supposed to be a season-opening showdown, but PSU played like a 7-6 team, and that was good enough to leave Madison with a win. Then things snowballed to 1-3 with losses to Notre Dame and Michigan. Both those losses were better than they looked at the time, but so what, the offense continued to be terrible, and even though it was early October, there seemed to be little to play for.
Then the defense started forcing turnovers and Braelon Allen started ripping off 100-yard games. The seven-game winning streak that followed featured a solid win over Purdue in West Lafayette and a thumping of Iowa in Madison (and a narrow escape vs. Nebraska) and put UW in position to win the West if they could retain the Axe in the season finale @ Minnesota. But they could not.
For a couple of weeks after that game, the narrative seemed to be that UW blew their chance by coming out flat and playing listlessly, handing Minnesota the game. However, it’s probably more accurate to say that Minnesota was a pretty good team, was at home, and was better prepared. It wasn’t as if UW was a 21 point favorite. If the Gophers could avoid dick trips, they might pass UW in the bowl pecking order one of these years.
Wisconsin did rebound and notch a bowl game victory over Arizona State, a game that was basically a microcosm of the season: just enough offense, great defense, and a narrower-than-it-should-have-been win.
What Went Wrong
Graham Mertz wasn’t as bad down the stretch as some reports indicated. But that’s only because he was so atrocious in September that expectations were lowered to the floor. Throwing more INTs than TDs really isn’t acceptable. Neither is a completion % under 60. But he’ll almost certainly be starting next year, which tells you all need to know about the QB room. Hopefully Bob Bostad’s return to OL coaching duties will lead to better pass protection this year. Mertz wasn’t good, but the line did him no favors.
The defense was mostly great, but the secondary was susceptible to deep balls, and there will be a lot of new faces next year. Some of this is definitely a result of Jim Leonhard’s very aggressive scheme, but some of it was blown coverages and getting beat on double moves. There aren’t many true shutdown corners out there, but UW needs to improve if they want to have any hopes of beating elite teams rather than just making them sweat for three quarters.
Finally, while the special teams were solid overall, they were far from elite. A missed short FG wasn’t the most important play in the PSU game, but it happened all the same and could’ve made the difference. And vs. Notre Dame, in a game where the defense was heroic and UW had just edged ahead in the 4th quarter, the Badgers gave up a kick return TD, squandering any momentum they had and putting the offense in a position where they had to drive the field, something they simple weren’t going to be able to do. There’s a pretty clear argument that special teams were the reason Iowa won the West this year. It just doesn’t seem to be the same point of emphasis for UW. So, it will probably bite them at least once next year too.
What Went Right
What always goes right for UW? Braelon Allen (hey, he just turned 18!) is the next great UW RB. He doesn’t have Jonathan Taylor’s speed, and the Derrick Henry comps are premature, but he IS strong and fast and has plenty of room to improve. Plus Chez Mellusi should be back next year and he was having a fine year as the starter before getting hurt. UW could have two 1,000 yd RBs in 2022.
Defensively, they got mega production from the best linebacking crew in the conference. Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal both have a really good chance to be multi-year starters in the NFL, but Nick Herbig could end up being the best of the group, and he’ll be back next year. Overall the front seven was fantastic. Nobody could run on them (and Keeanu Benton will be back to anchor the DL next year, too).
UW is looking for a new OC after Joe Rudolph exited for Virginia Tech (though Chryst did the playcalling this year). Rudolph bore the brunt of a lot of fans’ frustrations, but his players loved playing for him, and calling for the OCs head is often a fanbase reflex. If it always worked, it would probably happen more often.
The Badgers have already been active in the transfer portal, especially signing DBs. If a couple of them are decent, then it could end up being an upgrade. But it’s all a crapshoot and nobody knows shit right now. Anyway, you know the drill...see how spring practices go, overreact, get bored during the summer, project the schedule, get angry that your expectations are that high, project again, visit OTE for the hate pieces, ignore baseball, etc.
The best development is that the recent schedule changes mean UW isn’t starting with a conference game in the fall. Still, two of the first four conference games are @Ohio State and @Michigan State, so the Badgers could be back in the familiar position of having to win the division coming from 2nd or 3rd place in November. I don’t know. Way too early to say more than that. For now, just settle in for perennial narratives like: “For real, UW has talent at WR. They might pass more this year.” And “Rumor is Chryst is spending more time on special teams.”
Whatever, it’s January.