It’s Wisconsin week!
Hey, where are you going?
I know, I know. You’ve heard this before. I’d love to throw a lot of new stuff you way, but that’s not how the Badgers work. There has been a lot of turnover in the coaching staff, and we’ll address that tomorrow. For now, though, let’s cover the basics:
Wisconsin was preseason #12 and the favorite to win the West, so the 1-3 start was very disappointing. In retrospect, neither the loss to Michigan nor the loss to Notre Dame should be a source of shame. They combined to go 23-2 in the regular season last year, and UW actually led Notre Dame in the fourth quarter before Graham Mertz (and the special teams) melted down. The season-opening loss at home to Penn State was less forgivable, but had a similar cause: three Mertz turnovers (and three scoreless trips inside the PSU 10).
To their credit, UW didn’t fold the tent. Instead, they rattled off seven straight wins, including victories over bowl bound Army, Purdue, Iowa, and Rutgers (stop laughing) teams, to move to 8-3/6-2 and control of the B1G West race entering the final week of the season...
Whereupon they went to the Twin Cities and soiled themselves, losing 23-13 to Minnesota, which allowed Iowa to win the West. You hate to give credit to Minnesota, and OTE is not the place for playing things straight, but the Gophers had a great game plan, and outplayed UW in every phase.
And then Wisconsin got the better bowl bid and Gopher fans are still whining.
UW did wash the bad taste out with a 20-13 Las Vegas Bowl win over Arizona State, moving Paul Chryst to 6-1 in bowl games as UW’s head coach.
The season wasn’t what it could’ve been. Graham Mertz continues to flummox, and the OL was subpar, especially in pass protection. The special teams weren’t atrocious, but there were a couple of breakdowns that didn’t help (especially the backbreaking kickoff return TD given up against ND).
At the same time, there were high points. Braelon Allen is the next elite UW RB. The defense, especially the LB corps, was spectacular. Shithammering Iowa was a lot of fun. (So too was seeing them get annihilated by Michigan in the B1G title game.) And, while there are plenty of questions, there’s also reason to think 2022 could be better.
Will Mertz make any sort of leap this year?
Will Jim Leonhard be able to reload on defense?
Will the transfer portal pay off?
Will the coaching changes work out?
I don’t know, but I’ll guess not really, definitely, somewhat, probably, and depends on if Purdue is for real.
Mertz will enter his third year as starting QB with his third different playcaller. Not ideal! The glass half full take is that new OC Bobby Engram will bring a more NFL-style playbook that plays to Mertz’s strengths. The glass half empty take (besides “What strengths?”) is that it won’t matter unless the OL protects better. To which the optimists reply “Yeah, but Bob Bostad is OL coach now!” To which you’re likely to respond, “Shut the hell up! Let’s just wait and see.”
I get that. And honestly, the biggest change this year might just be that the opening weeks are much more tolerable. No season opener against a solid conference foe. Instead it’s vs. Illinois State, vs. Washington State, vs. New Mexico State. Time to work out a few kinks on both sides of the ball. On offense, build Mertz’s confidence. On defense, integrate all the new faces.
Going to Columbus is never fun, but might as well get it out of the way in late September. @MSU and @Iowa aren’t great, but UW has had good luck in Iowa City in recent years and who knows what the trip to East Lansing holds. They’ve only played twice since 2012. It’s still likely that if Wisconsin runs the table against their West foes, they’ll win the division.