Wisconsin Football: Instant reactions to Wisconsin’s loss to Penn State

Sep 4, 2021; Madison, Wisconsin, USA; Wisconsin Badgers tight end Jake Ferguson (84) is tackled after catching a pass during the first quarter against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Camp Randall Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 4, 2021; Madison, Wisconsin, USA; Wisconsin Badgers tight end Jake Ferguson (84) is tackled after catching a pass during the first quarter against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Camp Randall Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports /

The Wisconsin football team falls to 0-1 on the season after an ugly game against Penn State. The Badgers couldn’t overcome several costly mistakes in the red zone, scoring just once on four trips.

A tale of two halves for the defense

This game really felt like a tale of two halves. In the first half, the defense was absolutely lights out. They forced five 3-and-outs and allowed just 43 yards in the first half. They were getting pressure on QB Sean Clifford consistently,  forcing some bad throws leading to incompletions.

The run defense was stout as well. At one point, the Nittany Lions had negative rushing yards late in the first quarter. This Penn State offense is considered a high-powered offense by many, and the defense for the Wisconsin football team completely shut them down in the first half.

In the second half, the defense just couldn’t keep the Nittany Lions contained. They started to take the pass rush out by completing some quick passes. When they started doing that, the Wisconsin safeties started to bite on the short passing routes. That’s when Jahan Dotson took over. In the first drive of the second half, the Nittany Lions completed a 49-yard touchdown bomb to Dotson after he got behind the Wisconsin secondary.

Penn State receivers beat the Wisconsin secondary multiple times throughout the second half, something you don’t normally see out of the Jim Leonhard-led defense.

A few glaring mistakes by the secondary put a damper on the defense, but overall, allowing just 16 points to Penn State should be considered a positive.

The offense needs some work

It wasn’t all bad for the offense. Running back Chez Mellusi looked good in his first game for the Badgers. He started the game and took a majority of the carries for the Wisconsin football team. He carried the ball 31 times for 121 yards and a touchdown. Isaac Guerendo was the second back to receive carries. He looked pretty good in his 2021 debut as well. He got 13 carries for 56 yards, showing some nice burst on a couple of his runs.

That’s about where the positives end.

Graham Mertz is looking like the Mertz from the second half of the 2020 season. He just didn’t look comfortable out there. Early in the game, he didn’t have a lot of time to pass, having the defense in his lap quickly. But then even when he got some time to pass, his accuracy was off.

It also felt like he wouldn’t go through his progressions, locking in on a receiver and forcing feeding it, throwing into double coverage multiple times. He overthrew his receiver a couple of times as well, including a big miss to Chimere Dike on a seam play that would have put the Badgers in a position to win the game with under a minute left. Dike had a couple of steps on his defender going into the end zone, and Mertz simply missed him.

The offense also went just 1-of-4 in the red zone, which is never a recipe for winning. A blocked field goal and a fumbled exchange between the Mertz and Mellusi in the red zone were killers. Mertz also threw an interception late in the game in the red zone.

Just a lot of ugly plays that should have been executed.

A lot of Mellusi, no Berger

A surprising thing during this game was that Jalen Berger didn’t even make an appearance. Many thought he’d be a big part of the offense, even with Mellusi being named the starter. I thought they’d be sharing carries and getting equal playing time.

Instead, Berger was on the sideline for the entire game. It didn’t even feel like he was going to get into the game.

Not sure what the deal is with that, but I’m sure Paul Chryst will be asked about it after the game.

At least Mellusi looked good and Guerendo showed some flashes as well too. If Berger becomes a part of the offense too, having three backs who can be productive will be huge for this Wisconsin football team.

Overall takeaways

It’s going to be easy to pile onto Graham Mertz after his performance. He deserves his share of the criticism, but this game isn’t completely on him. If the Badgers convert their field goal in the first half, they would have only needed a field goal to tie the game late, rather than having to score a touchdown late. The safeties got torched on some big plays, leading to Penn State points. The offensive line didn’t look good early, including a play where left tackle Tyler Beach just got torched around the edge, leading to a hit on Mertz as he was throwing it.

The playcalling was also suspect. They ran jet sweeps about three or four times and every play was successful. Why not run it more? You have playmakers on the offense. Why not get them more involved?

Mertz wasn’t good by any means, but multiple there is plenty of blame to go around.

We also can’t overreact to this loss. It’s one game. The Badgers can fix some things and still have a very successful season.