Analyzing Graham Mertz’s performance in wins vs. his performance in losses last season

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ESPN’s Bill Connelly, the creator of SP+, is a central voice in college football analytics and analysis.

One of his recent Tweets requires attention: an in-depth view of Wisconsin Badger quarterback Graham Mertz’s performance in wins last season vs. his performance in losses.

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On a surface level, it makes sense why Wisconsin struggled along with their quarterback. The right image is full of incompletions and turnovers and actually features 33 more pass attempts than the left image.

For context, Wisconsin won four games last season (left) and lost three (right). That gives all the indication needed to understand why the offense was so stagnant some of those days.

But why did we see such a stark difference between Mertz’s performance in wins vs. that in losses? Aside from Bill’s correct point about how Northwestern, Indiana and Iowa complicated the game for him, here’s what I saw:

First, that 33-pass disparity led me to one theme: the running game. Wisconsin wasn’t a great running team last season, but the difference between the output in wins and losses was huge.

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As I referred to above, the left picture is what Wisconsin’s ideal, on-schedule offense looks like. The right, then, is the disoriented mess we saw for weeks during the heart of the schedule.

Second, there are numerous factors at play aside from the defensive efforts of the Badgers’ opponents. There was no health at wide receiver, Mertz had to run to the sideline to get every play and this was a freshman quarterback who was thrust into the starting job without much time to prepare.

But the biggest thing that stood out to me was what I outlined above: rushing success, as it normally does, dictated what the team was able to do on offense, and therefore dictated whether they won games.

After three years of all-time great stuff from Jonathan Taylor, the 2020 regression was clearly large enough to stop the offense in its tracks and make things nearly impossible on Mertz.

Now heading into 2021 with an impressive backfield crew of Jalen Berger, Chez Mellusi, Braelon Allen and more, Wisconsin fans should expect to see a lot more of the lefthand chart compared to the right.

The offense will find its schedule easier, Mertz will regain his rhythm and this will be an impressive offense to watch throughout the season.

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