The Wisconsin Badgers dropped their season-opener 16-10 to the Penn State Nittany Lions yesterday, starting the 2021 season with shades of what saw them struggle throughout 2020.
The day started on a down note as starting linebacker Leo Chenal announced he had tested positive for COVID-19. Then, when the game began, the negative tone continued as the Badgers struggled to finish drives, made mistakes at crucial moments and lost an easily winnable football game.
It wasn’t the 2021 debut Badger fans wanted after last year’s struggles. As I’ll outline throughout the week, though, this game will not define their season if the team can fix the issues and beat their Big Ten West rivals.
But it is a tough start to a 2021 season with high expectations. Here are my five takeaways from the contest:
There is a clear No. 1 at running back
Sep 4, 2021; Madison, Wisconsin, USA; Wisconsin Badgers running back Chez Mellusi (6) rushes with the football as Penn State Nittany Lions cornerback Joey Porter Jr. (9) defends during the first quarter at Camp Randall Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Before we get into the negatives of the loss yesterday, there is one positive to highlight: Chez Mellusi absolutely looked the part at running back. Entering the game there were questions of what the Badger run game would look like after struggling last season, how Mellusi and Jalen Berger would split carries and whether a clear No. 1 will emerge. Well, the box score can tell the story of the day for the backfield.
Chez Mellusi: 31 carries, 121 yards, 1 touchdown
Isaac Guerendo: 13 carries, 56 yards
Jalen Berger: 0 carries
It's a mystery why Berger didn't touch the ball. After the game, Paul Chryst said it had more to do with what Mellusi and Guerendo were doing than anything else. “The big thing was Chez obviously got the start. Isaac was next back in. Kind of knew that going into the game," Chryst said. "I thought Chez did a lot of good. Same with Isaac. I think it got to be how they were playing. Chez I think got a decent amount of carries. Isaac we thought had more in him, too. I think in the end it's because of what Chez and Isaac (Guerendo) were doing.” But that aside, what Mellusi did was undoubtedly a positive. We saw decisive cuts, good vision and tools that point towards him having a lot of success this season. And he did all of that behind an offensive line that struggled for much of the contest, something I'll get into below. We'll see moving forward how Berger figures into the rotation. But the one thing to takeaway from the backfield's performance? Mellusi looked like a No. 1 back.
Graham Mertz looked like his 2020 self
Sep 4, 2021; Madison, Wisconsin, USA; Wisconsin Badgers head coach Paul Chryst talks with quarterback Graham Mertz (5) during the third quarter against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Camp Randall Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Turnovers and inefficiency in the red zone plagued Graham Mertz throughout the 2020 season. Yesterday, we saw those same problems. He finished the game with 22 completions on 37 attempts, 185 yards, 0 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. But the biggest plays, or lack thereof, came inside the Penn State 20, as Mertz struggled to find open receivers, take care of the football and finish drives for the Badgers. Some of it was the offensive line struggling to give him time and some of it was the Penn State defense playing a great game. But the tale of yesterday's contest was always going to be told by how Mertz and Clifford looked after sub-par 2020 campaigns. Clifford looked solid and took care of the football, Mertz did not. I'll get more into it when I go through the film later this week, but the big second-year jump we expected from the Badger quarterback did not come to fruition yesterday...and the offense really struggled as a result.
Jim Leonhard's defense is scary on every level
Sep 4, 2021; Madison, Wisconsin, USA; Wisconsin Badgers linebacker Jack Sanborn (57) sacks Penn State Nittany Lions quarterback Sean Clifford (14) during the first quarter at Camp Randall Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Even without star linebacker Leo Chenal, Jim Leonhard's defense looked the part and then some yesterday. NT Keeanu Benton was disruptive up the middle, Jack Sanborn flew around the field and the secondary did well minus Jahan Dotson's long touchdown in the third quarter. The unit held the Penn State offense to 3-13 on third down, picked up 2 sacks and 7 tackles-for-loss and gave the Badger offense numerous chances to win the football game. We expected the defense to be good after returning 8 starters. And even without Chenal, it met or exceeded all expectations.
The offensive line really, really struggled
Sep 4, 2021; Madison, WI, USA; Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz benefits from protection by offensive lineman Michael Furtney (74) while making a throw during the fourth quarter of their game Saturday, September 4, 2021 at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis. Penn State beat Wisconsin 16-10. Mandatory Credit: Mark Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports
While avoidable mistakes including fumbled exchanges defined Wisconsin's afternoon, the offensive line was a real negative from the contest. Whether it was a false start on 1st-and-goal from the Penn State 2, not protecting Graham Mertz or making Chez Mellusi's life hard running the football, there were countless moments throughout the contest where the Badger offensive line couldn't find an answer for the Penn State defense. If you need any indication as to how much of a struggle it was, after Joe Rudolph's unit started the game with a lineup of LT Tyler Beach, LG Josh Seltzner, C Joe Tippmann, RG Jack Nelson and RT Logan Bruss, they brought in a new RG, C and LG after just a few series. Part of Beach's struggles can be attributed to missing nearly all of training camp with a foot injury. But unit-wide, there needs to be an improvement if Wisconsin wants to return to the Big Ten Championship.
Wisconsin lost the game more than Penn State won it
Penn State defensive end Nick Tarburton (46) nearly recovered a fumble by Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz (5) in the red zone during the fourth quarter of their game Saturday, September 4, 2021 at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis. Wisconsin recovered the fumble. Credit: MARK HOFFMAN/MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINEL-Imagn Content Services, LLC
Wisconsin out-gained Penn State by 62 yards, they held the ball for nearly 43 minutes of game time and they were on the doorstep of scoring countless times. Yes, Penn State played well and deserves a lot of credit. But Wisconsin came away with just 7 total points on four trips inside the Penn State 10 thanks to penalties, a blocked field goal, a fumbled exchange and sub-par quarterback play. All game long Wisconsin shot themselves in the foot in crucial situations, wasting a great game from RB Chez Mellusi and the defense.