Five takeaways from Wisconsin’s 41-13 loss to Notre Dame

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Well. That was definitely something.

No. 18 Wisconsin just fell 41-13 at the hands of No. 12 Notre Dame thanks to five Graham Mertz turnovers and an offense that didn’t pose anything close to a threat.

Yes, the game pitted old teammates Jack Coan and Graham Mertz against each other. But the crazy thing about the contest is it wasn’t even Coan or Mertz who won the game. Third-string quarterback Drew Pyne came off the bench for the Fighting Irish after a Coan injury and led his team to what proved to be a game-clinching fourth-quarter touchdown.

Nevertheless, this loss is now Wisconsin’s seventh straight against ranked opponents dating back to 2019.

Here are five initial takeaways from the thoroughly disappointing loss:

Graham Mertz struggles against a good team.....again

Sep 25, 2021; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Wisconsin Badgers quarterback Graham Mertz (5) passes during the first half against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Graham Mertz has now started 10 games in his college career.

  • He’s played five ranked teams. He’s 0-5.

  • He’s thrown an interception in five games. The Badgers are 0-5 in those games.

It’s a simple equation when a team has a defense as good as the one the Badgers have this year (more on that later). Wisconsin needs Mertz to take care of the football, be consistent and come up with a play or two against good teams.

Today, he did none of that.

Big plays opened up countless times down the field and Mertz missed most of them, the Fighting Irish turned two of Mertz’s turnovers into 14 points and when Wisconsin’s drives threatened the end zone, Mertz was mostly unable to finish them.

I wrote earlier this week about how important today’s game was for the quarterback. To me it was critical for him, his confidence and this Wisconsin team.

Well, another bad game against a good team has turned a few data points into a trend. Wisconsin just cannot win football games until he takes massive steps forward.

I’m not even going to talk about the end of the fourth quarter. It is not good.

Broken record: The defense is elite

Sep 11, 2021; Madison, Wisconsin, USA; Wisconsin Badgers defensive end Matt Henningsen (92) celebrates after sacking Eastern Michigan Eagles quarterback Ben Bryant (8) (not pictured) during the second quarter at Camp Randall Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

If you take away the two shortened fields due to Mertz turnovers and the kickoff return touchdown, this defense gave up only 3 points.

Even with an offense and special teams unit that gave Jim Leonhard’s group no help, his group put together yet another winning performance.

Faion Hicks and Caesar Williams matched up well against a good Notre Dame receiving core, Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal were their dominant selves and the interior of the line was flat-out dominant.

This is a Big Ten Champion-caliber defense. The offense just continues to put the group in challenging scenarios.

The offensive line continues to be a question

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

The offensive line continues to lack continuity and continues to be a detriment to the offense.

Yes, Graham Mertz played another clunker.

But the Wisconsin front couldn’t beat the Fighting Irish in the trenches, couldn’t open up running lanes for Chez Mellusi and often couldn’t give Mertz enough time to deliver the football.

Wisconsin’s final offensive stats: 24 carries, 63 yards, 2.6 yards-per-carry and a lot of pressure on Mertz.

You know it isn’t great when the unit, now four weeks into the season, continues to shuffle its rotation in search of the best group. That happened yet again today, and there still weren’t combinations that proved to be the answer.

The offense is nothing when it can't dominate on the ground

Sep 25, 2021; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Wisconsin Badgers running back Isaac Guerendo (20) runs the ball against Notre Dame Fighting Irish defensive lineman Jayson Ademilola (57) during the first half at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

As I mentioned above, 26 carries for 63 yards and 2.6 yards per carry is not how an offense helps a struggling quarterback.

Mertz played a part in the offensive-wide struggle as well as Paul Chryst’s dull gameplan.

But what did we see today? Wisconsin doesn’t have much of a chance against good teams when the offense isn’t running for 150 yards. Mertz struggles to move the sticks on third down (the team was putrid in that regard today) and the defense can then sit back and take away Mertz’s easy completions.

Credit Notre Dame’s defense for how they attacked the Badger offense. That group showed us that Wisconsin can’t win games unless the ground game is dominant.

This team still cannot finish drives

Sep 25, 2021; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Wisconsin Badgers head coach Paul Chryst looks on during the first half against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

What was a storyline entering today’s game? Wisconsin’s inability to turn scoring chances into points.

Well Week 2 seemed to be more Eastern Michigan being poor than anything else, as the Badgers came out today with only 13 total points on another four trips inside the opposing 30 yard line.

Two drives inside the 30 in the first half: 3 points.

Two drives inside the 30 in the second half: 10 points.

The game got away from the team late. But throughout the 3.5 quarters where this was a contest, Wisconsin’s continued inability to finish drives hurt them yet again.

Against Eastern Michigan, it didn’t really matter. Whenever the Badgers play good opponents, though, I have no confidence in the team’s ability to score touchdowns. It’s that simple.

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