Photo Credit: Eric Francis

An Identity Crisis or Just a Product of 2020: Wisconsin’s Offense Will Look to Rebound

July 27, 2021

Nebraska opens fall camp soon, and as the clock ticks closer to the 2021 season, we’re giving brief looks at each opponent on the schedule for the Huskers. Already covered: IllinoisBuffaloOklahoma, Michigan StateNorthwesternMichiganMinnesota, Purdue, and Ohio State. Wisconsin is up next.

The Boring Stuff

Time: As can be expected for a game this late in the year, no kick time has been set yet for the Huskers’ trip to Madison on Nov. 20. The schedule that weekend features Iowa State-Oklahoma, Virginia Tech-Miami, Minnesota-Indiana, and USC-UCLA. Assuming the Cali schools take the night slot, maybe a mid-day game is in the offing if these two programs have rebound seasons.

Line: Vegas has not set one yet. FPI gives Nebraska a 25.2% chance of winning. Wisconsin would be favored by 8.4 points using Bill Connelly’s SP+ model.

Record: The Badgers played seven games in a weird COVID year, and they sported a weird 4-3 record as a fitting result. Games against Nebraska, Purdue, and Minnesota were canceled because of virus issues. In the games Wisconsin was able to get in, they won two to open the season back-to-back, then lost three in a row to Northwestern, Indiana, and Iowa, then closed the year with an overtime win over Minnesota and a 42-28 win over Wake Forest in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl.

Series history: Wisconsin leads the all-time series 10-4. Nebraska beat the Badgers by three in Lincoln in 2012, but have lost seven straight games. For what it’s worth, the margin has gotten smaller each time out since Scott Frost took over the program. 

What This One Means

That question is multi-layered. 

First, you have the placement on the schedule from Nebraska’s perspective. It’s possible, maybe even likely, Nebraska needs one of its last two games to gain bowl eligibility. Maybe it’ll need both. After welcoming Ohio State to Lincoln on Nov. 6, Nebraska gets a bye week before closing the regular season out with the Badgers on the road and Iowa at home on a short turnaround. The bye week should help, but Nebraska should feel some urgency to not only win in Madison but not go too deep into the night before ensuring that happens. 

Second, Wisconsin is Nebraska’s boogeyman. Seven straight losses in a series does something to you. But, after the rushing performance in 2019’s meeting and the play against Ohio State in the 2020 opener that offered some hope for more, there was a feeling in Lincoln that Wisconsin wasn’t all that beat up about having its game against the Huskers canceled. Of course, it was absurd to suggest the Badgers were ducking Nebraska, but confidence, however irrational, can be a powerful thing.

And finally, the significance that will be attached to this game in 2021, that late in the season, is hard to project in July. 

Wisconsin was the perfect COVID-year football team in that there’s almost no way of knowing whether the 4-3 record—the worst by winning percentage since 2012—was a product of Wisconsin itself or Wisconsin’s situation. 

The Badgers’ promising young quarterback completed 20 of his 21 passes for 248 yards and five scores in his starting debut against Illinois. Then he got COVID. In the six games to after, Mertz was a 57% passer with four touchdowns against five interceptions and an average of 5.8 yards per attempt

In Wisconsin’s four wins, it had three total turnovers on offense. 

In Wisconsin’s three losses, it had nine total turnovers. 

Mertz was asked to do a lot and Wisconsin was in situations it hasn’t been in for some time. The offense pressed. During the three-game losing skid mid-season, the Badgers scored 20 total points. By the end of the year, Mertz was walking to the sideline for the next play call out of fear the Badgers’ signals had been compromised. (Paul Chryst said that won’t happen again.)

Wideout—led by Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor—has more speed than a usual Wisconsin team but availability, be it because of injuries or the virus, was an issue last season. The offensive line returns three of its five starters from a year ago, so there should be no worries there, and the defense brings back elite-level linebackers Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal and defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard and a ton of players who are just old; dicey depth up front and no real killer at corner will be things to watch throughout the season but the Badgers project as the second-best defense in football by SP+.

Really, it comes down to running back for Wisconsin. 

Remarkable, isn’t it?

Last year’s leading rusher, Jalen Berger, a former blue-chip prospect in his own right, had 301 yards and two scores on 60 carries (5.0 ypc) in four games. Years ago, Melvin Gordon had 408 yards on 25 carries in three quarters against Nebraska. While that’s not entirely fair to Berger, these are the lofty standards by which Wisconsin running backs have to be judged because the offensive identity has been built around having that kind of player in the backfield. 

The running back rotation last season (three different backs had at least 53 carries) was not a productive one. 

The Badgers were 70th nationally in stuff rate; backs were stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage on 20.8% of their carries. The Badgers countered with explosive runs only 12.3% of the time, a clip that ranked 88th nationally. 

Berger has the speed to hit holes the line makes for him, so you can see the potential best-case scenario, but inconsistency of play and availability was a big problem last season that can’t continue into 2021. 

Prior to last season, Wisconsin had enjoyed a 1,500-yard rushing season from a tailback in eight of its previous 11 campaigns. The three that failed to hit the mark: 2016 when Corey Clement had 1,375 yards, 2015, and 2010 when James White, John Clay, and Montee Ball combined for 3,060 yards and 46 touchdowns. 

The identity of Wisconsin has been run the ball, control the clock, and beat the tar out of teams at the line of scrimmage. 

If the run game is ho-hum again in 2021 and Wisconsin has to continue to lean on Mertz, though not a bad thing given the quarterback’s talent, it could lead to more inconsistency. 

The Guy to Know

The name that’s popping up everywhere is Nick Herbig, a 6-foot-2 sophomore outside linebacker. With 26 tackles to rank fourth on the team as a first-year player last season, the buzz around Madison is that Herbig is ready for more. He had six TFLs (one sack) and a pass break-up. The Honolulu native becoming a plus edge rusher for a defense that already has one of the best linebacking corps in the country would be a significant development. With Sanborn, Chenal, Noah Burks, and an improved Herbig, the heart of the Badger defense should be an issue. 

The Number(s) to Know

Wisconsin scored 94 points in its first two games of 2020. 

Wisconsin scored 82 points in its last five games. 

Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. Wisconsin has to be able to hold onto the football better in 2021. It gave the ball away 12 times in seven games last year. An improved running game will certainly help Mertz out, but it’ll go a long way toward turning the pressure down on the offense in general.

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