As any good coach will tell you, football is a team game. That means it’s a weakest-link game, where poor performance from one play or positional group can cancel out all the good done by the rest.
That’s exactly what happened Saturday in State College, as an uncharacteristically bad game by the offensive line and sophomore quarterback Jack Coan’s struggles produced a passing offense that gave Wisconsin no shot in what turned out to be a winnable game against Penn State.
Right off the bat, Wisconsin’s defense and rushing attack showed that they could make a difference in the game. The Badgers allowed just one first down on Penn State’s opening drive before forcing a punt with a sack of Nittany Lions quarterback Trace McSorley.
Three plays later, sophomore running back Jonathan Taylor took an inside handoff through a seam for a 71-yard touchdown.
That spotted Wisconsin the early lead many observers had predicted would be key to winning in a hostile road environment. And although neither the running game nor the defense would continue to dominate at that level, they both gave the Badgers a chance to win.
Defensively, Wisconsin allowed just 22 points and 343 yards to an offense that entered the game averaging 37 and 429 respectively, despite being on the field for the majority of the game because of multiple turnovers by Coan.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s top three running backs — Taylor, senior Taiwan Deal and sophomore Garrett Groshek — carried the ball 28 times for 252 yards, staying effective deep into the game.
What ultimately did Wisconsin in was an offensive line that couldn’t consistently hold the pocket, and a quarterback who couldn’t locate his throws even when he was kept clean.
According to PFF College, Coan was pressured on 11 of his 26 dropbacks against the Nittany Lions, the highest percentage of pressures a Wisconsin quarterback had faced since last year’s Big Ten Championship game. Wisconsin’s 48.5 pass blocking grade from PFF College was the lowest the team had recorded since a 30.9 in a loss to Ohio State in 2016.
Wisconsin’s weak link came on the right side of the offensive line, where tackle David Edwards and guard Beau Benzschawel combined to allow two sacks and 10 pressures, according to PFF College. The duo also committed three of the line’s four penalties.
Edwards, who has spent the season dealing with a nerve injury in his arm that has sapped his strength, allowed seven pressures on his own, nearly half the team’s total. Those seven pressures were a comfortable career high — in 30 previous starts, the redshirt junior had never allowed more than four pressures in a game.
Communication seemed to be an issue at times, including on a key second-quarter play where both Edwards and Benzschawel passed off Penn State defensive end Shareef Miller, who had a free run at Coan.
The offensive line’s struggles came primarily against a standard rush, as Penn State blitzed on just seven of 26 dropbacks.
Coan seemed rattled by the early pressure, but he wasn’t much better even when kept clean. In 15 snaps not facing pressure, Coan was seven of 14 for 52 yards with an interception according to PFF College. In his second start, the sophomore didn’t complete a pass more than 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Accounting for sack yardage and his two fumbles, Coan produced just 17 net yards on 27 plays with four turnovers.
Football is a weakest-link game, and on Saturday at Beaver Stadium Wisconsin had the weakest links.