MADISON, WI –– For the second straight week, No. 16 Wisconsin (2-2) had no answers offensively against a respectable defense. Despite six drives into opponent’s territory, the Badgers produced just two scores –– a couple of red-zone field goals –– in a 14-6 loss to No. 12 Indiana (6-1) Saturday afternoon at Camp Randall.
Without wide receiver Danny Davis III for the second straight game, Offensive Coordinator Joe Rudolph seemed to drift away from the creative play calling that produced 93 points in the first two weeks. A more conventional offensive approach gave Wisconsin very little margin for error, and they were far from perfect against the Hoosiers.
“Obviously you can’t turn the ball over, and we had that twice tonight. That hurt,” quarterback Graham Mertz said postgame.
The Badgers’ first big offensive miscue came midway through the first quarter, with Wisconsin driving into Indiana territory still tied at zeroes.
On first down from the IU 39, the Badgers’ offensive line failed to pick up a blitzing Taiwan Mullen, who landed a solid hit on Mertz that jarred the ball loose. Another Hoosier was there to scoop up the loose ball and set up good field position for Indiana.
“We had seen that look all week … I saw it, I thought it was going to be picked up but it got me on my back,” Mertz said of the strip sack that stalled a promising early drive.
The fumble set up a 12-play, 53-yard scoring drive for the Hoosiers to take a 7-0 lead that they would never relinquish.
Mertz, in just the fourth start of his career, tried to lean on junior tight end Jake Ferguson on third downs and when under pressure. Just five of the ten targets were completed, as the Hoosiers worked into a double-team approach on the physical tight end as the game developed.
“We saw that on film against Penn State … Ferguson got the same deal,” Head Coach Paul Chryst said of Indiana’s coverage against tight ends. “He’s a good football player and they know that. That’s where we need the other guys to step up. In a close game like that, those end up becoming the difference.”
The red zone play calling gave one weapon in particular a big chance to step up: wide receiver Kendric Pryor. The senior wideout sat out Wisconsin’s loss at Northwestern two weeks ago due to COVID-19 protocols, but was good to go Saturday and hauled in three receptions for 48 yards.
Two passes he didn’t catch, however, were game changers. Twice, on third down inside the Indiana 15, Mertz threw Pryor a jump ball despite a double-coverage look from Indiana’s secondary. Both passes were defended cleanly, and Wisconsin was forced to settle for short field goals that would ultimately become the difference in the game.
“Getting down into the redzone, you have to execute,” said an upbeat Mertz when discussing the incompletions. “I like our guys, I like the one-on-one matchups. I trust Pryor to make that play, and that’s football. You complete some, you don’t.”
The Badgers don’t have any answers right now for what’s going on. In fact, the Wisconsin offense outgained Indiana’s offense 342-217 in total yards, and controlled the ball for 35:08 to IU’s 24:52.
Yet Indiana’s two trips to the red zone were touchdowns, and Wisconsin’s were not. Over a sixty-minute sample like a Big Ten football game, players and coaches used a buzzword repeatedly about Saturday’s game: execution.
“I think as an offense we just need to click better,” Ferguson said postgame. “Our practice was good the whole week, we just need to execute on gameday. Being ready for whatever they throw at us.”
Despite an ineffective three quarters of football, Indiana’s own offensive miscues kept Wisconsin in the game late in the fourth quarter. Chasing eight points with 4:48 remaining, Mertz completed passes to five different Badgers receivers to put Wisconsin inside IU’s 20 yard line.
The play calling stalled from there, as Mertz was left scrambling around on three straight plays before floating an incomplete pass on fourth down to freshman Chimere Dike on the far right side of the endzone.
“You either have to get a first down or put it into the end zone,” Mertz said of the fourth-down incompletion. “I saw [Dike] beat him off the line, I put it on him, and we didn’t win that one. I’m confident in his ability, and I know we’ll be getting those in the future.”
Whether “in the future” means 2021 or next weekend at Iowa, one thing is clear: 13 points in eight quarters is not good enough to win games in the Big Ten. With a rivalry trophy on the line on Saturday in Iowa City, Ferguson emphasized that the Badgers have a lot to play for regardless of the struggles.
“It’s Iowa week,” Ferguson said with a smirk. “You have to bring everything you got or else you’re not going to come out with a win. A lot of guys on this team know that.
“For those who don’t, they’ll find out this week.”