An early bye week this season means we don’t have too much to go off of, but with the Badgers not playing football this upcoming Saturday, let’s revisit those first two games and evaluate the team thus far.
It was a shaky start to the season for the team ranked No. 12 in the AP’s preseason poll, to say the least.
Wisconsin opened up this year’s campaign with a home game against Penn State, welcoming fans back to Camp Randall Stadium. The team came out to a loud roar, and the future looked bright for the Badgers. After an up-and-down season during 2020’s COVID-filled season, the expectations for Wisconsin were high coming into 2021, with some predicting the Badgers could finish the regular season an undefeated 12-0. With Graham Mertz, Jalen Berger, Danny Davis III and co. a year older — and theoretically a year better — the thought was that this team would finally start producing on the offensive end in a way we haven’t seen since the Russell Wilson-led 2011 team which averaged just over 44 points per game.
Those predictions came to a screeching halt during Wisconsin’s 16-10 loss to the hands of the Nittany Lions. Mertz turned the ball over three times — twice in the red zone — Berger was held off the field for an undisclosed coaching decision and no wide receiver totaled 100 yards or found the endzone. Whether it be the interception that Mertz threw from Penn State’s 8-yard line or his over-throw of a wide-open Chimere Dike in the endzone with 26 seconds left, Mertz was given opportunity after opportunity to play hero for Wisconsin and came up short each time.
With that, the Badgers started 0-1 for the first time since 2015, when Wisconsin started the season with a 35-17 loss to Alabama in Arlington. Wisconsin then welcomed Eastern Michigan with a great chance to bounce back from the Penn State loss and get a number in the win column, and the Badgers looked much more in tune this time around, cruising to a 34-7 win over the Eagles.
Chez Mellusi once again started over Jalen Berger and looked more like a traditional Wisconsin running back this time. The junior transfer rushed for over 100 yards in the first quarter alone — finishing with 144 yards on the ground — and averaged over seven yards per carry. Isaac Guerendo ran 92 yards, Berger 62 and freshman running back Braelon Allen added 30, as all four running backs found the endzone once. Mertz looked much better, too, completing 14 of his 17 passes without turning the ball over once, and looked way more comfortable standing in the pocket.
The defense looked phenomenal — admittedly as they should against a team like Eastern Michigan. Wisconsin held the Eagles to just three first downs all game, allowed just 92 total yards of offense and only conceded one play over 10 yards. You know you’ve done a great job defensively when the second-biggest play the offense had all game was off of a defensive holding penalty.
So, the Badgers are 1-1, and the hype going into the season has subsided a little. The preseason predictions of a Big Ten Championship appearance and a Rose Bowl invite have turned into *maybe* getting into the Big Ten Championship and an Outback Bowl invite, swapping places with Penn State.
The good news is that Wisconsin still has probably the easiest remaining schedule in the Big Ten. The Badgers will still get some of their most formidable Big Ten West rivals — Iowa and Northwestern — at home and Minnesota without star running back Mohammad Ibrahim. The path for Wisconsin is still plenty open, and the West Division is still within reach. Wisconsin’s next test, an out-of-conference matchup against Notre Dame at Soldier Field in Chicago on Sept. 25, will likely be the most telling.
No. 12 Notre Dame is 2-0 this season but hasn’t looked like a top 15 team this season at all. With three-point wins over Florida State and Toledo — two unranked teams — the Irish at times looked more like a team whose goal is to just get into a bowl game rather than one with their sights on the College Football Playoff.
Of course, the obvious storyline for the ND-UW game is former Badger turned Fighting Irish, J̶.̶J̶.̶ ̶P̶o̶s̶t̶ Jack Coan. Coan joined Notre Dame this offseason as a graduate transfer leading Wisconsin to a 10-4 record in 2019, starting all 14 games before sitting out the 2020 season.
If the Badgers can come out of Chicago with a win over Notre Dame, they’ll gain a lot of momentum going into the final nine regular-season games and (hopefully) the Big Ten Championship and further. My prediction for the Badgers is still mostly unchanged. I do think Wisconsin comes out of Soldier Field with a win over Notre Dame and honestly runs the rest of the table. Unfortunately, due to Ohio State’s loss to Oregon this past week, I don’t think Wisconsin can end up at the Rose Bowl, with the Rose Bowl Committee extending the invite to the Buckeyes. Even if the Badgers win the rest of their games up until the Big Ten Championship, the best bowl I could see is the Citrus Bowl, with the Outback Bowl being the more realistic option. Either way, the win over Eastern Michigan was a refreshing reminder that this team has talent, and they just need to find it at a more consistent rate.