Badger football is reeling after an opening Big Ten loss last Saturday and Eastern Michigan awaits the team for game two. The offense, which was anticipated to be the best Madison has seen in decades, struggled mightily. The defense showed more promise, save for a few receptions given up downfield.
This is a crucial time for Wisconsin football. As a team that began the season with legitimate Big Ten title aspirations, the Badgers will need to beat Eastern Michigan somewhat handily to be taken seriously.
No one wants to start their season in the loss column, especially not to a ranked, conference opponent. What was concerning, however, was how Wisconsin lost, with a sputtering offense that once again did just enough to stay in the game and break Badger fans’ hearts at the end.
“We had a number of opportunities in the red zone and didn’t do a good job of scoring points,” said head coach Paul Chryst after the game. “And you gotta score points to win.”
Wouldn’t that be something? Points. But fixing this stale Badgers offense starts first and foremost with starting quarterback Graham Mertz. Mertz threw the ball 37 times on Saturday despite the Badgers not lacking a successful running game.
Clemson transfer Chez Mellusi broke out with 121 yards and a touchdown. Wisconsin’s strategy has traditionally been built around running the football, and the team can clearly still do that well. Restoring balance will be key against Eastern Michigan.
The Eagles are coming off their proverbial cakewalk of a game, blowing out St. Francis PA 35-15 last week. St. Francis’ head coach Chris Villarrial was playing against his first ever FBS opponent. Eastern Michigan is difficult to scout after playing a relatively tame competition, but they’re surprisingly deep in key areas and have some definite playmakers.
The Eagles’ offensive backfield is inexperienced, but loaded with potential. Talented redshirt freshman running back Darius Boone Jr. won the starting position this summer, but only has 68 career carries — 22 of which came against St. Francis.
Senior quarterback Ben Bryant, a Cincinnati transfer, has fewer than 100 career pass attempts. He was also thrown into the fire last week, relieving presumed Eagles starting quarterback Preston Hutchinson in the first quarter.
Eastern Michigan may not have the name-brand offense talent that Wisconsin has, but they have plenty of niche playmakers to utilize. The aforementioned Darius Boone Jr. looks like a gem at halfback, but the Eagles like to spread the love, rotating backs in and out. Shifty wideout Hassan Beydoun is a big run-after-catch threat. He also brings needed experience to the offense as the team’s leading receiver in 2020.
How will the Badgers game plan? Look for a more balanced offense and a defense on high-alert for big plays over the top. Last Saturday, Danny Davis III was the only wideout to make any impact on the game for Wisconsin. Fellow starters Kendric Pryor and Chimere Dike must see their roles increase to help alleviate pressure on the passing game.
Running back Jalen Berger was perhaps the Badgers’ most hyped player coming into 2021, but Berger didn’t record a single carry in the opener. Granted, Chez Mellusi had the hot hand, but this offense should take any help it can get and fresh faces certainly fall into that category.
Wisconsin will kick off against Eastern Michigan at 6 p.m. on Saturday. Even this early in the season the Badgers desperately need a win, and a convincing one at that. Wisconsin’s inherent talent should be enough to handle this scrappy Eagles team, but it may be a closer game than many Badger fans expect.