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Friday, September 24, 2021
Illinois Wisconsin Football
Wisconsin Badgers offense huddles during an NCAA college football game against the Illinois Fighting Illini Friday, Oct. 23, 2020, in Madison, Wis. The Badgers won 45-7. (Photo by David Stluka/Wisconsin Athletic Communications)

Eastern Michigan: The least likely proving ground

Well, I think it’s safe to say this wasn’t expected. After a long spring and summer of blaming COVID-19, the stealing of plays, the lack of fans and the oddity that was 2020 as a whole for last year’s abysmal season, the Badgers were given a chance to play without any of those factors and they looked the exact same.

Though a disappointing result for Wisconsin, there’s still plenty of hope for the football team to achieve their season goals as long as they make the necessary adjustments.

This week, the Badgers play host to Eastern Michigan and should have plenty of leeway to fine-tune those adjustments in what will hopefully be more of a glorified scrimmage, as Wisconsin opened up nearly four-touchdown favorites over the Eagles. Specifically, I’m looking for significant changes out of the backfield.

Graham Mertz hasn’t been the same since beating up on the less-than-sensational Illinois and Michigan last season, but that’s okay. As nice as it would be for Mertz to be the Messiah that Badger fans thought he would be after seven touchdowns through two games last season, it might be time to realize that he won’t be that — but that’s something we can live with. Wisconsin hasn’t had a star quarterback since Russell Wilson in 2012 and has done just fine without one. More importantly, in my opinion, I want to see the running backs, Chez Mellusi AND Jalen Berger, come alive this week. 

Chez Mellusi had an OKAY performance against Penn State, 121 yards on 31 carries and a touchdown, but wasn’t the quality of halfback that Badger fans have come to expect — e.g., Jonathan Taylor, Melvin Gordon, Montee Ball, etc. On the other hand, Berger was excellent last year out of the backfield but did not see the field against the Nittany Lions for an undisclosed reason. At the end of the day, I don’t care if it’s Mellusi, Berger or a combination of the two, or anybody else for that matter; the Wisconsin offense only works when there is production from its running back(s). If the Badgers want to accomplish anything this year, the backfield needs to start clicking, and it needs to start against Eastern Michigan.

After the Badgers take down Eastern Michigan (yes, I’m calling it. If they lose, feel free to come after me for jinxing it), they’ll earn a week off before facing Notre Dame in Soldier Field on Sept. 25 in what has been dubbed the Jack Coan — or J.J. Post — Bowl following both of their transfers to ND from UW. Wins over the Eagles and Irish could change the tide of the team. A tide that’s been wary ever since Graham Mertz’s positive COVID test in late October 2020.

The silver lining through all of this is Wisconsin’s schedule. A loss to Penn State wasn’t necessarily predicted, but it also hadn’t been chalked up as a guaranteed win before kickoff. With Minnesota also losing week one, star running back Mo Ibrahim being done for the season and home games against Iowa and Northwestern, the Badgers are still in a great position to win the weaker Big Ten West and will probably find themselves playing Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship in December. If that happens, the Badgers would be all but guaranteed a spot in the Rose Bowl, given that Ohio State rolls through their season as expected, as either the Big Ten champions (highly unlikely) or the best Big Ten team not in the College Football Playoff (much more likely).

That’s all way in the future, though. Wisconsin has way too many more pressing issues before they worry about beating Ohio State or even Notre Dame, for that matter. Without some massive improvements — whether that be to Mertz’s play, the offensive line’s blocking, the defensive secondary or the play calling — the Badgers won’t have to worry about the Rose Bowl in January, the Big Ten Championship in December or any postseason games for that matter. 

It’s easy to blame first game rust, but after a season pleading to get back to the “normal” we’re at now, the performance last Saturday needed to be better from head to toe. If Wisconsin can get a decent performance from Mertz, an excellent performance from the backfield and a defense that looks more like it has in previous years, the Badgers just might gain enough confidence to still make this season one to remember. If not, however, it might be back-to-back ones to forget.

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