Wisconsin suffered its third loss of 2021 in a 38-17 blowout Saturday against 14th-ranked Michigan.
Much like a week ago, the Badger offense was ineffective, the defense allowed big passing plays and the special teams units made sloppy mistakes — all of which contributed to another lopsided defeat.
Both quarterback Graham Mertz and tight end Jake Ferguson left the game in the third quarter with apparent rib and chest injuries. Their statuses will be closely monitored leading up to next week’s game at Illinois.
The game started dismally for Wisconsin’s offense, as they managed to lose seven total yards while going three-and-out on each of their first four possessions. For a unit looking to bounce back from an uninspiring showing against Notre Dame, the first 20 minutes against Michigan could not have gone worse.
Jim Leonhard’s defense was on the field for much of the first half but kept Wisconsin in the game, most notably holding Michigan to a field goal after a muffed punt set up the Wolverines at Wisconsin’s 5-yard line. The defense did allow a 34-yard touchdown on a flea flicker that froze safety Scott Nelson near the line of scrimmage and allowed quarterback Cade McNamara to find receiver Cornelius Johnson fairly open in the end zone.
Mertz didn’t complete his first pass until 9:29 remained in the second quarter, when he connected with Ferguson on a 19-yard strike and put some space between the Badgers and their own goal line. The first down kicked off a 78-yard drive that burned over seven minutes and got Wisconsin into field goal range to make it a 10-3 game.
After a Michigan field goal increased the lead to 13-3 with 20 seconds remaining before halftime, Wisconsin pulled off a shocking three-play scoring drive. Wide receiver Chimere Dike caught two passes for 54-yards and an impressive, toe-tapping touchdown on the left edge of the end zone. The throw was arguably Mertz’s best of 2021, as he saw Dike running a slot fade against single coverage and delivered a perfectly-placed ball.
The much-maligned signal caller was suddenly 8-for-14 with 115 passing yards and was visibly thrilled about it, hyping up the Camp Randall Stadium crowd on his way to the locker room.
His afternoon would end on the first possession of the second half, however, as blitzing defensive back Daxton Hill sprinted in unblocked and absolutely drilled Mertz’s midsection. He required help off the field and did not return, leaving the second half in backup quarterback Chase Wolf’s hands.
With Wolf under center, the game was essentially over for Wisconsin. Michigan sent heavy pressure his way and he had no answer, often bouncing around in the collapsing pocket before throwing the ball away, if possible. He fumbled on his second possession, a play in which he looked completely helpless. The absence of Ferguson as a quick, over-the-middle target certainly didn’t help Wolf’s cause. He finished 3-for-8 passing with 52 yards, an interception and a garbage-time touchdown, as well as the fumble.
Both teams entered the game with established, run-heavy offenses, but neither ran the ball with much success. Wisconsin’s running backs totaled 60 yards on 23 carries, while Michigan’s ball carriers managed a meager 2.5-yard average on 44 attempts. Running back Blake Corum, who was ninth in the FBS with 475 rushing yards entering Saturday, totaled just 46 yards on 15 attempts.
A glaring issue for Wisconsin in recent weeks has been the abundance of special teams miscues.
Against Notre Dame, failures to catch punts and miscommunication on a kickoff resulted in poor field position on a number of drives. The Fighting Irish also returned a kickoff for a go-ahead touchdown.
This week, the muffed punt spotted Michigan three points and an out-of-bounds kickoff set up the Wolverines at the 35-yard line, leading to another field goal. If the Badgers are to succeed with such a sluggish offense, they’ll have to clean up all aspects of their special teams.
Another concerning development for the Badgers, which the Fox Sports broadcast team pointed out on Saturday, is the lack of urgency for opposing offenses.
With Wisconsin’s offense so hapless, opponents are happy to punt the ball away and play defense. This issue may not be entirely fixable in 2021, but a little more offensive competence would certainly inspire opponents to take more risks and perhaps turn the ball over more often.
It’s unclear whether Mertz or Ferguson will be available to play next Saturday. Mertz’s absence would presumably put Wolf in the starting role again. If Ferguson misses any games, backup tight end Clay Cundiff, who caught a 25-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter against Michigan, would see more opportunities.
Now 1-3 on the season, Wisconsin appears to be heading towards one of its worst seasons in recent memory. Eight games remain on the schedule and there’s plenty of time to turn things around, but this year’s Badgers have done little to suggest they can compete with the Big 10’s more talented programs. The team will travel to Illinois for an afternoon matchup next Saturday.