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Sunday, September 24, 2023

From PSU to ASU, Allen to Vujnovich: 2021 Wisconsin Badgers Season Recap

The Wisconsin Badgers closed out the 2021 campaign with a 20-13 victory over Arizona State in the SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl. It was a rollercoaster of a season for the Badgers, who bounced back from a miserable, 1-3 start and strung together seven consecutive wins. They looked destined for the Big Ten Championship Game until losing a winnable game in Minnesota and finishing with an 8-4 record. 

September struggles

Penn State (19) | L, 16-10 

12th-ranked Wisconsin opened the season at Camp Randall Stadium against 19th-ranked Penn State. The teams traded third-quarter touchdowns after a scoreless first half, and Wisconsin went up 10-7 early in the fourth. Penn State took a 16-10 lead with 9:17 remaining. 

Wisconsin’s final two possessions both ended in Graham Mertz interceptions, the first of which came after the Badgers had first and goal from Penn State’s one-yard line. Mertz, looking to start strong after his brief, uninspiring 2020 campaign, had two chances to win the game but couldn’t get it done. 

Eastern Michigan | W, 34-7

A week later, the Badgers coasted to a 34-7 win over Eastern Michigan. Mertz completed 14 of 17 passes for 141 yards, but Wisconsin’s running game led the way, totaling 352 yards and four touchdowns on 55 attempts, a hefty 6.4-yard average.

Running back Chez Mellusi, who ran for 265 yards and two touchdowns in the first two games, looked like the best of the group. The 5’11”, 204-pound transfer had been effective with over six yards per attempt in two years at Clemson, albeit with only 71 total carries.

Notre Dame (12) | L, 41-13

Wisconsin, now ranked 18th, had a bye week before heading to Chicago for a showdown with 12th-ranked Notre Dame and former Badger quarterback Jack Coan. The Badgers held a 13-10 lead early in the fourth quarter yet ultimately lost 41-13. After the go-ahead field goal, Wisconsin’s possessions ended as follows: Mertz fumble, missed field goal, interception, pick-six and another pick-six. 

The running game’s ineffectiveness (2.8 YPC, 78 yards) forced Mertz to lead the offense, and he finished 18/41 with five turnovers. It was clear that Wisconsin couldn’t win without running the ball well. 

Michigan (14) | L, 38-17 | Full Recap

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The Badger offense looked hapless before ending the second quarter with a three-play touchdown drive and pulling within three points. Mertz appeared to be carrying that momentum into the third quarter before suffering a chest injury and exiting the game. Wisconsin had their worst running output of the season with 43 yards on 32 carries, and quarterback Chase Wolf couldn’t move the ball against Michigan’s stout defense. 

If there was any reason for optimism after a 1-3 start, it was Wisconsin’s outstanding run defense. The Badgers had allowed 45 rushing yards per game and under two yards per carry. Jim Leonhard’s unit made opposing offenses mostly one-dimensional and looked capable of winning games for Wisconsin if Mertz and the offense cut down on the turnovers. 

Allen’s emergence and the win streak

@Illinois | W, 24-0

Wisconsin’s running game got the team back on track, as Mellusi ran for 145 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries. Freshman running back Braelon Allen, who had 12 total carries entering the game, got involved with 18 carries for 131 yards and a score. 

A once-crowded backfield was suddenly trimmed to Mellusi and Allen. Junior Isaac Guerendo, who had 160 yards through four games, suffered a season-ending leg injury before facing Illinois. Jalen Berger was considered the No. 1 running back entering 2021 but was active for only three of Wisconsin’s first five games and averaged a paltry 3.7 yards on his 24 carries. The day after the Illinois game, Berger was dismissed from the program and eventually transferred to Michigan State. 

Army | W, 20-14 | Full Recap

The Badger defense had their hands full with Army’s unique, option-heavy running attack. The Black Knights managed 179 rushing yards, although they averaged only 3.6 yards per attempt. Wisconsin appeared to be in control all night, but a late Army touchdown drive made it a one-score game with under a minute remaining. Wisconsin recovered the onside kick and closed out the victory, improving their record to 3-3. 

Allen rushed for 108 yards on only 16 carries. Wisconsin’s carries were split evenly, even though the 6’2”, 238-pound bruiser was proving himself to be a more dynamic runner than Mellusi. Linebacker Leo Chenal had an outstanding game, logging 17 total tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack, which resulted in an Army fumble. Linebacker Jack Sanborn and safety Scott Nelson both had double-digit tackles as well. 

@Purdue (25) | W, 30-13 

Wisconsin got another shot at a ranked opponent after going 0-3 in such matchups to start the season. The game was tied 13-13 at halftime before the Badgers pulled away, thanks to another excellent running performance—Allen and Mellusi combined for 289 yards and three touchdowns. Mertz had his lowest passing output of the season, completing five of eight attempts for 52 yards and losing a fumble. 

The Badger defense had five takeaways after totaling only four through their first six games. Wisconsin held Purdue to -13 rushing yards on 24 attempts, furthering their case as one of the nation’s premier run-stopping units. 

Iowa (9) | W, 27-7 | Full Recap

Previously ranked second in the country, Iowa was coming off a loss to Purdue but was a formidable opponent nonetheless. Wisconsin put forth one of their best performances of the season, holding the Hawkeyes to 156 total yards and recovering three fumbles. The Badgers jumped out to a 20-0 lead before halftime and cruised the rest of the way. Linebacker Nick Herbig was excellent, recording six tackles, 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble. 

Having beaten Iowa, Wisconsin controlled their own destiny in the Big Ten West. If the Badgers won their four remaining games against seemingly manageable opponents, they’d represent the division in the championship game. 

@Rutgers | W, 52-3 | Full Recap

The Badgers dominated once again in their fifth consecutive victory. Wisconsin had 579 yards to Rutgers’ 207, four takeaways to Rutgers’ one and 38 minutes of possession to Rutgers’ 22. Allen averaged 8.6 yards per carry for a 129-yard afternoon, while Mertz tossed three touchdowns on 16 attempts. 

Mertz’s 240 yards matched a season-high set in the forgettable Notre Dame loss, and he looked increasingly comfortable playing second fiddle to Allen. Wisconsin’s complete turnaround after the 1-3 start was partially attributable to a less daunting schedule but also due to the sophomore quarterback’s limited role in the offense. Due to lopsided scores, Mertz had made few high-pressure throws since the Michigan game. 

Northwestern | W, 35-7

A trio of second-quarter touchdowns gave Wisconsin a comfortable lead, and Northwestern didn’t get on the board until the fourth quarter. Allen continued to excel with 173 yards and three touchdowns. The defense continued generating turnovers, intercepting Wildcat quarterbacks four times. 

Mellusi was out for the season with a leg injury, and Allen set a new season-high with 25 carries. The Badgers tried involving running backs Julius Davis and Jackson Acker, but both fumbled. 

Nebraska | W, 35-28 | Full Recap

The Cornhuskers had suffered a handful of painfully close losses in 2021, and the trend continued at Wisconsin. Nebraska matched each of Wisconsin’s first four touchdowns, and quarterback Adrian Martinez, who passed for 351 yards, found success with downfield passes. Allen dashed for a game-winning, 53-yard touchdown with 3:50 remaining. Tight end Jake Ferguson’s final game at Camp Randall Stadium was a good one, as he caught eight passes for a season-best 92 yards.

The streak ends

@Minnesota | L, 23-13 | Full Recap

The game went poorly from the opening drive, as Wisconsin safety Collin Wilder was ejected on a questionable targeting call. Minnesota trailed 10-6 at halftime but outscored Wisconsin 14-3 in the third quarter, taking a 20-13 lead, which the Badgers were unable to overcome. Allen didn’t come close to an eighth straight 100-plus yard game, as he managed only 47 yards on 17 carries. Playing from behind for the first time in over a month, Mertz struggled considerably. He finished 21 of 38 for 171 yards and an interception.

Whereas a win would have resulted in a 9-3 regular season and a Big Ten West championship, the loss left Wisconsin unranked and unoccupied the following weekend. Iowa, whom the Badgers had beaten decisively, represented the division and got thrashed by Michigan. It was a disappointing outcome for a Wisconsin team that had looked unstoppable for nearly two months. 

The Las Vegas Bowl

Arizona State | W, 20-13

Wisconsin was clearly the superior team in the late-night contest. The Badgers led 14-3 early and took a 20-6 advantage into halftime. The second half was uneventful besides a third-quarter Sun Devil touchdown. Jim Leonhard’s defense effectively handled dual-threat quarterback Jayden Daniels, sacking him six times, intercepting him once and limiting him to 199 total yards. Allen clearly benefited from the month of rest, as he rushed for 159 yards on 29 carries and won the game’s MVP award. 

The Las Vegas Bowl victory was a positive ending for the 2021 Badgers. That said, if not for their shortcomings in Minnesota, Wisconsin would have played in a higher-profile, more appropriately timed bowl game. 

Player Grades


#5 | Graham Mertz | QB | Sophomore

1,958 yards | 10 TD | 11 INT | 59.5% completion | 6.9 Y/A | 121.3 passer rating

Mertz finished near the bottom of the Big Ten in most major passing statistics. His 1,958 yards ranked ninth in the conference, as did his 59.5 completion percentage. No Big Ten quarterback threw more interceptions in 2021, and Mertz also lost four of his six fumbles. Mertz rushed for four touchdowns but was overall a non-factor with his legs. The four-star recruit flashed competence, but never more, in a limited role during Wisconsin’s seven-game winning streak.

Mertz may have exhibited his ceiling as a passer this season. He clearly relies on an effective, high-volume rushing attack to keep defenders near the box and open up intermediate routes. It’s also worth noting that senior wide receiver Danny Davis and tight end Jake Ferguson will be leaving the program. Without his two leading receivers from 2021, Mertz will need to establish connections with unfamiliar targets.

#0 | Braelon Allen | RB | Freshman

1,268 yards | 12 TD | 6.8 yards/carry | 8 catches | 38 receiving yards

The 17-year-old was undoubtedly the star of Wisconsin’s offense despite having no role through four games. Allen ranked third in the Big Ten in rushing yards, though his 6.8 yards per carry were second-best in the conference. The freshman wasn’t involved as a pass-catcher, as he caught only eight passes, but that’s understandable for a first-year player getting acclimated to college football. Allen was named the Second-Team All-Big Ten running back and is a finalist for the Shaun Alexander Freshman of the Year Award.

Assuming good health, Braelon Allen should lead the Wisconsin offense for at least two more years. With an entire season of work, he could post numbers similar to those of Badger and now NFL star Jonathan Taylor. Allen’s 6’2”, 238-pound frame is unlikely to grow much as he ages, but his already-impressive speed has room for improvement, as does his pass-catching ability.

#6 | Chez Mellusi | RB | Junior

815 yards | 5 TD | 4.7 yards/carry | 7 catches | 66 receiving yards

Mellusi was a critical cog in Wisconsin’s offense for much of the season. The Clemson transfer made up for Jalen Berger’s mysterious absence by rushing for 477 yards over the first five games. Mellusi remained involved even after Allen emerged as the top running back and allowed Paul Chryst to manage Allen’s workload. What Mellusi lacked in explosiveness, he made up for inconsistency, and he was the Big Ten’s tenth-leading rusher despite playing only nine games. Like Allen, he was mostly a non-factor as a receiver.

#7 | Danny Davis | WR | Senior

32 catches | 478 yards | 2 TD | 14.9 yards/catch 

Davis led the Badgers in receiving yards yet ranked 25th in the Big Ten in that category, which is more of an indictment on Wisconsin’s passing game and offensive philosophy as a whole. The senior only played in nine games, so his 53 yards per game were a third of the team’s 160-yard average. Davis’ best play of 2021 came against Rutgers when he caught a pass in the flat and took it 72 yards for the score. 

The 6’0”, 196-pound receiver carried the ball only one time this season despite being effective on jet sweeps and reverses early in the 2020 campaign. It’s unclear why Wisconsin didn’t at least try to involve Davis in the running game, as he could’ve been a nice change of pace from Allen’s downhill running style. 

#3 | Kendrick Pryor | WR | Senior

32 catches | 412 yards | 3 TD | 13 yards/catch | 41 rushing yards

Pryor played in three more games than Davis yet posted very similar numbers. Arguably his best game in 2021 was the loss to Notre Dame, a six-catch, 69-yard performance that included a touchdown. The senior led Wisconsin receivers in rushing attempts and yards, although he only carried the ball in five different games. 

#84 | Jake Ferguson | TE | Senior

46 catches | 450 yards | 3 TD | 9.8 yards/catch 

Ferguson’s 46 catches were a career-high and led the Badgers by a wide margin. The senior recorded multiple catches in all but two games this season and was consistently one of Mertz’s more reliable targets. His best game, and the best stat line for any Wisconsin pass catcher this year, was an eight-catch, 92-yard showing in the late-season victory over Nebraska, which happened to be Ferguson’s final game at Camp Randall Stadium. Ferguson, the First-Team All-Big Ten tight end, also performed well as a run-blocker in Wisconsin’s high-volume rushing attack. 

#65 | Tyler Beach | LT | Senior

#70 | Josh Seltzner | LG | Senior

#75 | Joe Tippmann | C | Sophomore

#79 | Jack Nelson | RG | Freshman

#60 | Logan Bruss | RT| Senior

Wisconsin’s offensive line struggled in pass protection early in the season, which was a glaring issue when compounded with Mertz’s poor decision-making under pressure. The line was clearly best suited for run blocking, as they excelled once Allen took over the offense. Its stellar blocking and Allen’s elite tackle-breaking abilities resulted in an unstoppable run game for seven weeks and the Big Ten’s second-best rushing attack in 2021. The unit allowed 17 total sacks in 2021, six of which came against Michigan’s star-studded defensive front. Wisconsin’s program has long fielded a solid offensive line, and this season was no different. Seltzner, Bruss and Beach earned First, Second and Third-Team All-Big Ten honors, respectively. 


#92 | Matt Henningsen | DE | Senior

34 total tackles | 6 tackles for loss | 3.5 sacks | 1 pass defended

The fourth-year player was a steady presence on the interior of Wisconsin’s defensive line. His versatility as a defensive end in the Badgers’ base 3-4 defense and a tackle in sub-packages allowed him to lead the team’s defensive linemen with 416 regular-season snaps. The 6’3”, 291-pound Henningsen isn’t the biggest interior lineman, but his strength and athleticism made him a huge contributor to the nation’s top run defense and a Third-Team All-Big Ten defensive lineman.

#95 | Keeanu Benton | NT | Junior

24 total tackles | 5 tackles for loss | 2.5 sacks | 2 passes defended | 2 fumble recoveries

Benton finished just behind Henningsen with 403 snaps in the regular season. Nose tackle is a critical position in a 3-4 defense, and the 6’4”, 317-pound junior had a strong season there for Wisconsin. Benton often stayed on the field as a tackle in pass-rush situations—he’s not much of a pass rusher but earned a couple of sacks when quarterbacks stepped up too far in the pocket. He was a Second-Team All-Big Ten defensive lineman in 2021. 

#99 | Isaiah Mullens | DE | Junior

24 total tackles | 2.5 tackles for loss | 2 sacks | 1 pass defended

Mullens was less of a staple than Henningsen or Benton on the defensive line, totaling 319 regular-season snaps. The junior spent most of his time as a defensive end in the base 3-4, but he did see some snaps in other packages. Mullens had a much larger role in 2021 after playing just four total games in his first two seasons, and he could lead the defensive line in snaps next season with Henningsen gone. 

#19 | Nick Herbig | OLB | Sophomore

61 total tackles | 14.5 tackles for loss | 9 sacks | 4 passes defended | 2 forced fumbles

Herbig was one of the Big Ten’s most prolific edge defenders in 2021, ranking fourth in sacks and seventh in tackles for loss. The sophomore’s pass-rushing success was a bit sporadic, as he logged three multi-sack games. However, his pass-deflecting abilities made him impactful even when he didn’t reach opposing quarterbacks. Herbig’s overall presence was evident all season, and he recorded at least three tackles in all but one game. He led all Badger defenders with 597 snaps and should be a huge part of Jim Leonhard’s defense for at least one more year. 

#57 | Jack Sanborn | ILB | Senior

89 total tackles | 16 tackles for loss | 5 sacks | 1 fumble recovery

The First-Team All-Big Ten linebacker was dependable as ever in his final season with Wisconsin. Paul Chryst’s coaching staff also named him the team’s defensive player of the year. Sanborn logged three games with double-digit tackles and ranked fourth in the conference with his 16 tackles for loss. Five sacks was an impressive total for an off-the-ball linebacker like Sanborn, further proving his versatility and immense value to the Badgers. A handful of younger linebackers, including Jack’s brother Bryan, will attempt to fill Sanborn’s 584 snaps next season. Sanborn will be one of the more highly-regarded inside linebackers in this year’s NFL Draft. 

#5 | Leo Chenal | ILB | Junior

115 total tackles | 18.5 tackles for loss | 8 sacks | 2 forced fumbles

Leo Chenal: 2021 Butkus Award Finalist, Jimmy Demetral Team MVP, First-Team All-Big Ten linebacker and Butkus-Fitzgerald Big Ten Linebacker of the Year. Run or pass, on or off the ball, Chenal was a terror for opposing offenses this season. He boasts the rare athleticism to consistently rush the passer from an inside linebacker position, and those skills were on full display in 2021. Further, Chenal was dominant throughout games and didn’t appear to lose any steam in the fourth quarter. His statistics and snap count of 508 would have been even more impressive had COVID-19 not sidelined him for Wisconsin’s first two games. 

Chenal’s NFL Draft declaration confirmed the end of his career in a Badger uniform. That said, his days of terrorizing quarterbacks are unlikely over. 

#41 | Noah Burks | OLB | Senior

38 total tackles | 7.5 tackles for loss | 3.5 sacks | 1 INT | 3 passes defended | 1 fumble recovery

Burks enjoyed a strong 2021 season with the Badgers. He’s a persistent pass rusher who, opposite Herbig, effectively sets the edge of Wisconsin’s formidable 3-4 defensive front. Burks was most impactful at or behind the line of scrimmage, but he occasionally dropped into coverage without being a liability. 

#21 | Caesar Williams | CB | Senior

24 total tackles | 3 INT | 1 TD | 9 passes defended

Like Beach and Henningsen, Williams was Third-Team All-Big Ten at his position. The senior’s three takeaways came in a three-game span later in the season and were a mix of good coverage and poor throws. While Wisconsin’s pass defense had its ups and downs in 2021, Williams rarely allowed big plays on the outside. He was flagged for defensive pass interference four times. Williams and his 580 snaps, most among Badger cornerbacks, will be missed as he moves on from Wisconsin and potentially to the NFL. 

#9 | Scott Nelson | S | Senior

58 total tackles | 1 INT | 1 TD | 4 tackles for loss | 7 passes defended | 0.5 sacks

The fourth-year safety rarely left the field for Wisconsin’s defense, playing 575 snaps and far more than any other Badger safety. As indicated by his numbers, Nelson was heavily involved in coverage and run defense. He was responsible for a few defensive breakdowns and deep completions throughout the season, such as Penn State receiver Jahan Dotson’s 49-yard touchdown

#18 | Collin Wilder | S | Senior

32 total tackles | 3 INT | 1 tackle for loss | 6 passes defended | 1 forced fumble 

Wilder joined Nelson on the field in two-safety packages and, as suggested by Minnesota’s passing success after he was ejected, played a valuable role in Wisconsin’s secondary. That targeting call was his only penalty of 2021. His best game was at Purdue, where he recorded seven tackles, an interception and a forced fumble (which he recovered).

#1 | Faion Hicks | CB | Senior

28 total tackles | 10 passes defended

Hicks played opposite Williams throughout the season as Wisconsin’s second cornerback. He wasn’t a liability but struggled in coverage at times, namely the Notre Dame game. Hicks committed defensive pass interference on three times. Like the rest of the Badger starting secondary in 2021, Hicks will move on from Wisconsin and enter the NFL Draft. 

Special Teams

#19 | Collin Larsh | K | Senior

17/22 field goals | 39/40 extra points

Of Larsh’s five missed field goals, the most costly came early in the fourth quarter at Minnesota, when he could have narrowed Wisconsin’s deficit to four points. He had three touchbacks and sent one of his 25 kickoffs out of bounds. 

#38 | Andy Vujnovich | P | Senior

46.4 yards/punt | 16 punts downed inside the 20

Vujnovich didn't attempt a ton of punts this season but ranked second in the Big Ten in average punt distance. 

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