The Wisconsin Badgers clearly experienced an offensive shift during their Week 6 42-7 rout of the Northwestern Wildcats, utilizing newer concepts and a balanced gameplan that led to career games for quarterback Graham Mertz and wideout Chimere Dike.
In their first week without Paul Chryst’s input on the offensive side of the ball, the Badgers finally reincorporated the play-action game as a major aspect of their offensive approach.
Offensive coordinator Bobby Engram acknowledged that the team was looking to increase its usage of play-action in recent weeks, and the dividends paid off.
Quarterback Graham Mertz consistently had open targets, leading to a 299-yard, five-touchdown day for the junior quarterback.
“I think we spoke a couple weeks ago of trying to do more [play-action], and to be honest with you guys, when we talked, it was something we felt we needed to do,” Engram said. “We tried to give the guys the best chance of success and keep the defense off balance.”
While Engram admitted that the coaching staff spoke about the usage of play-action weeks ago, the change was finally seen against Northwestern, and Mertz clearly looked more comfortable in the pocket as a result.
With Engram under the helm as the main offensive face of the coaching staff, there was a legitimate change missing in the two weeks prior, as the offense looked stale and predictable.
The loss of Chryst and his presence means that Engram is now the loudest voice in the room, but he didn’t take all the credit for this week’s offensive spark.
Instead, the first-year coordinator shed light on the work that his coaching staff did in preparation for this game.
“I think it’s different because [Paul Chryst’s] not here. But our offensive staff, that’s really what I want to put the attention on. Those guys did a great job. They’re all smart. They’re really good football coaches that really understand our team and personnel, so we just try and put the best gameplan that gives our guys the best chance,” he said.
Engram’s comments beg the question: where was that type of gameplan before?
In addition to play-action, the Badgers involved the pistol formation into their gameplan this past week.
Engram believed the integration of the pistol gave the defense another look to worry about.
“[The pistol] is a different look, No. 1, for the defense,” Engram said. “It allows the [running] back to get downhill. You can still do the play-actions off of that, so just another way to throw a different look at the defense.”
As for why the execution was different in Week 6, Engram pointed out the additional practice reps, which have increased the comfortability of running certain plays.
“I think it’s reps. Those are things we’ve been repping since the spring. [A] lot of it carried over to fall camp. We always try to formation [and] motion shift. I think when guys feel comfortable with what they’ve done, they’re going to do it well,” he added.
It appears that Engram wants to ensure he puts his players in the best place to succeed, hence the limited gameplan over the first few weeks of the season.
His choice is sensible given the roster turnover that Wisconsin faced offensively, alongside a new playbook being incorporated.
Now, as the season prolongs and the offense gets more comfortable with newer concepts, the Badgers may continue to develop their offensive gameplan under Engram, which speaks to the potential that this unit has if they can properly execute.
Execution is vital, ranging from the offensive linemen to the quarterback to the skill position players, and all three aspects must correlate well with each other to create a sustainable offense — especially with Wisconsin’s scheme.
In the running game, the pulling guards must work in cohesion with the centers and tackles to create the holes, while the running backs must identify those holes and run downhill.
In the passing game, the offensive line must give Mertz enough time to execute the quick-game attack to help out his front five.
Overall, with more comfort in the offense, it appears that all three aspects are beginning to click together and the product was finally seen against Northwestern.
That leads us back to the main question: How will the Wisconsin offense look without Paul Chryst?
The answer? A potentially dangerous balanced attack, but one that will require patience.
Engram has stressed the importance of having a balanced attack since he took over as the offensive coordinator in the spring. However, to truly embody those words, Wisconsin will need to operate out of its full playbook, which will only come once those practice reps are executed well.
It may be very likely that Wisconsin won’t see the big-picture dividends that their offense can provide until 2023, when Mertz enters his senior year and the younger offensive players gain another year in Engram’s system, should he return.
However, in a year of “rebuilding,” Engram should continue to implement different plays and find some form of consistency with his offense in 2022 to understand what to work with in the offseason when Wisconsin can reestablish some form of normalcy with returning players.
Much is unclear about the Wisconsin program following the departure of Chryst, beginning with recruiting and the transfer portal and ending with the future of interim head coach Jim Leonhard.
Last week, in Leonhard’s introductory press conference, new athletic director Chris McIntosh shared confidence in his new interim head coach, but acknowledged that he would conduct a full search at the end of the year.
“I think I owe it to this program to do a full search when the time is right,” said McIntosh.
However, despite the more aggressive tendencies of McIntosh, the one area of stability for the immediate future should be Engram, whose offensive scheme holds enough intrigue to carry over to 2023 when fully implemented.
The offense should continue to implement a balanced offensive approach, utilizing play-action opportunities to scheme open receivers for Graham Mertz via the pistol or other formations, while reaping the benefits in the running game with Braelon Allen.
Despite the embarrassing losses in Weeks 4 and 5, it appears that the new-look offense is heading in the right direction, and perhaps the change in leadership was the necessary move to ignite that spark.