At their best, the 2022 Wisconsin Badgers (3-4, 1-3) have dominated. The most effective Wisconsin passing offense in recent memory has complemented the familiar great run game and defense, driving blowout wins.
Against stronger opponents, however, Wisconsin has sputtered offensively, made untimely errors in all phases of the game and fallen to Washington State, Ohio State and Illinois – with each loss embarrassing in its own right.
Saturday at Michigan State, the Badgers’ highs and lows battled one another for 60 minutes and change. The negatives reigned supreme, with the Spartans (3-4, 1-3) winning 34-28 in the second overtime.
Touchdown drives bookended four quarters of offensive futility from Wisconsin. Punts on six consecutive possessions, difficulties defending deep passes and horrendously timed turnovers spelled doom for the Badgers in their fourth loss of 2022.
Barring the Ohio State catastrophe, Wisconsin has gotten off to strong starts this season. After forcing a three-and-out, the Badgers drove 63 yards on 11 plays. Braelon Allen, having already carried five times for 28 yards, punched in a one-yard touchdown on fourth and goal to make it 7-0.
The Spartans then found themselves in an identical situation but failed to tie the game on fourth down from the one-yard line. Safety Kamo’i Latu, playing with a club on his injured right hand, stuffed running back Elijah Collins behind the line of scrimmage for a turnover on downs.
Latu, the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week after tallying two interceptions at Northwestern, continued to impress with 13 tackles — seven solo — Saturday.
Graham Mertz handed it right back to Michigan State with an ugly interception. Although pass protection had broken down, the Badger quarterback had plenty of time to make a more accurate throw or just heave it to the sideline. Instead, he threw it behind tight end Jack Eschenbach and to the defender.
Two plays later, former Badger running back Jalen Berger steamrolled safety Titus Toler and scored a 12-yard touchdown. Had Berger lasted in Wisconsin’s program, he and Allen would’ve made a formidable duo. Then again, Allen may have never received much of an opportunity if not for Berger’s departure.
Wisconsin responded with a methodical, 75-yard drive, capped off by another Allen touchdown, before going dormant.
The Badgers’ next six possessions each ended in punts. Only two of those six series saw Wisconsin gain a first down without help from defensive penalties, and even that one stalled at Michigan State’s 37. The average time of possession on the six drives was under three minutes.
Michigan State tied it at 14 with a 97-yard drive late in the third quarter before taking a seven-point lead with 7:23 left in the fourth. Guarded by an unaware Ricardo Hallman, receiver Keon Coleman turned around and snagged a back-shoulder throw at the goal line for the 27-yard touchdown.
Finally feeling a sense of apparent urgency, Wisconsin answered with a productive drive. Isaac Guerendo got it going with a kick return to midfield, Braelon Allen caught a 13-yard pass and Skyler Bell nullified consecutive false starts with a 27-yard run.
Facing fourth and goal at MSU’s three-yard line, Mertz found an open Keontez Lewis in the back corner of the end zone for a game-tying touchdown with 2:04 remaining.
Regulation expired as Spartan holder Bryce Baringer botched the snap on a 47-yard field goal attempt and threw safety John Torchio an easy interception.
Wisconsin elected to defend first and wasted no time falling behind. Receiver Jayden Reed took an end-around handoff and hit Coleman for a touchdown. Badger cornerback Jay Shaw almost recovered to make a play on the ball, but the 6’4” Coleman outjumped Shaw (5’11”) to take a 28-21 lead.
Mertz extended the game on Wisconsin’s possession, finding Chimere Dike on a third-and-10 crossing route for a 25-yard score.
Dike led Wisconsin with four catches and 45 yards, continuing his strong campaign as the team’s undisputed top receiver.
With the possession order flipping for the second overtime, Wisconsin kept the ball after Dike’s touchdown. Allen fumbled on the first snap. It was as poorly timed as Mertz’s first-half pick was poorly located.
Allen had a nice game to that point, carrying 29 times for 123 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but the fumble stands out above all else. While he was hit hard, the lapse in ball security was inexcusable.
Reed secured the Spartan victory with a 27-yard touchdown catch. A perfect, back-shoulder throw by Payton Thorne burned Hallman once again and capped off Reed’s outstanding performance. The receiver caught nine passes for 117 yards, a touchdown and the 25-yard passing score.
Searching for consistency
Predicting the Badgers’ week-to-week performance in 2022 is a fool’s game. Michigan State, with its four-game losing streak and dreadful pass defense, looked like an inviting matchup for the Badger offense, yet Mertz played quite poorly.
The quarterback’s final numbers — 14-for-24, 131 yards, two touchdowns and one interception — were unimpressive. Mertz made big throws when he absolutely had to but was a non-factor for much of the afternoon. Whereas past games have featured either the best or worst of Mertz, Saturday was a mix of the two.
Wisconsin’s secondary had shown signs of improvements in recent weeks, only to let Thorne complete 21 of 28 attempts for 265 yards and two touchdowns. Jay Shaw and Ricardo Hallman were liabilities in single coverage on the outside and Thorne took full advantage.
Last season, the Badgers rebounded from their early struggles to win seven straight games and contend for a Big Ten West title. In 2022, on the other hand, Wisconsin has yet to find its identity through seven weeks.
All this suggests a .500 season is the ceiling for this year’s Badgers, who finish their season with five games against capable Big Ten opponents. Then again, if Wisconsin suddenly patches its offensive and defensive holes, the idea of five wins to end the year isn’t unfathomable. Conversely, nobody should be too shocked if such issues continue and the Badgers finish 3-9.
This final stretch begins Saturday at home versus Purdue. Stay tuned to The Daily Cardinal and @cardinal_sports on Twitter for pregame analysis of the 2:30 p.m. contest. The Cardinal will also be distributing gameday newspapers in honor of Homecoming, so be on the lookout at Camp Randall Stadium for our coverage.