The Illinois Fighting Illini (4-1, 1-1) embarrassed the Wisconsin Badgers (2-3, 0-2) with a 34-10 win Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.
Badly needing to rebound from the Ohio State loss and collect their first conference win of the season, the Badgers made a catalog of mistakes in all phases of the game, resulting in a uniquely ugly performance against a strong yet unranked visitor.
Now, Wisconsin sits at the bottom of the Big Ten West and with a tough schedule ahead, the 2022 season appears to be a lost cause.
For a brief moment Saturday morning, the Badgers looked like a competitive football team. They elected to receive the opening kickoff and in just three minutes and thirty-nine seconds, drove down the field for seven points. Running back Isaac Guerendo was the star of the drive, beginning it with a 38-yard kick return and ending with a 21-yard touchdown reception.
Graham Mertz, after going four-of-four for 54 yards on the opening drive, threw a third-down interception on the ensuing possession.
Illinois took over at Wisconsin’s 16-yard line. The Badgers appeared to have gotten a stop on fourth-and-goal from the one, but a Jay Shaw pass interference gave the Fighting Illini new life. One play later, quarterback Tommy Devito ran it in to tie the game at seven.
Nate Van Zelst then gave Wisconsin a 10-7 lead with a 39-yard field goal.
The Badgers forced a punt and, rather than extend the three-point lead, Mertz threw another third-down pick to set up Illinois with good field position. Aided by pass interference calls on Jay Shaw and Justin Clark, the Fighting Illini drove down for another DeVito rushing touchdown and led 14-10.
Questionable play-calling suffocated Wisconsin’s next possession as Braelon Allen, lined up in the wildcat formation on third-and-two, threw an incomplete pass. The Big Ten Network commentators joked that Allen, having run for zero yards on six carries to that point, needs to work on his passing.
For all the issues plaguing the Badgers through five games, Allen’s throwing accuracy is not one of them. The coaching staff, tasked with maximizing the talent on the roster, is failing miserably if it calls a running back pass on a critical third-down.
Trading punts took the teams to halftime. Wisconsin had played quite poorly – running for 14 total yards, twice turning the ball over and committing numerous penalties, yet the game remained winnable.
Illinois began the half with a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, once again scoring on a DeVito keeper.
Isaac Guerendo, who has been a positive on special teams this season, fumbled the kickoff and gifted Illinois a field goal. Dean Engram fumbled a punt in the first half, but a fortuitous bounce toward the sideline bailed him out. In this case, however, Guerendo wasn’t as lucky.
Now trailing 24-10, the Badgers desperately needed points. Guerendo suffered an apparent leg injury on his next kick return, although he would later return to the game. On third down, Mertz targeted an open Keontez Lewis near the sideline, but his high throw forced the 6-foot-2-inch wideout to jump. Hit on his way down, Lewis both dropped the pass and got injured.
Like Guerendo, Lewis ultimately appeared to be fine, but the play exhibited the dangerous consequences of Mertz’s poor accuracy.
Running back Chase Brown broke off a 49-yard touchdown run a few plays later, putting the game well out of reach for Wisconsin’s inept offense. Brown ran for 129 yards Saturday and still leads all of college football with 733 rushing yards.
The next drive ended with a similarly off-target Mertz throw. Targeting an uncovered Skylar Bell on fourth-and-two, the Badger quarterback threw the ball too far near the sideline for his receiver to get a foot down.
An uneventful fourth quarter closed out the 34-10 defeat for Wisconsin.
What went wrong?
Simply put, everything.
The ground game, which carried Wisconsin through so many games over the years, was truly a non-factor with two total yards on 24 attempts. None of Allen, Guerendo or Chez Mellusi could find any running room all afternoon.
Repetitive, uncreative play-calling did the running backs no favors. Before falling behind 34-10, 11 of Wisconsin’s 16 first-down snaps were runs. The net yardage on those 10 runs? Including Tyler Beach and Jack Eschenbach holding calls in the second quarter, Wisconsin totaled -13 yards on first-down rushing plays.
Such predictability combined with Mertz’s struggles make stacking the box a no-brainer for opposing defenses.
Wisconsin’s offensive line had a very tough afternoon. Along with opening so few running lanes, the unit allowed Mertz to be sacked five times.
The junior quarterback seems to have taken several steps in the wrong direction these past two games. Mertz was poised, accurate and productive to begin the season, but looked lost versus Ohio State and Illinois.
He finished 17-of-32 for 206 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions, and many of his incompletions were wildly inaccurate. Intent on stopping the run, defenses are daring Mertz to throw the ball — and he’s having little success.
In terms of yardage, the Badger defense had a decent afternoon. DeVito passed for just 167 yards and was sacked twice. However, four defensive pass interference calls, some of which were questionable, extended Fighting Illini possessions and led to points.
Apart from Keeanu Benton’s two sacks, Wisconsin didn’t record any quarterback hits. Quarterbacks enjoying clean pockets has been a recurring theme versus the Badgers this season and, unless someone besides Benton or Nick Herbig emerges, it will surely continue.
Illinois averaged 3.3 yards per carry and totaled 137 yards on the ground. Wisconsin looked strong against the run until Brown’s 49-yard score. Inside linebackers Jordan Turner and Maema Njongmeta both totaled eight tackles, continuing their strong campaigns.
What’s most frustrating about Saturday’s loss is, unlike the Ohio State game, it isn’t attributable to a significant talent gap. Illinois is no recruiting powerhouse — they simply played a cleaner game.
Offensive stagnancy, defensive penalties and special teams blunders all contributed to a truly dismal effort by the Badgers.
Wisconsin has now lost to each of the three Power Five opponents it has played this season. Illinois State is an FCS team and New Mexico State might as well be, so it’s tough to be impressed with those blowout victories. The sample size is growing to suggest the Badgers simply aren’t a competitive team in 2022, and upcoming opponents Northwestern, Michigan State, Purdue, Maryland and Iowa should be eager for the opportunity to play Wisconsin.
While a successful season may now be unfeasible for the Badgers, a respectable one isn’t, and clawing their way back to a decent record starts this coming Saturday at Northwestern, where Wisconsin will face the Wildcats (1-4, 1-1) at 2:30 p.m.