With the loss, the Badgers now drop to 3-4 on the season, ending the honeymoon of the Jim Leonhard era and placing the team back into urgency mode as they host the 5-2 Purdue Boilermakers on Saturday.
Why did the Badgers stall last Saturday after a strong start? Do they have the capacity to right the ship at another crucial time in the season?
Last weekend, Wisconsin scored twice early, compiling an 11-play, 63-yard touchdown drive, and a nine-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that gave them quick momentum, despite an untimely Graham Mertz interception near his own endzone.
However, after 14 early points, the Badgers’ offense remained stagnant for the majority of the game.
After allowing Graham Mertz to dropback five times on first down during the Badgers’ first two drives against Northwestern, Wisconsin reverted back to a predictable gameplan against Michigan State.
Mertz had just two dropbacks on first downs during the entire first half. This caused the Spartans to quickly catch on and the defense became aggressive after Wisconsin’s two early scoring drives.
As a result, Bobby Engram’s offense had three straight near three-and-outs following the scores, losing Wisconsin’s early momentum and allowing Michigan State’s offense to creep back into the game.
During a 12-play, 48-yard drive in the second half, Engram changed it up, mixing in the passes and runs on first down. However, the offense again stalled after three straight incompletions from Mertz on consecutive plays – a recurring theme.
Wisconsin punted on six consecutive drives before scoring a touchdown on their final drive of the fourth quarter to tie the score 21-21, leading them to overtime after the defense got a crucial stop.
The Badgers attempted a similar approach on their first drive of overtime with three consecutive Mertz passes.
After a near-interception on first down and a poor overthrow to the flat on second down, Mertz fired a bullet to his favorite target Chimere Dike on a crosser, letting his receiver do the remainder of the work for the game-tying touchdown in overtime.
However, Braelon Allen fumbled on the first play from scrimmage during the ensuing drive, costing the Badgers the game.
Last weekend, it seemed as if the Badgers' offense and play calling were finally clicking in unison, but offensive coordinator Bobby Engram reverted back to a run-heavy approach, which limited the chance to gain consistent traction offensively through the air or on the ground.
When asked about the offensive stagnation, Engram admitted that he needed to do a better job of mixing up the play calling on Tuesday.
“Yeah, [the offense was stagnant in the second half]. We got to do some things to move the football. Part of the problem is that we got to better on first and second down. We got ourselves into some third and longs there in the second half,” Engram explained.
“I think [we reached] third and nine four or five times in a row and that’s tough to overcome. So, we gotta do better on first and second down and I gotta do a [better] job at continuing to mix it up,” the offensive coordinator added.
While the run-heavy approach on first down didn’t affect the Badgers on their early drives, Michigan State quickly adapted, bringing additional aggression and personnel towards the run, thwarting several Wisconsin drives as they attempted to continue the same offensive approach.
Then, Engram struggled to find a true balance as the game continued, occasionally either calling an array of passes together or predictably choosing to run on first down.
Once he found the correct balance, it was too late – Wisconsin had to come from behind in order to tie the game, before fumbling during their second possession in overtime.
Overall, Engram had a strong formula against Northwestern that could’ve translated into success against later opponents. The offensive identity displayed in Evanston will need to be reincorporated if Wisconsin is to rebound against Purdue.
Otherwise, with a strong secondary and an opponent not afraid to call necessary blitzes, the play calling and execution will play a vital role in Wisconsin’s offensive success during Week 8.