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Tuesday, April 23, 2024
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2022 in review: Evaluating Wisconsin’s offensive starters

With Wisconsin’s roller coaster season now in the past, our football beat writer analyzed each offensive player’s individual performance throughout the 2022 campaign.

The Wisconsin Badgers finished the 2022 regular season with a pedestrian 6-6 record (4-5 in Big Ten). Fielding a catalog of new starters after graduating so many seniors in 2021, the Badgers often suffered from maddening inconsistencies in all three phases of the game. 

Overshadowing their on-field successes and failures, however, was the uncertain future direction of the program. Defensive Coordinator Jim Leonhard was named interim head coach after a 2-3 start prompted Paul Chryst’s firing

Widespread speculation and reports indicated Leonhard would be named head coach following the regular season, but the university surprisingly hired Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell. With hope, Fickell will elevate Wisconsin’s recruitment efforts and make Madison an attractive transfer destination, both of which would revive the Badgers as contenders in the Big Ten. 

Still, in reflecting on the 2022 campaign, it’s important to evaluate key starters’ contributions and consider their roles going forward, if any. Let’s start with the offense.

Note: All statistics cover the 12 regular-season games and do not include the Guaranteed Rate Bowl.

QB | Graham Mertz | Jr.

57.3 completion percentage | 2,136 yards | 178 yards per game | 19 TD | 10 INT

An easy start to the schedule brought out the best of Mertz, who threw six touchdowns to two interceptions and led Wisconsin to a 2-1 start. He threw the ball downfield more confidently and effectively than ever despite missing his three leading receivers from 2021. 

Concerns began in Week 4 at Ohio State, where he opened with a brutal pick six and finished with 11 completions for 94 yards. From that point on, Mertz struggled against competent defenses and in big moments. 

In the Nov. 12 loss at Iowa, the junior completed 45.7 percent of his attempts and threw two picks, failing to move the ball against a strong Hawkeye secondary. The defeat wasted an excellent showing by Wisconsin’s defense and silenced any remaining hopes of a Big Ten Championship Game appearance.

Finally, when the only thing left at stake was Paul Bunyan’s Axe, Mertz managed 170 yards versus Minnesota. It was a winnable game, but inaccuracy all afternoon and a fourth-quarter pick spelled doom for Wisconsin’s offense. Mertz also missed part of the final drive due to injury.

Even at his best, it’s unclear whether the four-star recruit from Kansas ever reached his ceiling. In most statistical categories, Mertz ranked near the middle of the Big Ten. Perhaps in Florida, where Mertz is transferring for a final college season, he’ll enjoy a change of scenery and find consistency. 

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RB | Braelon Allen | So.

1,126 rushing yards | 5.4 yards per carry | 10 TD | 104 receiving yards 

Allen’s 1,126 yards ranked fourth in the Big Ten and, by all accounts, indicated another excellent season. That said, for a handful of reasons, the Second-Team All-Big Ten running back wasn’t as explosive or consistent as in 2021, when he ran for 6.8 yards per carry and 1,268 yards despite having no role in the early weeks. 

For one, Allen wasn’t entirely healthy. A shoulder injury versus Purdue and a leg issue slowed down the 238-pound back and reduced the number of dazzling breakaway runs he made a habit of as a freshman. 

Another factor was the depth behind Allen. In 2021, he split snaps with Chez Mellusi — then, once Mellusi tore his ACL, nobody. This season, Allen shared the backfield with Mellusi and Isaac Guerendo, both of whom brought different skills to the table. Make no mistake, the lighter workload was essential as Allen dealt with injuries and inched closer toward a possible NFL career, but it also limited his production to some extent. 

Allen also played through speculations of his dissatisfaction with Chryst’s firing and of his intentions to transfer. Whether he seriously considered leaving is unclear, but the rumors were surely on his mind late in the season. Allen will be back with Wisconsin in 2023, as he confirmed Dec. 6.  

RB | Chez Mellusi | Sr.

49.5 rushing yards per game | 4.1 yards per carry | 1 TD

Mellusi was healthy to begin the season and, like last year before getting hurt, had a defined role as Allen’s backup. While nothing about his game stands out — he’s not particularly fast, he doesn’t break tackles and he provides nothing as a receiver — Mellusi continued to be a reliable runner, good for about four yards a carry. 

Midseason wrist surgery cost Mellusi four games. He returned and proved most useful when Allen was banged up in November, totaling 173 rushing yards on 40 attempts in Wisconsin’s final two games. 

Mellusi will remain with the Badgers in 2023, presumably filling a similar role as he has the past couple years. 

RB | Isaac Guerendo | Sr.

385 rushing yards | 6.0 yards per carry | 115 receiving yards | 6 total TD

Finally healthy for a full season, Guerendo was an unheralded star for the 2022 Badgers. Whereas Allen and Mellusi offered more of a north-south running approach, Guerendo boasted the speed to get to the edge and make explosive plays. He also displayed the strength to break tackles.

Guerendo broke off an 89-yard touchdown versus Maryland, as well as a 54-yarder against Purdue. 

Perhaps his greatest contribution came as a kick returner, a position he received honorable mention for on the All-Big Ten team. Guerendo ranked fourth in the Big Ten with 23.9 yards per return, consistently giving Wisconsin’s offense, which often needed the help, great field position.

Having entered the transfer portal, Guerendo will be moving on from Wisconsin. 

WR | Chimere Dike | Jr.

44 receptions | 653 receiving yards | 6 total TD

The departure of longtime Badgers Danny Davis and Kendrick Pryor presumed to elevate Dike to a massive role in 2022, and that it did. Dike led the Badgers in catches, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. His 653 yards ranked eighth in the Big Ten. 

He posted a couple of 100-yard games, more notably against Northwestern when he tallied 10 catches, 185 yards and a trio of touchdowns. That performance especially stands out in an era of generally poor Wisconsin passing offenses.

Dike’s veteran presence will be crucial next season as the Badgers develop their young receivers and try to build a reliable passing attack — whoever ends up starting at quarterback. The addition of Offensive Coordinator Phil Longo from UNC will surely help as well. 

WR | Skyler Bell | Fr.

29 receptions | 439 receiving yards | 116 rushing yards | 5 TD 

Entering the season, it didn’t look like Bell would have a huge role in 2022, but the lack of contribution from receivers like Dean Engram and Markus Allen made Bell one of Mertz’s top targets. He ranked second behind Dike in receptions, yards and receiving touchdowns.

Bell’s most outstanding performance came Week 3 against New Mexico State, whom he thrashed for 108 yards and a pair of touchdowns on four catches. 

He made an impact as a runner too, taking the occasional jet sweep or reverse for sizable gains. In the Maryland win, Bell broke free for a 36-yard run and totaled 52 yards on three carries. In games like these where the passing attack was a non-factor — largely due to the wet, windy conditions — Bell still helped Wisconsin’s offense.

Further development and a more consistent quarterback in Madison could lead to an excellent sophomore season for Bell.

WR | Keontez Lewis | So.

17 receptions | 297 receiving yards | 3 TD

The Week 2 loss to Washington State suggested Lewis would be a prominent deep threat this season. He caught two passes for 62 yards and drew a pass interference call downfield. Combined with Mertz’s accurate deep balls, the UCLA transfer looked capable of stretching the field, unlike most Badger wideouts in recent years. 

It didn’t quite work out that way. Lewis failed to exceed two catches or 22 yards in any of the next six games while Dike and Bell carried the load in Wisconsin’s passing game. He did finish the season on a strong note with eight catches, 138 yards and a touchdown across the last three contests, so maybe that will translate to more production in 2023. 

WR | Dean Engram | Jr.

13 receptions | 152 receiving yards

In 2021, Engram excelled as a slot cornerback and was one of the most valuable players on Wisconsin’s defense. He switched to wide receiver in the offseason, joining his father, Offensive Coordinator Bobby Engram, as intriguing additions to the Badger offense. 

The transition went poorly. Engram was a non-factor all season and appeared to have no rapport with Mertz — three of his catches and 63 of his yards came on one garbage-time drive versus New Mexico State with Myles Burkett under center. The occasional struggles of Wisconsin’s cornerbacks only highlighted Engram’s new, minimal role. 

Engram disappointed as a punt returner as well. His 4.8 yards per return ranked 10th in the Big Ten, and his longest return was an unimpressive 16 yards. Engram rarely looked comfortable fielding punts and the results backed that up.

Would Engram entertain a return to his former position? If hoping to maximize his value on the roster, Wisconsin’s coaching staff should certainly consider it. 

TE | Hayden Rucci | Jr.

4 receptions | 47 receiving yards

Jack of all trades tight end Jake Ferguson left a sizable void when he graduated from the program and moved on to the NFL. It was clear Rucci would get plenty of snaps, mainly for his blocking skills, and he did just that. The junior was an effective run blocker on the edge and helped power a strong Wisconsin ground game. 

Clay Cundiff, meanwhile, was to be more of a receiving threat, but he broke his leg against Ohio State after a great start to the season. Rucci still failed to emerge as a viable pass-catcher, tallying nothing but a pair of receptions in Weeks 1 and 3. 

While a valuable asset in the Braelon Allen-centric offense, Rucci lacks the athleticism and skill set to be an every-down tight end. 

TE | Jack Eschenbach | Sr.

12 receptions | 106 receiving yards

Cundiff’s injury opened the door for the 6-foot-6 Eschenbach, who at times served as a much-needed safety valve over the middle for Mertz. He caught a pass in six games and stood out in the Illinois loss, totaling 32 yards on five receptions. 

All things considered, Eschenbach had a solid final season with Wisconsin after being buried on the depth chart for years. 

Offensive line

With its starting five changing by the week, Wisconsin’s offensive line still somehow had a very strong season. Effective run blocking helped the Badgers average 4.6 yards per carry, good for fifth-best in the conference. 

The pass protection was less reliable, as Mertz absorbed 23 total sacks. In four games — Illinois, Michigan State, Maryland and Iowa — he went down at least three times. While sacks may not have been the difference in the three losses, they were certainly a factor. 

Center Joe Tippmann and left tackle Jack Nelson both received honorable mention for the All-Big Ten team. Tippmann is moving on to the 2023 NFL Draft, and Nelson will return for his junior season. Right tackle Riley Mahlman, right guard Trey Wedig and left guard Tanor Bortolini all figure to be back next year as well. 

Keep an eye out for The Daily Cardinal’s review of Wisconsin’s defensive starters, as well as additional coverage of a busy offseason for the Badgers. 

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