Too often in recent years, senior wide receiver Kendric Pryor and the members of the University of Wisconsin football team’s offense have been left feeling like they let down their teammates on the other side of the ball.
The latest example was the Badgers’ season opener, a 16-10 loss to Penn State last week at Camp Randall Stadium. UW’s defense made some costly mistakes that led to big plays for the Nittany Lions in the second half but generally played well enough to deliver a victory.
“They did their part,” Pryor said.
But the offense didn’t hold up its end of the bargain, a recurring theme for a program that has lost six consecutive games to ranked opponents dating to late in the 2019 season. That number won’t grow Saturday, not with Eastern Michigan (1-0) visiting Camp Randall Stadium, but the No. 18 Badgers (0-1) need to use this game and the off week that follows it to figure out some things before a matchup with No. 8 Notre Dame on Sept. 25 at Soldier Field in Chicago.
UW’s point totals in those six defeats are anemic: 21, 27, 7, 6, 7 and 10.
Its total yardage amounts are mostly underwhelming: 432, 322, 366, 342, 225 and 365.
There’s no easy fix, though my inbox and Twitter feed have been flooded with suggestions.
Change quarterbacks? As much as Graham Mertz struggled against Penn State, I don’t believe Chase Wolf gives this team a better chance at winning.
Hire an offensive coordinator with a fresh set of eyes and overhaul the scheme? That might be an option in the offseason if this offense can’t find its way, but it’s not a solution for a problem that exists in a season that just began.
What I’d hoped for in the opener — UW coach Paul Chryst’s first game back calling plays after Joe Rudolph handled that role in 2020 — was a little more imagination on offense. Instead, there were precious few wrinkles.
Mertz attempted only three passes that traveled 20 yards or longer beyond the line of scrimmage. UW had some deep shots built into the game plan, according to Chryst and his players, but they never materialized. Poor pass protection was partly to blame and Penn State also deserves credit for not letting Pryor, Danny Davis and Chimere Dike get open downfield.
Meanwhile, UW rarely tested the perimeter of the Penn State defense. The Badgers had some success on three jet sweeps — two by Pryor and another from Dike — but almost all of the 44 combined carries by tailbacks Chez Mellusi and Isaac Guerendo were between the tackles.
The most damning stat to emerge from the defeat? The Badgers ran 95 plays on offense — an outrageously high number for a program that typically hovers around the 70 mark — and not one of them gained at least 25 yards.
The result was UW being forced to grind away while averaging a meager 3.8 yards per play for the game. It still would have been enough to win had the Badgers actually closed the deal on some massive drives, but they generated zero points from three that lasted a combined 44 plays and took 21 minutes, 16 seconds off the clock.
“Running that amount of plays and the time we had the football and not capitalizing is super frustrating,” fullback John Chenal said. “That’s really our focal point right now, is just finishing those. Fans want to see a score, we want to score and just getting there and not finishing is something that is really hindering us right now.”
Still, Davis said there’s no doubt in his mind that UW has the capability to be a “high-powered offense” and Mertz was just as confident in the aftermath of a performance in which he turned the ball over three times.
Mertz said heading into the season that he thought the offense had the potential to be dynamic. He was asked Monday if he still sees that potential.
“One-hundred percent,” he said. “Nothing’s changed. Not at all.”
And what gives him that confidence? “The guys around me,” Mertz said. “And I know when I’m playing good ball and we’re all playing together, it’s hard to beat us. That gives me the confidence and it will never falter ever at all.”
A clean performance against Eastern Michigan would be a good starting point. The time for the offense to do its part is long overdue.