Good news: big-time college football is back and back in a big way.
The game was defined by a few chunk plays from the Penn State offense, a great performance by Jim Leonhard’s defense and the Badgers being unable to score in the red zone.
Five takeaways from Wisconsin’s 16-10 loss to Penn State
Usually season-openers answer questions from the offseason and previous campaigns. After yesterday, there are more questions than answers about where Wisconsin is as a football team.
Later today, I’ll have the film breakdown of why it went south for Paul Chryst’s team. But now, here are the biggest studs and duds from the game yesterday:
STUD: Jack Sanborn
Sep 4, 2021; Madison, Wisconsin, USA; Wisconsin Badgers linebacker Jack Sanborn (57) celebrates following a sack during the first quarter against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Camp Randall Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Jack Sanborn absolutely showed out yesterday, doing exactly what Jim Leonhard needed with Leo Chenal ruled out due to testing positive for COVID-19. He finished the game with 5 tackles, 2 tackles-for-loss and 1 sack—and was around the football all game long. https://twitter.com/PFN365/status/1434192029077102596 The Badger inside linebacking duo will be the best in the Big Ten when Chenal returns. But in a game full of negatives on the offensive side of the football for Wisconsin, Jack Sanborn’s play was yet again a massive positive.
DUD: Graham Mertz
Sep 4, 2021; Madison, Wisconsin, USA; Wisconsin Badgers head coach Paul Chryst talks with quarterback Graham Mertz (5) during the third quarter against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Camp Randall Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Graham Mertz did a bit of what we saw last season: staring down option 1, not letting the field develop and struggling to finish drives in the red zone. His stats tell some of the negative story: 22/37 passing, 185 yards, 2 interceptions, 1 fumble. But the bigger concern is the shades of last year that came through yesterday. Mertz’s season will be defined by ball security and red zone efficiency. Yesterday, 7 total points on four trips within the Penn State 10 and 3 turnovers were the reasons Wisconsin lost the game.
STUD: Chez Mellusi
Sep 4, 2021; Madison, Wisconsin, USA; Wisconsin Badgers running back Chez Mellusi (6) rushes with the football as Penn State Nittany Lions cornerback Joey Porter Jr. (9) defends during the first quarter at Camp Randall Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Wisconsin has a new No. 1 running back. Entering the game, I predicted Chez Mellusi and Jalen Berger would see a similar workload with Isaac Guerendo as the clear No. 3. Well, Paul Chryst showed us how he feels about the Clemson transfer Mellusi as he carried the ball 31 times on his way to a 121-yard day. Stats and backfield rotation aside, Mellusi totally looked the part with the ball in his hands. We saw decisive cuts and good vision, great burst and an ability to move a pile forward. And a necessary note: he did all of it behind a struggling offensive line. While Mertz’s struggles will be the story this week leading up to Eastern Michigan, the big positive to take away is how Chez Mellusi looked as the starter.
DUD: Tyler Beach, the entire offensive line
Sep 4, 2021; Madison, WI, USA; Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz benefits from protection by offensive lineman Michael Furtney (74) while making a throw during the fourth quarter of their game Saturday, September 4, 2021 at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis. Penn State beat Wisconsin 16-10. Mandatory Credit: Mark Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports
Tyler Beach really struggled yesterday after missing all of training camp. But the offensive line as a whole struggled as well, allowing 6 Penn State tackles-for-loss, 2 sacks and a few critical intentional grounding plays. As I outlined in my five takeaways, it’s never a good sign when a position coach changes the entire rotation just a few series into a team’s first game of the year. So a unit that projected to be really solid with NFL talent, a ton of experience and some good youngsters struggled. Put simply: the unit will need to improve drastically for Graham Mertz to take a step forward as a quarterback.
STUD: The defensive line
Sep 4, 2021; Madison, WI, USA; Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford (14) throws a pass during the third quarter of their game against Wisconsin Saturday, September 4, 2021 at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wis. Penn State beat Wisconsin 16-10. Mandatory Credit: Mark Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports
While the offensive trenches were a struggle for the Badgers yesterday, the defensive trenches were not. Wisconsin held Penn State to just 50 yards on the ground, 2.8 yards-per-rush and did a great job setting Jack Sanborn, Nick Herbig and others up to make plays. Despite the loss, there were some real positive signs from the Badgers yesterday.