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3 stats that could define the Wisconsin Badgers football season
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UW FOOTBALL | FALL CAMP

3 stats that could define the Wisconsin Badgers football season

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herbig jump photo

As a freshman last season, UW linebacker Nick Herbig tied for the team lead with six tackles for loss.

As training camp opened Friday, the University of Wisconsin football team was ready to turn the page on a trying, lackluster 4-3 season in 2020.

But there are lessons to be learned from what was an inconsistent offense and a defense that wasn’t able to provide game-turning plays like it had in years past.

With the help of Pro Football Focus’ advanced college statistics, here’s a look at three areas that could define the Badgers’ 2021 season.

The second-year starter, who was among the first in the nation to capitalize on NIL, said it's all about making sure the main focus remains on football even as opportunities to market themselves arrive off the field.

Mertz using the whole field

A number of issues plagued the passing game last season as Graham Mertz struggled with his timing and footwork. Losing senior receivers Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor to concussions for more than half of the year limited what the Badgers could do through the air, and PFF’s passing direction statistics bear that out.

Mertz, now a sophomore, threw 121 of his 193 pass attempts (62.7%) last season between the numbers. That metric makes sense when considering tight end Jake Ferguson was the Badgers’ most reliable target after Davis and Pryor went down and a majority of his routes are over the middle of the field. But without receivers getting separation on the outside, Mertz wasn’t able to challenge secondaries in those areas.

He attempted just 25 passes outside the numbers and more than 10 yards down the field. Those can be difficult throws, but ones Mertz can make if a receiver gets free. Pushing the ball deep is one of Mertz’s biggest strengths — he had 220 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions on 18 throws of more than 20 yards last year — but he wasn’t able to do it often enough.

With a healthy receiving corps and some new faces emerging in the tight end group, Mertz’s and UW’s offense should be able to keep defenses honest and force safeties to cover outside thirds of the field rather than packing the middle as they could last season. That should help open throwing windows at multiple levels.

“The game’s slowed down a ton,” Mertz said of his improvement this offseason. “And for me to just really get more reps at it, and having a spring ball to just grow and learn and make some mistakes, learn from them, and then move on and grow.”

Herbig generating more pass rush

As a four-star recruit, the expectation was Nick Herbig was going to be an impactful player. Herbig becoming an every-game starter as a freshman probably exceeded those expectations. While he flashed some impressive speed off the edge, he had just one sack — and it came in the season opener against Illinois.

Raw counting statistics such as sacks aren’t always a fair indicator of the impact of a pass rusher. Herbig only generated five total pressures a year ago. PFF credits him with two hurries, two hits on the quarterback and a sack.

Herbig led all UW outside linebackers with 142 pass-rushing snaps, with the next closest being fellow starter Noah Burks at 135. Herbig said he was disappointed in his season despite playing 345 total snaps, the fifth-most on the defense.

“I’ve got to work on a better get-off, get off the rock, footwork, seeing what I’m hitting, not just running out there with no plan and no vision,” he said this spring.

Outside linebackers coach Bobby April knows the Badgers have a potentially special player in Herbig, citing his blend of athleticism and motor as the reasons he won the starting job. April has helped players such as Zack Baun and Andrew Van Ginkel develop into NFL draft picks, so there’s belief Herbig’s natural skills will shine through as he develops more pass-rush moves and fine-tunes his technique.

How quickly that translates to the field and getting Herbig into quarterbacks’ faces may determine how good this defense can be.

Balancing production from both sides of OL

For as much as they ran the ball in 2020, the Badgers maintained balance in the direction of their runs — 128 to the left and 124 to the right, per PFF’s count. While it should be noted this statistic can only account for where the ball-carrier went and not necessarily where the play was called to go, it’s fairly clear UW’s running plays were evenly distributed between left and right.

However, the left side of UW’s line last season — tackle Cole Van Lanen and guard Jon Dietzen — helped generate more push than their right-side counterparts. On 76 carries between the center and left tackle, UW had 371 yards and eight touchdowns. The 73 carries between the center and right tackle gained 301 yards and a lone touchdown. Rushes to the left side averaged nearly a yard more per carry, and that side was favored at the goal line.

Both Van Lanen and Dietzen are vying for spots on the Green Bay Packers roster this fall, so the Badgers will have to replace their production.


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