Jim Polzin grades the Wisconsin Badgers’ performance in their 16-10 loss to the Penn State Nittany Lions in the 2021 season opener at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison.
Interceptions that ended the Badgers’ final two drives of the game were only part of the story of quarterback Graham Mertz’s rocky performance. There were also two fumbled exchanges – one of which resulted in a turnover, the other in a six-yard loss on a play that started at the Penn State 1 – and two head-scratching intentional-grounding penalties. Tight end Jake Ferguson and wide receiver Danny Davis were targeted a combined 21 times and produced 17 receptions for 151 yards, with each making spectacular catches inside the 5-yard line. There was a lot to like from tailback Chez Mellusi in his UW debut, but it was a little feast or famine: Six chunk plays led to 84 yards, but he was held to 37 yards on his other 25 carries.
It was a tale of two halves for a unit that was missing inside linebacker Leo Chenal, who learned Friday he had tested positive for COVID-19. The Badgers allowed 43 yards on 22 plays before halftime and 254 yards on 29 plays after the break. Penn State finally attacked the Badgers with some deep balls in the second half and it led to three plays of 42 yards or longer. UW safety Scott Nelson twice let Jahan Dotson get behind him, leading to a touchdown and another long play that set up the Nittany Lions’ other touchdown. The Badgers were great against the run save for a 34-yard gain by Noah Cain in the fourth quarter. One big thing missing from UW’s defense: forcing a turnover.
Special teams: C
Collin Larsh bounced back from an early miss by making a 43-yard field goal in the third quarter, one yard shy of his career long. But that missed 25-yard attempt early in the second quarter – it was blocked by Penn State defensive end Arnold Ebiketie – was huge because it forced UW to go for a touchdown when it was trailing by six points late in the game. Andy Vujnovich’s first punt of the game made it a little too easy for Dotson to operate in open space, but the senior was solid the rest of the way.
Mertz and other UW players deserve blame for making mistakes. But when a team is this sloppy, it’s also a reflection on the coaching staff. Chryst, back to calling plays, never really tested the back end of Penn State’s defense. Perhaps that’s a sign that he either has little faith in Mertz to deliver or in the receivers’ ability to make plays, but a shot or two at least would have kept Penn State honest. Chryst is now 0-3 against the Nittany Lions.
This was a winnable game against a ranked team and the Badgers were left beating themselves up afterward because, well, they beat themselves in a lot of ways. It was a missed opportunity to open the season with a big win mainly because UW was inconsistent in all three phases.
Contact Jim Polzin at email@example.com.