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Open Jim: Frustration boiling over for Badgers fans when it comes to the play of Graham Mertz and the offense

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I left Whistling Straits late Sunday night thinking the powers that be would be foolish not to bring the Ryder Cup back to that wonderful venue.

Local boy Steve Stricker and his U.S. team made sure there wasn’t much drama over the three-day event, but it was still quite the spectacle. Fans were having a blast and the course, as usual, didn’t disappoint.

A big win for Stricker and Wisconsin golf.

Enough about golf because football dominates the Open Jim mailbag this week. Thanks for reading and submitting questions.

If you haven’t already, please click this link to become a print and/or digital member. You’re also invited to follow me on Twitter and Facebook, where you also can join our Wisconsin Badgers fan group.


The biggest problem is quarterback play in my opinion, but it’s obvious that UW’s issues on offense extend beyond Graham Mertz.

The offensive line has been poor in the two losses, and while I think UW has three decent tailbacks, there’s not a great one in that mix. A guy like Jonathan Taylor can make an offense look a whole lot better than it actually is and I don’t think there’s a star in the Chez Mellusi-Jalen Berger-Isaac Guerendo trio.

There’s a similar issue at wide receiver. Danny Davis, Kendric Pryor and Chimere Dike are solid. But there’s not a game-changer at that position, someone who draws an extra defender.

But back to Mertz specifically. UW could be 3-0 if it was even getting average play at quarterback. It’s the most important position on the field, and it’s where the Badgers are struggling the most. The stat that sticks out like a sore thumb: Mertz has turned the ball over 15 times — 11 interceptions and four lost fumbles — in UW’s five losses over the past two seasons. It’s impossible to win that way.

Let’s be clear about something: Everything listed above is a Paul Chryst problem. Chryst and his staff either haven’t recruited the right players, haven’t done a good job developing them or aren’t doing enough to put them in positions to be successful. It’s possible it’s all of the above.

As for solutions, somehow getting Mertz to “solid game manager” status would be a start. The defense will keep this team in games, so getting even an average performance on the other side of the ball should be enough most weeks.


The Badgers are saying all the right things. I thought Collin Wilder’s interview Saturday was one of the most memorable postgame sessions in my two-plus decades in this business. You could tell Wilder had reached his breaking point after UW’s fourth-quarter meltdown at Soldier Field.

But saying you believe and actually believing are two completely different things, and I wonder whether doubt has creeped inside a program that is 9-9 since the midway point of the 2019 regular season.

It’s a little silly to talk about a preseason goal checklist right now. UW needs to beat a good team and only then can we begin to project what the rest of the season may hold.


I haven’t seen anything from Chase Wolf in practice or games to indicate he’s a better option than Mertz.

I understand the argument that not benching Mertz sends a bad message, but Chryst’s main priority has to be to play the guy who gives UW the best chance to win. It’s clear he still believes that’s Mertz.

From the limited reps I saw of Deacon Hill in camp, it didn’t appear he was anywhere close to being ready to play. And that’s not a knock on Hill — he’s a true freshman and will need some time to develop.


If the situation is still this dire in two months, then Chryst owes it his players and this program to at least look to see what’s out there.

But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. There are nine games left in the regular season, and that’s plenty of time for Mertz to figure out this. I say it every week, albeit with a little less confidence each time: I still think there’s a good quarterback in there somewhere.


Mertz is now in his third season at UW. We’re way past the point where old habits from high school can be used as an excuse.


I haven’t heard of any formal discussions about a succession plan. I’ve said previously that I expect Jim Leonhard to be UW’s next coach, but I have no idea when that might be. Chryst turns 56 later this year, so riding off into the sunset and retiring doesn’t seem like a likely option anytime soon.

This seems like a good time to remind people that Chryst was on the selection committee formed by UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank to help her find candidates to replace Barry Alvarez as athletic director. I don’t remember hearing any complaints about the makeup of that committee or Chryst’s inclusion on it from fans at the time. In fact, the overall sentiment was that people didn’t want Blank to look outside UW because Alvarez’s hand-picked choice to succeed him, Chris McIntosh, already was on staff.

If you were in that camp and now are expecting McIntosh to fire Chryst and promote Leonhard, pause for a second and ask yourself this: Does that sound like a realistic scenario?

Here are the facts: Chryst is 57-21 overall, a .731 winning percentage. He’s 37-14 in Big Ten play, a .725 winning percentage. Those aren’t the kind of numbers that get you fired at a place like UW. Things don’t look good now, but Chryst has earned the right to try to get this program going back in the right direction.


If you haven’t already, check out Colten Bartholomew’s piece on the offensive line. Senior left tackle Tyler Beach says it’s “just little things” that have been the problem. Maybe Beach is right, but it feels bigger.

I was concerned about this group as far back as training camp. Other than senior right tackle Logan Bruss, who’s been the only constant in the lineup, there aren’t any offensive linemen who you could pencil in for All-Big Ten consideration. There are three or four UW linemen in that mix a lot of years.

I do wish UW would settle on its best five. The fact that hasn’t happened three games into the season is an issue.

A lot of the highest-rated linemen on the roster are in the early stages of their UW career. But it’s not like the rest of the group consists of Plan B recruits. As Colten was saying on the podcast that will drop Thursday, linemen aren’t making the jump from a development standpoint like they used to around these parts.

These all would be good questions for offensive line coach Joe Rudolph, but he’s no longer made available to the media after having his offensive coordinator role stripped during the offseason.


Beating Michigan would be a good start.

A win over the Wolverines would end UW’s seven-game losing streak to ranked opponents and it would get the Badgers back to .500 in Big Ten play. It would restore some confidence that I think has been erased by the losses to Penn State and Notre Dame.

I’ve been saying it since training camp, but the Badgers are going to have to win low-scoring games against the best teams on their schedule. They had a chance to do that in the opener against the Nittany Lions and made too many mistakes. They had a 13-10 lead early in the fourth quarter against Notre Dame and imploded.

It’s not like the Badgers have been completely outmatched while going 9-9 over their last 18 games. But they’ve struggled to finish and that’s something that needs to be corrected starting this week.


Some staff adjustments need to be made. How extreme is that makeover? Let’s see how the rest of this season plays out.

If there’s such a thing as an assistant coach hot seat, offensive line coach Joe Rudolph and special teams coach Chris Haering may be on it. But that type of housecleaning would require Chryst to fire two guys who have been working under him for a long time.


I kind of hoped the Jalen Berger saga was over after he made his debut two weeks ago against Eastern Michigan. We may never know why Berger sat out the opener against Penn State — he said he “can’t really give an answer right now” after the Eastern Michigan game — and Chryst insists there’s no drama.

But Berger had just two touches for 16 yards against Notre Dame after looking solid two weeks ago. Strange.

I have no issue with Mellusi being the starter. We have no idea what goes on in practices and meetings, but the coaches do. But it’s bizarre that one guy is getting 18 carries and the other one.

Plus, Berger still is behind Isaac Guerendo on the depth chart. Guerendo had four carries for 5 yards against the Fighting Irish. He’s the biggest home-run threat in this UW tailback trio and I understand why the coaches go to him as a change-of-pace option, but there has to be a way to get Berger more involved in the game plan.


I’ve stopped trying to figure out Las Vegas, but let me just say this: UW has won five of the past seven games in this series and has outscored the Wolverines by a combined margin 84-25 in the last two meetings.

The Badgers have given me no reason to trust them against a ranked opponent and yet my gut says they’re going to win this game: UW 20, Michigan 17.


I can’t see a team giving up anything more than a third-day pick for Jordan Love at this point. He’s two years into his rookie contract, has limited preseason experience and no meaningful regular-season snaps under his belt and would be starting over in a new system. It’d make no sense for a team to use a high draft pick to acquire him.

Anything could happen, of course, but I expect Love to be the starting quarterback for the Packers when the 2022 season opens and Rodgers to be playing elsewhere.

Until then, sit back and enjoy this season. Why worry about the future when you can savor moments like the one Rodgers provided Sunday night?

Contact Jim Polzin at jpolzin@madison.com.

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