The University of Wisconsin football team had to find quick answers to a slow-starting offense on its side and a lot of unknowns from the opponent’s attack.
But failures in the red zone came back to haunt No. 12 UW as it fell 16-10 to No. 19 Penn State on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.
The Badgers missed two chances to score in the first half, allowing a field goal to be blocked and fumbling a handoff in the red zone. The teams traded touchdowns in the third quarter, but Penn State scored nine of the next 12 points and despite leaving the door open with a missed PAT, UW failed to find the end zone.
UW sophomore quarterback Graham Mertz was intercepted throwing a pass to Jake Ferguson on fourth-and-goal at the PSU 8-yard line with less than 3 minutes remaining. UW had one last chance to score after getting the ball back with a minute left, but failed to score.
Losing at home is a rarity for the Badgers, who are now 31-7 under coach Paul Chryst in games at Camp Randall Stadium. Losing to a ranked opponent shouldn’t ding the Badgers much in the Associated Press’ Top 25 poll, but a drop below No. 15 is certainly possible for UW.
UW has to right the ship quickly and not allow the loss to linger. The Badgers should be able to flex their muscle against Eastern Michigan next week before a bye week, then a marquee matchup against No. 9 Notre Dame looms on Sept. 25 at Soldier Field in Chicago.
The Badgers’ front seven had success for most of the game getting after Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford, with the sophomore outside linebacker doing most of the damage with a sack and a QB hurry.
Honorable mention: WR Danny Davis
THREE KEY PLAYS
1. Targeting call gives Badgers life
On a third-and-long on the Badgers’ penultimate drive, Mertz scrambled to his right and tried to pick up the first down. He was hit hard by linebacker Ellis Brooks, who led with the crown of his helmet and delivered a blow to Mertz’s head.
The hit originally didn’t draw a flag, but the Badgers called timeout and the referees reviewed the play and determined Brooks committed a targeting penalty. The flag turned a fourth-and-2 into a first-and-10 in the red zone.
Mertz threw an interception to end the drive, but Brooks will miss the first half of next week’s game.
2. Dotson finds space
The Badgers did a good job for most of the day keeping Penn State senior receiver Jahan Dotson contained, with senior cornerback Faion Hicks drawing the assignment most of the time.
But Dotson’s the type of player who only needs one play to flip a game, and he proved it Saturday. Lined up in the slot on the right side of the formation, Dotson got behind everyone in the Badgers’ secondary and scored a 49-yard touchdown for the game’s first points.
It appeared UW senior safety Scott Nelson was supposed to cover the deep third or half of the field that Dotson found, but he had bit on a play-action fake and a shorter dig route from another PSU receiver.
3. Ferguson’s acrobatics
Senior tight end Jake Ferguson snagged a rushed, low throw in the red zone from Mertz with one hand to get the Badgers to the Penn State 3-yard line.
It was Ferguson’s sixth catch of the day and he absorbed a big hit to his left shoulder from linebacker Brandon Smith as he corralled the ball and went to the ground. Chez Mellusi scored on a run the next play to tie the game at 7, but Ferguson’s stellar catch kept the Badgers out of a third-and-long situation.
Ferguson proved again Saturday why he’s one of the most reliable offensive play-makers on the UW roster.
Catch up on our coverage
Our team has every angle of UW's loss covered. Be sure to catch Jim Polzin's grades and instant reaction, linebacker Mike Maskalunas' thoughts on his first start after Leo Chenal's late scratch, Sean Clifford's thoughts on Penn State's performance, and more here: