MADISON — The Wisconsin football team is 5-5 in its last 10 games and 9-9 in its last 18. Use any word you want — mediocre, average, or ordinary — and that’s what the Badgers have been for what amounts to roughly a season-and-a-half now. It has been even worse of late, as the team has lost seven of its last 12 games.
Since winning 82% of his games in the first three years on the job, coach Paul Chryst has won 62% in the last three-plus seasons. It is still a solid winning percentage, but it is not good enough for a team that has won at least 10 games eight times since 2009 and captured three Big Ten titles during that stretch. Expectations are different and recent efforts have not been meeting them.
“Numbers don’t lie. That’s what we are right now,” defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said Monday. “Can we be significantly more than that? Yes. Have we in the near past been more than this? Absolutely. So, it’s on us to change the narrative right now. We have to win big games; we have to show up in in crucial moments and find ways to get victories. Simple as that.”
The Badgers, or more accurately the offense and parts of the special teams, failed their most recent opportunity to begin changing the narrative. A 13-10 lead early in the fourth quarter over Notre Dame last Saturday turned into an embarrassing 41-13 loss on the back of giving up a kick return for a touchdown, two interceptions returned for touchdowns and a total of five turnovers. It was their seventh straight loss against a ranked team, and they fell to 3-10 in their last 13.
Wisconsin has had dips like this before over the last 30 years. After going 18-4-2 in 1993 and 1994, the Badgers went 20-15-2 over the next three seasons. They righted the ship and ended up winning the Big Ten twice before another downturn unfolded in 2001. In a three-year stretch they went 20-19 but once again pulled themselves out of a tailspin to win 31 games from 2004 to 2006.
“No one feels bad for the Wisconsin Badgers right now. It’s on us to regain the confidence to go out there and change what the past has been and go out there and get some wins and get the confidence back to where we feel like it should be,” Leonhard said. “We have the talent to do it, we have the coaching staff to get it done. Now it’s on us to take ownership of it and go make it happen.”
Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, the ability to start changing the talking points around the team will present itself once again on a national stage as No. 14 Michigan comes to Madison on Saturday. The Wolverines are out to a 4-0 start on the back of a power running game and a stout defense. They got tested against a solid Rutgers squad last week, beating the Scarlet Knights 20-13. Before that, though, they outscored Western Michigan, Washington, and Northern Illinois 141 to 34.
“Obviously, winning the Big Ten West, winning the Big Ten is still an obtainable goal,” linebacker Jack Sanborn said when putting the team’s 1-2 start into perspective. “But in order for us to do that, I think everyone understands that we have to improve right now and improve in a lot of areas, offense, defense, special teams. But it’s not something that we’re not capable of, and it’s not something that this team isn’t capable of.”
Sanborn and the defense have more than held up their end of the bargain. While the senior said there was more they could do to help the offense against Penn State and Notre Dame, the fact is they have played plenty good enough to be sitting at 3-0 on the season. Wisconsin leads the country in rushing defense, ranks second in total defense, is sixth in third-down defense and is racking up 8.3 tackles for loss per game, the 11th-best mark in the nation. While they are 54th in scoring defense, if you take away the 28 points the offense and special teams have given up, the Badgers would rank fifth at 12.0 points per game.
The offense, meanwhile, is at the other end of the spectrum. The Badgers are scoring 19.0 points per game, good for 112th in the nation. Only three Power 5 teams are averaging less. They have nine turnovers, which is three more than any other team that has played three games. Their redzone offense ranks 126th out of 130 teams in the FBS, and they are converting just 27.6% of the time on third down. The latter number is the worst figure of any Wisconsin team since records were first kept in 1981.
“I like this team and I like their intentions,” coach Paul Chryst said. “I also think that we’ve got enough talent to be a good team. Right now, we’re doing some things — as a team — that make it harder to win. Not impossible but it really makes it hard. I think we’ve got some areas where we’re giving ourselves a chance and others that are making it hard.”
Many people are pointing towards the quarterback position for the offensive struggles. Graham Mertz has not made the leap many were expecting in his second year after an up-and-down redshirt freshman season. He has been indecisive, frequently out of rhythm and especially abysmal when under pressure in the two games against elite competition. His six interceptions are tied for the most in the Big Ten and his 97.3 pass efficiency rating is the worst in the conference.
Still, had he hit on a couple throws against Penn State (Chimere Dike for a game-winning touchdown) and Notre Dame (deep shots to Dike and Davis, late on a pass to Kendric Pryor that cost them a first down) Wisconsin could very well be unbeaten.
“That’s my brother, man” Davis said of standing behind Mertz despite the struggles. “Everybody’s going to say things and say stuff like that, but at the end of the day, it’s a team thing. It’s not his fault. There are plays that I could have gotten open, Kendric could have got open. It’s a group thing, so blaming one person is just stupid to me. I would never think that way about the game of football.”
And yet, the quarterback is the most important player on the team. He is the one with the ball in his hands every snap, directing the rest of the offense. There’s pressure with that responsibility and there would seemingly be even more when you arrive in Madison as the highest-ranked quarterback recruit in school history like Mertz. Some are already labeling him a bust after 10 starts and the calls for him to be replaced grow louder by the week.
“I’m a redshirt sophomore,” Mertz said. “I’ve never felt pressure. The only pressure I feel is what I put on myself to be the best quarterback I can be. Truly I’m going through my process, I’m trusting it. All that matters is I’m getting 1% better every day. And by doing that I will become the best quarterback that I can be. So, I don’t feel any external pressure. It’s all what I put on myself. It’s all self-talk. In the end, I control how I feel, how I think all through myself. I don’t feel any external pressure.”
Wisconsin’s season is not lost. The Badgers are only 0-1 in Big Ten play and still have plenty of football left to fix the issues and get back on track. Everyone knows that has to start this week.
“We got nine more games left and still have a chance to change the season,” Davis said. “It’s still early, lot of games left. We still got a chance to control the Big Ten West, so that’s all we can worry about right now. We can’t worry about the past. We have to continue to push through these hard times and once we get through that we’ll see the brighter light in things.”