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Analysis: The Badgers found an identity on offense. It's just ugly and not what many were hoping

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The University of Wisconsin freshman speaks to the media Saturday night after rushing 16 times for 108 yards and a touchdown as the Badgers defeated the Army Black Knights 20-14 at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison.

The University of Wisconsin football team’s offense has spent the first half of the season searching.

Searching for an identity. Seeking a consistent person, play or scheme that the Badgers can build around. Grasping onto the positives and trying to eliminate negatives.

After hanging on to defeat visiting Army 20-14 on Saturday night at Camp Randall Stadium, is the Badgers’ offense fixed? No. But the base of an identity has started to come into form in victories the past two weeks.

That identity, with cornerstones of power running and avoiding mistakes, is familiar to the UW program, but it wasn’t what many believed the Badgers would have to resort to this season. But it’s the identity that could lead the Badgers to a Big Ten Conference West Division title if executed properly over the final six games of the regular season, a stretch that gained even more significance after Purdue defeated No. 2 Iowa.

“I think that in the first couple weeks, we were kind of missing our identity: power football,” freshman tailback Braelon Allen said. “Once we found that last week … that was probably the moment where we showed our potential and set a standard of how we need to run the ball. Once we do that, I think it opens up a lot more things.”

The thought that redshirt sophomore Graham Mertz would take such a leap forward this season that opponents would fear the Badgers’ passing game as much if not more than the rushing attack hasn’t worked out. Mertz’s improvement hasn’t shown in a major way and issues with ball security and pass protection have masked the good things he’s done this season.

UW is having to grind out victories by leaning on its defense instead of being able to blow out teams. If that’s the result, the Badgers will take it at this point, but there are things they can do to make achieving that goal easier.

“I didn't feel like we're real good on third down in the third quarter,” UW coach Paul Chryst said. “So now all of a sudden you're talking about fewer possessions, fewer plays in the possessions.”

UW was 3 of 10 on third down and 0 of 2 on third downs in the third quarter.

The emergence of Allen over the past two weeks is an easy place to start when looking for positives on offense. He became the first UW freshman to rush for more than 100 yards in back-to-back games since Jonathan Taylor in 2017 after gaining 106 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries and his physicality has added a spark to the offense it was lacking.

“I think a lot of that identity has been focused on playing hard football and battling,” senior tight end Jake Ferguson said. “It’s really easy when you’ve got Big 0 (Allen) back there running the ball like that. Just being able to build off that. When you see a guy putting his body on the line and throwing it in there with some violence, it’s really easy to get behind.”

Allen’s chances going forward only will increase after junior Isaac Guerendo was ruled out for the season, leaving the Badgers with Allen, junior Chez Mellusi and junior Brady Schipper as the only tailbacks with game experience in the backfield.

Ferguson also showed he could be counted among the matchups UW can take advantage of more frequently in the home stretch. Ferguson caught four of Mertz’s eight completions against Army and accounted for 58 of the team’s 112 yards receiving.

All four of Ferguson’s catches created first downs, with the first two grabs converting a third-and-7 and a third-and-5. Those third-and-medium and third-and-long scenarios have been particularly difficult for UW this season, which sits at 26 for 84 (30.9%) on third down this season.

Mertz went 4 of 7 passing on third down at Illinois last week and 3 of 5 against the Black Knights. Two of those completions against Army went for first downs, and the third was a screen that was blown up by the defense. He scrambled for third-down conversions as well in both games, including a 9-yard run to move the chains on third-and-8 in the fourth quarter against Army.

This is the type of play UW needs from Mertz going forward, and he attributed it to seeing the field better and making quicker decisions on whether to throw or run. UW likely can’t afford mistakes like his fumble on a sack on the game’s first drive or the near interception he threw in the third quarter. He admitted he got greedy on a first down in the third quarter and threw a deep ball to senior Danny Davis, one that was in danger of being intercepted, instead of following his progression to find an open Ferguson.

Mertz said the group’s in a better place than it was a few weeks ago despite chances where he and the offensive could’ve done better against Army.

“The cool thing is I know we’re going to get better,” Mertz said. “That’s the whole mindset of our team.”

UW won’t see an opposing offense that limits possessions like Army’s again, but the Badgers' toughest tests of the second half like Iowa (Oct. 30), Nebraska (Nov. 20) and Minnesota (Nov. 27) will grind clock if given the chance.

Focusing on what the Badgers could’ve been or hoped to be offensively before the season began doesn’t do them much good right now. But being the best version of what they are — a team relying on defense to win — just might be enough.

“I appreciate the resilience of the group,” Chryst said. “There's some stuff to build on that we’ve got to continue and if that can become kind of who we are the rest of the year, it’d be good.”


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