August 19, 2022

Badgers suffering through an identity crisis up front

Wisconsin Badgers Football

Wisconsin Badgers offensive linemen walk to the line of scrimmage during an NCAA college football game against the Illinois Fighting Illini Friday, Oct. 23, 2020, in Madison, Wis. The Badgers won 45-7. (Photo by David Stluka/Wisconsin Athletic Communications)

Wisconsin is notorious for fielding mammoth-sized offensive linemen that maul the opposition.

The steak and potatoes program been doing that since Barry Alvarez was patrolling the sidelines. A massive offensive line, mixed with a physical rushing attack is a formula that has worked for the Badgers through the past three decades. After all, there has been two Outland Trophy winners and a Rimington Award winner during that span.

However, this year’s version of Wisconsin’s offensive line hasn’t lived up to the unit’s predecessors. The big boys up front have actually been a liability for Coach Paul Chryst’s offense. Fans were expecting Tyler Beach, Logan Bruss, Kayden Lyles and Joe Tippmann to establish the line of scrimmage every game. Bruss even earned All-Big Ten honors in 2020.

Instead the unit’s lackluster effort has created a domino effect for the rest of the offense.

Wisconsin currently ranks 98th in the FBS in total offense, including 66th in rushing yards per game. Not to mention the Badgers only have five touchdowns on the ground. That’s mind-boggling when rushers like Ron Dayne, Montee Ball, Melvin Gordon and Jonathan Taylor have come through the program.

The Badgers haven’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since Taylor left the building and it looks like that’s not going to change this fall. Quarterback Graham Mertz has suffered the worst from the offensive line’s struggles. Wisconsin has allowed 10 sacks, which is tied for 12th in the Big Ten and 91st in the FBS. Michigan’s defense put Wisconsin’s signal-callers to the turf six times and sent Mertz to the hospital.

Something has to give, because the Badgers have lost six of their last nine games overall. A team that started out the season ranked 12th in the AP Poll, is 1-3 at this point, including 0-2 in conference play for the first time since 2008. In hindsight, Wisconsin has underachieved big time. Some fans are ready to give up on the season, but they need to consider the grueling schedule their team has navigated through thus far.

The Badgers have played three top-15 teams through their first four games. There’s no denying those contests have left the offense banged up and took its’ toll on the offensive line. Wisconsin has averaged a mere 13.3 points per game in those losses. That’s not going to get it done with the remaining eight games.

Wisconsin is the only Power Five program ranked in the top-10 in total defense, but has a losing record. The encouraging news is Mertz has practiced this week, along with tight end Jake Ferguson and both are expected to play against Illinois Saturday. It’s going to be an interesting site in Memorial Stadium with Bret Bielema on the opposite sideline.

The Badgers are catching a Fighting Illini team with momentum after their win last week. Chryst should be expecting Illinois (2-4) to be pumped up for the matchup and to come out inspired early on. Considering a loss by either team would put them dead last in the Big Ten West, the Badgers should be expecting another physical dogfight.

Still, Illinois is a step down in competition from what Wisconsin has faced, so the offense should play better. The group can’t be afraid to get scrappy in the clutch, even if it means getting it done the blue collar way either. One thing is for sure, the game will be an emotional roller coaster for all parties involved.