Wisconsin finished their shortened and unusual season with a record of 4-3. A hot start, a COVID-19 outbreak and a three-game losing streak combined into one season that nearly didn’t happened. There was a lot to be negative about this season, especially with an offense that looked extremely sluggish in the middle of the year.
The 2020 season also provided some positive moments and reasons for optimism for the Badgers. Regardless of the outcome in 2020, a lot was learned about the state of Badgers football.
Graham Mertz is the quarterback moving forward
After senior quarterback Jack Coan’s suffered a foot injury at the start of the season, the doors opened for redshirt freshman Graham Mertz. Expectations were raised on opening night after Mertz threw for five touchdowns in a win against Illinois. But, the first-year starter struggled throughout the rest of the season. COVID-19 outbreaks and injuries forced Mertz to be surrounded by very little experience and it showed with a lackluster offense.
The overall potential and flashes of excellence from Mertz kept Jack Coan on the bench as he returned from injury and have now led to his transfer to Notre Dame. Though it seems the decision was already made through the commitment to Mertz late in the season, the transfer of Coan secures Mertz as the Badgers’ starter moving forward.
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Mertz finished the seven-game season with 1,238 yards, nine touchdowns and five interceptions. In what was clearly a tough season, there is still a lot to be optimistic about with Mertz.
The former top recruit gained experience during an unprecedented season with multiple cancellations and top targets out when they did play. With a season under his belt, Mertz will continue to develop and be more confident in 2021.
Freshmen earned crucial experience
Graham Mertz was not the only Badgers freshman to earn meaningful snaps on offense. Jalen Berger led the team in rushing while playing in only four games. When healthy, Berger looked the most explosive out of an evenly split three-man backfield. After being a highly-touted recruit, Berger showed the potential to be the next great Badgers running back.
Due to the COVID-19 outbreak and other injuries, wide receiver and freshman Chimere Dike was also able to earn plenty of starting reps. Dike hauled in 12 receptions for one touchdown, and most importantly, he developed chemistry with Mertz. As talent returns to the offense next season, Dike’s experience as a freshman will prove valuable.
Defensively, freshman linebacker Nick Herbig made an impact starting for a strong unit. Herbig was a playmaker, totaling 22 tackles, one sack and a fumble recovery. Herbig played a lot of snaps for a true freshman and definitely made them count — he will be a valuable defensive player for the Badgers going forward.
Strong defense leads the way
The Badgers defense played a big role in keeping the team in games late in the season. When the offense was riddled by injury and was struggling to move the ball, the defense consistently got stops to keep the Badgers in close games.
Linebackers Jack Sanborn, Leo Chenal and the aforementioned Herbig led the way for a strong unit that finished in the top-five nationally in total defense.
Seniors Isaiahh Loudermilk and Eric Burrell also made major contributions for the defense to close out their careers. Defensive Coordinator Jim Leonhard deserves much of the credit for the production of his unit.
With many players returning and the leadership of Leonhard, the future of the Badgers defense looks promising.
While the 2020 season may have been disappointing to some fans, it was a big year for the development of the program.
Young players were able to gain experience that will be vital in upcoming years. Mertz got in-game reps with players like Dike and tight-end Jake Ferguson, gaining chemistry and learning from early mistakes.
With a healthier receiving core, Ferguson returning and the emergence of Berger, the offense will certainly improve. While the defense has been a reliable force for the Badgers, the success of the team moving forward will come down to the offense.
This past season was far from normal, but it gave the team an opportunity to learn and grow.