Old habits die hard. Once again for the Wisconsin Badgers (0-1, 0-1 Big Ten), not being able to execute offensively led to Saturday afternoon’s 16–10 loss to the Penn State University Nittany Lions (1-0, 1-0).
Over 76,000 members of the Badger faithful filled Camp Randall Stadium in the first Wisconsin home game open to fans in 651 days, according to University of Wisconsin Athletics.
After gaining an entire season’s worth of experience and learning the Wisconsin offense, Graham Mertz’s play at quarterback did not look improved.
The junior from Overland Park, Kansas threw for 185 yards and two interceptions, completing 59% of his passes. His first interception occurred within the 10 yard line, throwing a lob pass into double coverage.
“We certainly didn’t finish the way that you have to, especially against a good team,” head coach Paul Chryst said postgame.
Mertz never found his rhythm on Saturday, resulting in a Wisconsin offense that looked scrambled.
Though the offense failed to convert on many opportunities, the team still out-gained Penn State 365 yards to 297 yards, thanks to the running game.
Seven different rushers combined for 174 yards on the ground, the bulk coming by the legs of Chez Mellusi. The junior running back felt right at home playing in his first game as a Badger, gaining a career high 121 yards on 31 carries.
Mellusi’s 121 rushing yards in his Badger debut were the most since 2006, when P.J. Hill rushed for 130 against Bowling Green State University, according to UW Athletics.
Wisconsin owned time of possession due to the rushing success and dominance on defense, holding the ball for about 25 minutes longer than Penn State, 42:24 to 17:35.
Building off of their highly successful 2020 season, the Wisconsin defense never skipped a beat.
The Nittany Lions had little success on the ground, gaining just 50 yards on 18 attempts. Noah Cain carried the bulk, gaining 48 yards on eight carries. The junior running back played just three snaps, before missing the rest of the 2020 season with a leg injury.
The relentless Wisconsin defense held the Nittany Lions to 3–13 on third down and 0–1 on fourth down.
Wisconsin senior Jack Sanborn continued his success, tackling five Nittany Lions and adding a sack. Sanborn’s sack marked 7.5 on his career.
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Though the ground game was kept at bay, a few miscommunications in the secondary spelled disaster for the team.
In Penn State’s opening drive of the second half, junior quarterback Sean Clifford dropped back to pass, surveyed the field and found a wide open Jahan Dotson for a 49 yard touchdown.
The very next possession, Clifford found another wide open target, KeAndre Lambert-Smith, for 52 yards. Penn State missed a 24 yard field goal to end their drive.
“Big picture defense played really well,” Chryst said. “There were some big plays in the passing game coming out of the second half…those are the areas we gotta clean up.”
The overall strong defensive effort from the Badgers kept the team in the game, though back to back drives ending in a Mertz interception ultimately led the Badgers to their first loss of the season. The defeat also marked the first time the Badgers have lost a home opener since 1995, breaking a 25-year streak.
The Badgers return to Camp Randall stadium taking on Eastern Michigan University (1-0, 0-0 MAC) Saturday night. The two sides haven’t faced off since 1996, when Barry Alvarez was head coach. Next Saturday night’s kickoff is scheduled for 6 p.m.