The Wisconsin Badgers football team ended the season with a respectable 8-4 record, finishing 6-3 against Big Ten Conference opponents. The Badgers fell one game short of appearing in the Big Ten Championship game and overall underachieved compared to lofty preseason expectations.
This season was a bit of a roller coaster for Wisconsin, complete with a slow start, an exciting winning streak and heartbreak down the stretch. Let’s take a deeper look into what happened for Badger football this year and what fans can expect for next fall.
A rocky start
The Badgers dropped three of their first four contests, opening with a loss against Penn State Sept. 4. In front of a raucous crowd that was eager for Badger football after watching from home in 2020, Wisconsin and Penn State engaged in a defensive slugfest.
Tied 0–0 at halftime and 7–7 when it was time to Jump Around, the Badgers took a brief 10–7 lead before surrendering the game’s final nine points, resulting in a painful 16–10 loss.
After handling an inferior Eastern Michigan team 34–7 Sept. 11, Wisconsin hit the road to Chicago to take on Notre Dame in the Shamrock Series two weeks later. What appeared to be another defensive battle quickly turned ugly in the 4th quarter, as Notre Dame scored 31 straight points and saw a 13–10 deficit change to a 41–13 victory in what was seemingly the blink of an eye.
Wisconsin welcomed in rival Michigan Oct. 1 as the Badgers looked to win their third straight over the Wolverines. Unfortunately, Wisconsin could only get within three points and never led. Michigan ran away in the second half to the tune of a 38–17 final score, handing the Badgers their third loss.
Turnovers by quarterback Graham Mertz and lackluster offensive line play plagued the Badgers throughout each loss. Wisconsin sported arguably the nation’s top defense, but the offense often gave opponents short fields and touchdowns resulting from turnovers.
The running game is typically a staple of any Wisconsin offense, yet the offensive line struggled to give running back Chez Mellusi consistent room to run and opportunities to complement Mertz and the passing game. These issues ultimately led to an unproductive offense that failed to find the end zone on a regular basis.
Hitting their stride
After the disappointing 1-3 start, Wisconsin won its next seven games in mostly dominant fashion. The Badgers blanked Illinois 24–0 Oct. 9, in what could be remembered as Braelon Allen’s breakout game. The 17-year-old true freshman rushed for 131 yards and a touchdown and showed flashes of superstardom.
Wisconsin snuck past a solid Army team 20–14 before facing one of their toughest tasks of the season: a road game against a ranked Purdue squad. After a subpar first half littered with turnovers, the Badgers leaned on the defense and the running game in the second half and pulled away with a 30–13 win.
Wisconsin came home and spooked No. 9 ranked Iowa over Halloween weekend. The dominant Badger defense forced a plethora of turnovers and found the end zone when they needed enroute to a 27–7 win. The win over a top 10 football team prompted a field storming by the Badger faithful.
Wisconsin blew out their next two opponents, Rutgers and Northwestern, by a combined score of 87–10. Looking a lot more like a classic Badger football team, the defense and rushing offense controlled the games from start to finish.
Winners of six in a row, the red hot Badgers welcomed in an underachieving but dangerous Nebraska team. In one of the more thrilling games of the year, Wisconsin rode Allen to a nail biting 35–28 victory. Allen could not be stopped, running for 228 yards and three touchdowns on over 10 yards per carry. The saying goes, “all good things must come to an end” and they did for Wisconsin. Facing rival Minnesota in the Battle for the Axe, Minnesota shut down the Badger offense and made some huge plays on offense, downing Wisconsin 23–13.
Eight wins for Wisconsin was more than enough for a bowl game qualification. The Badgers will face Arizona State Dec. 30 in the Las Vegas Bowl. This is the 20th straight season Wisconsin will be playing in a bowl game, the third longest streak in the nation. Arizona State finished with an identical 8-4 record and 6-3 conference mark.
Looking ahead to next season, Wisconsin faces some major attrition on the defensive side of the ball and within the receiving corps. This is not the first time the Badgers have had major losses on defense and they have shown the ability to reload consistently. Wisconsin has finished top 5 in total defense in four of the last five years despite losing multiple players to the professional ranks.
Expectations will be high for next year, as fans will be hopeful the team can build on the successes of this season and improve during the offseason. Bringing back stud Braelon Allen and third year starter Mertz should lead to a consistent, productive offense to complement what will likely be another dominant defense.