With spring practice concluding, the 2022 college football season is quickly approaching. New hope and optimism are in the air. An improved Graham Mertz is certainly something Badger fans are hoping for this season. Mertz definitely needs to play a lot better if the Badgers want to avoid a repeat of last season. However, the key to the season is sticking to their identity of running the football.
Part of the reason the Badgers stumbled to a 1-3 start is that they were trying to change their offensive identity. Instead of sticking to their “ground and pound” identity, the Badgers attempted to be more of a passing offense. In losses to Penn State and Notre Dame, Mertz attempted 37 and 41 passes in those two games. Despite attempting to throw the ball more, the Badgers’ offense ended up having more turnovers than touchdowns. It also didn’t help that the offensive line uncharacteristically struggled as well.
It wouldn’t be until facing Illinois that the Badgers went back to their identity. While the passing attack still struggled all season, the ground game became the Badgers’ biggest strength. Not only did they find a star running back in Braelon Allen; but they were able to get great performances from transfer running back Chez Mellusi as well. Together both Mellusi and Allen formed a formidable one-two punch in the Badgers backfield.
When the Badgers went back to running the ball, Wisconsin broke off seven straight wins. This included upset wins over nationally ranked teams in Purdue and Iowa. This propelled the Badgers back into the Big Ten West race. Braelon Allen broke a team record for consecutive games with 100 rushing yards or more during that stretch. Despite losing Mellusi to a season-ending leg injury against Rutgers, Allen proved he could carry this offense.
With Allen entering his first full season as the starting running back, Wisconsin should continue to “feed him.” Despite being hardly used in the first four games of 2021, Allen rushed for 1,268 yards and 12 touchdowns. Chez Mellusi also appears to be on track to come back this season despite being held out of spring practice. Also, Julius Davis has had a fantastic spring camp as well with multiple running backs nursing injuries besides Mellusi.
The Badgers have a nice stable of running backs right now. Historically, Wisconsin’s recipe for success on offense has been running the football and that shouldn’t change. The Badgers have made it to Big Ten Championship games before following this formula in recent years. Heck, Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh even saved his job this year by running the ball more. Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz has always been a believer in running the ball to set up the pass. While you have to throw the ball downfield to win, it shouldn’t come at the expense of a big strength.
I know Wisconsin has a former four-star quarterback in Graham Mertz, but they should stop trying to duplicate Russell Wilson with him. Even with Wilson, people forget that Wisconsin still stuck to its identity of running the ball. That season, running back Montee Ball set the Badgers’ single-season rushing touchdown record with 33. James White was a great sidekick and a then freshman back named Melvin Gordon was beginning to make his mark.
If you want an example of the formula working, then look no further than the 2019 season. The Badgers got efficient quarterback play from Jack Coan while already having Jonathan Taylor as the focal point of that offense. That year, the Badgers went 10-4, won the Big Ten West, appeared in the Rose Bowl, and finished just outside the top ten.
I see no reason why the Badgers have to be constantly throwing the ball just. This isn’t Wisconsin’s identity on offense and hasn’t been since Barry Alvarez arrived. When Wisconsin tried to ditch its identity, it resulted in a 1-3 start last year. If the Badgers stay true to who they are offensively, then this team has a chance to get back to the Big Ten Championship.