Any sort of hope that came from the close loss to Penn State last week has been extinguished. When a team gets booed off of its own field at halftime after missing a field goal to secure a 28-0 deficit at Homecoming, something drastically wrong has happened. In this case, the drastically wrong “event” was nearly everything about this game. The offense was inconsistent at best and the defense made Wisconsin’s Graham Mertz and Braelon Allen look like Heisman candidates. It’s grimly appropriate that the Wildcats wore their black uniforms today, because this game certainly felt like a funeral.
One of the benefits of having a poor offensive performance is that the punter gets to show off his leg quite a lot. Luke Akers has a leg that is well worth showing off, as evidenced by his four punts for 184 yards. Those included a first quarter punt that was downed at the two-yard line and a booming 52-yarder in the second quarter. While the offense definitely struggled with moving the ball down the field, Akers certainly didn't.
Brendan Sullivan’s legs
Sullivan came in twice for Ryan Hilinski, once in the second quarter after a bad Hilinski interception to Wisconsin’s Kamo’i Latu and then again in the third quarter after Hilinski suffered an injury trying to stop an interception return. While Sullivan’s downfield throwing leaves a lot to be desired (he was 11-for-17 for 114 yards on the day), his speed and mobility did enable him to make plays that Hilinski either couldn’t or wouldn’t make earlier this year. Sullivan rushed for 33 yards — which led the team on just 10 carries. Even on plays where Sullivan didn't take off and run, he was able to use his legs to extend them and keep hope alive for the offense.
Screen passes to the running backs
This may sound shocking, but it turns out that when fast players get the football with a lot of space in front of them, they get a lot of yardage. The Wildcats only ran a real screen pass twice over the course of this game, and both times it resulted in a first down. Evan Hull single-handedly accounted for 35% of Northwestern’s first half yardage simply by taking his screen pass for 45 yards and getting NU the closest it would get to putting points on the scoreboard. Cam Porter (who has been extraordinarily underutilized over the past few weeks) also received a screen pass, and took it for 15 yards and one of Northwestern’s eight first downs in the third frame. The offense has been really struggling as of late, and points have been at a premium for a while, but at least the screen passes are sources of consistent yardage. If only the offensive coordinator would consider using them more.
Honorable Mentions: Evan Hull being fast, the student section (for the first half), Garnett Hollis Jr.
In a word: yikes. Whenever you can make Graham Mertz look like a Heisman candidate and let Chimere Dike garner 185 receiving yards and a trifecta of touchdowns (entering the Badgers’ all-time top 10 for single game receiving yards in the process), something is irreparably broken. Mertz went 20-for-29 for 299 yards and five touchdowns, and even Braelon Allen threw a touchdown pass. It’s the first game that Mertz hasn’t been picked off since Wisconsin’s opener against Illinois State, and 299 is a higher mark than he reached in the entirety of 2021 or 2022 so far. Dike was either wide open or able to outrun any defender who happened to be close to him, and Wisconsin put together touchdown drives in four-of-five opportunities in the first half. Mertz and Dike combined to put up five offensive records that are in the Badgers’ all-time top 10. Northwestern was simply mauled by the Badgers’ passing attack, there’s no other way to put it.
The pass rush
Of course, there are 11 players on a defense, and the four or five in the secondary can’t be held solely responsible for the offensive showcase they allowed. Mertz had all day on almost every pass, and was rarely hurried, let alone sacked. Remember that Braelon Allen passing touchdown mentioned in the last paragraph? It came off of a busted play for Wisconsin, and despite the confusion, Allen still had plenty of time to find a wide open Chez Mellusi for a touchdown. One of the reasons Northwestern was able to hang with Penn State was because it was putting constant pressure on Sean Clifford. Against Wisconsin, however, the pass rush was nonexistent and allowed Mertz to feel more comfortable in the pocket than a frat boy playing beer pong.
The run game
Remember that glorious day against Nebraska in Ireland where the ‘Cats rushed for 214 yards? Yeah, me neither. There were 27 Northwestern run plays against the Badgers, for 79 total yards. Whatever rushing attack the Wildcats used to have has vanished; any hopes of a two-headed monster with Porter and Hull in the backfield long gone. Over the past two weeks, Northwestern has rushed for 110 yards total. It doesn't matter how talented Porter and Hull are, there has been nothing available on the ground for Northwestern against Big Ten defenses. And when you consider that things are getting worse offensively as the season goes on, it’s going to be a long slate of Big Ten competition. The only thing that won’t be long about it is the rushing total.
Honorable Mention: the coaching staff, the secondary again, Ryan Field’s home field advantage