College football: 4 observations after rewatching Wisconsin football's loss at Ohio State
"Lessons have to be learned after a game like that and we'll do our best to find them and point them out," writes Colten Bartholomew.
COLUMBUS, Ohio — A good question was posed in the press box during the third quarter of the University of Wisconsin's loss to Ohio State on Saturday, Sept. 24.
Do the Badgers just bury the tape of their 52-21 loss at Ohio Stadium, chalk it up to it just not being their week and turn their focus to a home game against Illinois next week? Well, if UW does so, that doesn't mean we will.
Many Badgers fans expected a lopsided loss to the No. 3 Buckeyes, but the way in which each phase of the team was beaten raised concerns and poured gasoline on the fire for those who have adopted the #FireChryst mantra.
But lessons have to be learned after a game like that and we'll do our best to find them and point them out.
Here are four observations from UW's blowout loss at OSU.
1. Mertz and Dike's mistake can't happen
UW's fifth offensive play of the game ended with an interception and the Buckeyes' rout was on soon after. Junior quarterback Graham Mertz was looking to throw to junior receiver Chimere Dike out of the slot on a second-and-10 play. OSU safety Tanner McCalister is playing off coverage, about 8 yards away from Dike on his outside shoulder. After the snap he backpedals and maintains about a 6-yard cushion, still slightly shading Dike's outside shoulder.
Dike breaks down after running 6 yards and makes a cut to the outside, but Mertz's throw was significantly behind him and came before Dike had turned his head toward the line, indicating Mertz expected Dike to run a hitch or at least not break toward the sideline as he did. McCalister is 4 yards behind Dike when he makes the pick and starts his return.
Mertz confirmed that he and Dike had a miscommunication on an option route, or a play in which Dike has multiple choices of the route he runs and the one he chooses depends on the coverage OSU plays. McCalister was only slightly outside of Dike, but the amount of space between them gives credence to Dike's decision to run the out. However, it's possible the letter of the rule in the offense is that if the defensive back has any outside leverage, the receiver is supposed to hitch the route.
Dike is likely the only receiver allowed to run option routes often, and that's because of his experience. Mertz and Dike's time spent together makes a mistake like Saturday's even more damning.
2. Logan Brown's biggest issue
Upper-body injuries have robbed UW junior Logan Brown of the ability to be a great college tackle.
Watch the second play of the Badgers' lone touchdown drive of the first half. Brown drops in his pass set and reaches out early to try to get his hands on the defender. That opens up his chest and he gets bull rushed back into Mertz, who is still able to deliver the ball. But Brown reaching out early is a consistent problem and one that he tries to pull off to compensate for a weak punch when he fires his hands at the correct time.
A second-and-10 play late in the first half shows another early punch that costs UW a big hit on Mertz. Brown takes his pass set against J.T. Tuimoloau and reaches out early with his left hand, then can't react when Tuimoloau spins inside. Mertz gets a pass off but gets taken down hard.
Brown still has the ability to move bodies and be effective when he run blocks, particularly blocking down the line. Run blocking doesn't require the same kind of static punch of pass blocking, and Brown's lower-body strength can override his weaknesses up top. He's also got quick feet when climbing to the second level, so Bob Bostad's decision to keep him in the lineup as UW is banged up at tackle makes sense. But Brown's chances to live up to the billing of being a five-star recruit and one of the highest-rated recruits UW has ever landed appear to be over.
3. Jordan Turner has problems in space
Ohio State challenged UW's ability to maintain its discipline in zone coverage throughout the game, and two plays on the Buckeyes' tone-setting opening drive showed that inside linebacker Jordan Turner isn't playing up to the potential he showed in practice and limited snaps last season.
Buckeyes quarterback C.J. Stroud threw completions to Cade Stover (22 yards) and Emeka Egbuka (33) that helped propel that touchdown drive, and on both he took advantage of Turner not getting enough depth in his zone coverage.
Stover was the slot player on the defense's right side on his catch, and Turner is responsible for the middle of the field in the single-high-safety defense UW plays. Turner has his eyes on Stroud and is playing about 9 yards off the line of scrimmage, but he doesn't feel Stover — a player he should carry in his zone — getting behind him and he allows Stroud to fire a strike over him and in front of the safeties. There's no receiver threating underneath to catch Turner's eye and Stroud isn't the kind of running quarterback on which a defense plays a spy.
It's almost the same play on Egbuka's catch, but Stover motions to the defense's left to put three receivers on that side. Turner has to replace fellow inside linebacker Maema Njongmeta, who goes after Stroud on a blitz, but he again doesn't feel Egbuka getting behind him and Stroud drops in a perfect pass that gets OSU to the 2-yard line. Again, there was no crossing route or back out of the backfield that would explain Turner's lack of depth.
Turner is a better player than what he's put on tape the first four weeks, and UW's defense needs him to figure out his problems quickly.
4. Too much standing on the D-line
UW had a hard time finding anything on defense that worked when the Buckeyes were rolling in the first half. It wasn't until senior John Torchio's second-quarter interception that the defense stopped a drive without allowing a score of some kind.
The Badgers defensive linemen got a little impatient and lost their discipline after OSU seized the momentum and was attacking them with stretch run plays. Almost every UW defensive linemen who played — Keeanu Benton, Rodas Johnson, Isaiah Mullens, Gio Paez and James Thompson Jr., to name a few — had instances in which they pop up off the snap and try to find the ball as opposed to staying low and trying to defeat a block and while staying gap sound.
One can almost see the thought process — "Well, that hasn't worked so far, let me try this." But once a defensive lineman is standing tall, they're easy to move and that happened far too often for the Badgers.
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