There are things to learn even in a game that the University of Wisconsin football team had control of from start to finish.
The Badgers’ 34-7 victory over Eastern Michigan on Saturday showed some areas to be happy with and one that may raise concerns as the team enters a bye week before taking on Notre Dame on Sept. 25.
Here are four observations after rewatching the win over EMU, which snaps the Eagles’ streak of three consecutive wins against Big Ten Conference opponents.
1. Graham Mertz was more accurate
One must grade the Badgers’ redshirt sophomore quarterback with a limited sample size in this game. Mertz threw just 17 times, connecting on 14 throws for 141 yards. It was the second-most accurate game of his 11 career starts, completing 82.4% of his throws. His only better game accuracy-wise was his debut against Illinois last season (20 of 21).
If you want to complain that Mertz hasn’t thrown a touchdown pass yet, remember that he did to tight end Clay Cundiff, but a downfield holding call against receiver Danny Davis called it back. Mertz could’ve had another TD that drive had Kendric Pryor not taken his eyes off a well-thrown ball to the back of the end zone and bobbled it as he went out of bounds.
Only one of Mertz’s completions was an inaccurate pass, by a State Journal judgment, and it still resulted in a 17-yard gain to Pryor. Mertz made one questionable choice, throwing a ball up the seam to Jack Dunn, but throwing too far inside and almost having it intercepted.
Perhaps most important for Mertz: It was the fourth career start he did not throw a pick.
Badgers fans wanted a massive leap from Mertz out of the gates. That hasn’t happened. But the small steps he took against EMU are a good start to playing better football.
2. Don’t forget about Benton
Raw numbers won’t illuminate how much of a force Keeanu Benton has been on the Badgers’ defensive line this season. Both of UW’s opponents thus far effectively have given up on between-the-tackles runs, in part because of Benton’s stonewalling of the interior blockers.
His highlight plays against EMU came on back-to-back snaps in the third quarter. Benton quickly tossed aside EMU center Jake Donnellon to bring down tailback Darius Boone for a 2-yard loss on second-and-8 with the Badgers ahead 27-0. Benton took on a double-team and swatted down a pass attempt over the middle on the next snap. It was his second pass breakup this season.
The stat sheet won’t show his influence on Matt Henningsen’s sack in the second quarter. Henningsen made a great move across the face of the right guard, turned his body to get free then drilled quarterback Ben Bryant for a loss of 10 yards. But Benton’s quick move up the field and toward the center before slanting to his right took enough of the center’s attention that he couldn’t help once Henningsen was rushing across the guard.
The move to play Benton more in nickel packages is paying off for UW thus far. The defense didn’t allow a point to EMU.
3. A little more zone?
The Badgers defense forced its first turnover of the season with Donte Burton’s fourth-quarter interception. UW was in zone coverage on the play, protecting a 27-7 lead and really having zero fear of a playmaker from EMU or trouble creating pressure on the quarterback. Still, Burton having his eyes on the quarterback and the ball allowed him to pick off the pass after it tipped off the hands of EMU’s Thomas Odukoya.
Without the benefit of all-22 film to review, it’s difficult to determine the pass coverage UW ran each play, but there were more zone concepts at work throughout the game than were obvious against Penn State. UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said at his availability Sept. 6 that playing more zone so defensive backs could have more opportunities to create turnovers was a possibility going forward.
Although, in all seriousness, the Badgers could’ve played their second-string defense the entire game and EMU wasn’t likely to score.
4. What to do with Seltzner’s spot
The Badgers’ offensive line overall had a good day against the Eagles. They were bigger, stronger and flat-out nasty when needed. UW condensed their game plan and specifically challenged the offensive line to be successful with the Badgers’ base concepts, and it was.
However, senior Josh Seltzner had such a rough start to the game that line coach Joe Rudolph may have to consider other options. Seltzner was stopped flat-footed on a fourth-and-2 run at the goal line and the penetration he allowed stopped tailback Chez Mellusi’s momentum and killed the play. He had three other plays in the first half on which he failed to sustain his block and his man made first contact on the ball carrier.
Junior Cormac Sampson played in multiple series against EMU — specifically the third series of each half, plus some more action in the second half. He was on Seltzner’s heels for the left guard role during training camp while also playing tackle when other players were hurt. Keep an eye on this going forward. UW has to find the right five in the two weeks of build up to the Notre Dame game.