MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin offensive coordinator Phil Longo stood on the sideline and called in a critical early play against Iowa with a series of hand gestures before nodding in affirmation. Fourth-and-1 from the Hawkeyes’ 13-yard line. Under center. Four tight ends blocking.
It was a quintessential, old-school Badgers power approach that, for so many years, allowed the offense to thrive. The problem, as anyone who has watched Wisconsin’s remade offense this year has noticed, is that it isn’t exactly who the Badgers are now. Not in Longo’s variation of the Air Raid. In fact, before the snap, Wisconsin had run just two plays under center this season that weren’t kneel downs. A third, just seconds earlier, had been negated by a false start penalty on right tackle Riley Mahlman.
So perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that the play ended in calamity. Two of the tight ends on the right side of the formation — Riley Nowakowski and JT Seagreaves — pulled around and left preseason All-American cornerback Cooper DeJean unblocked off the edge to stuff Badgers tailback Braelon Allen for a one-yard loss and a turnover on downs.
That was as close as Wisconsin came to scoring a touchdown during a deflating and woeful 15-6 loss against rival Iowa on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium that may have cost the Badgers a shot at the Big Ten West title and highlighted just how far away this offense is from reaching the potential so many people hoped was possible this season.
Nobody blocked Cooper DeJean.
The @HawkeyeFootball star stuffs Wisconsin on 4th-and-1. 🚫
— Big Ten Football (@B1Gfootball) October 14, 2023
What does this offense want to be? And how does it get there? Those are questions Wisconsin doesn’t have answers for right now as it struggles to tailor a game plan to the talent it has.
“We definitely didn’t perform the way that we wanted to, and we definitely didn’t have the identity that we wanted,” wide receiver Chimere Dike said. “Let’s put it that way.”
It didn’t help matters that starting quarterback Tanner Mordecai injured his right hand when it hit the helmet of linebacker Jay Higgins on a follow-through late in the second quarter. Mordecai exited the game for good after he told coaches that he couldn’t throw the football. He was replaced by backup Braedyn Locke. Mordecai’s status for the foreseeable future is unknown, though Wisconsin coach Luke Fickell said after the game that “it doesn’t look good for a little while.”
That situation may give Wisconsin a built-in excuse for the next few weeks. But it’s not as though the offense did much of anything against Iowa before Mordecai was hurt.
After the turnover on downs, the Badgers went three-and-out on four consecutive drives. During that stretch, Mordecai completed 4-of-10 passes for 19 yards. Wisconsin rushed twice for four yards — a two-yard run from Mordecai and a two-yard run from backup running back Jackson Acker (Allen briefly left the game due to an undisclosed injury before returning to play). Its first two three-and-out series featured six passing attempts and no rushes.
Fickell acknowledged that Wisconsin perhaps strayed too much from its running game in the first half, noting: “I don’t think that’s good for any of us.” Yet, in the end, Wisconsin threw the ball a whopping 50 times against an Iowa defense that entered the day ranked third nationally in fewest yards allowed per passing attempt.
“I don’t think they’re trying to find what their identity needs to be,” Fickell said of his offense. “I think we’re trying to find how it fits with the people we have as much as anything.”
Wisconsin didn’t look like a Big Ten West contender: First thoughts after Iowa
Yes, Iowa’s defense is good. Stout. Fits gaps where they should be fitted. But even Utah State and Western Michigan scored touchdowns against Iowa this season. Fickell said that “there was no flow of anything” offensively.
“We were fighting uphill in a lot of things all day,” Fickell said. “We got beat in every phase of the game. They out-physicaled us, they out-rushed us. All those things. I’m not saying that about the players, I’m saying that of myself. They were better prepared.”
Locke, who entered the day with one career pass attempt, completed 15-of-30 passes for 122 yards with no touchdowns, one interception and one lost fumble. Eight of those passes came on Wisconsin’s final offensive series while trailing by two possessions. But it was a situation the Badgers could have helped Locke with if they had better balance.
Late in the second quarter, Wisconsin faced a third-and-2 at its own 14-yard line and went to an empty backfield with five receivers, lining up three slot receivers in the formation. Locke’s pass over the middle was broken up by defensive lineman Joe Evans and nearly intercepted by defensive back Xavier Nwankpa.
“We just got beat,” Allen said. “We didn’t play to our potential. We didn’t play physical enough, didn’t execute well enough. That’s just what it comes down to. At the end of the day, we just had to put the ball in the end zone once and we win the game.”
Interest in Wisconsin football was as high during the offseason as it had been in a long time, in large part because of the offensive scheme and personnel changes. Longo’s North Carolina offenses over the previous four seasons ranked fourth in the Power 5 in yards per play, with success both running and passing. When Wisconsin went to the transfer portal and added Mordecai, who threw 72 touchdown passes over two seasons at SMU, as well as four transfer receivers that included Oklahoma State’s Bryson Green and USC’s CJ Williams, the optimism appeared to be well-founded.
Yet six games into the regular season, Wisconsin’s no-huddle, up-tempo system has shown only occasional flashes of its potential. The Badgers have just three passing touchdowns, the second-worst mark in the country ahead of only East Carolina. Now without Mordecai, as well as backup running back Chez Mellusi — who suffered a serious leg injury two games ago against Purdue — it’s hard to see how things immediately improve. Acker, Mellusi’s replacement, carried three times for 10 yards against Iowa.
“I feel like we have a ton of weapons,” Badgers receiver Will Pauling said. “Obviously, you want to spread the ball around. Obviously, everybody wants the ball. But I feel like it’s kind of hard to explain.
“I trust coach Longo. I know coach Longo’s been in the game a long time, so he knows how to run an offense. So I don’t have any worries about where the offense is at or where it’s going to be in the future because I trust my teammates, I trust my coaches and I trust myself.”
What happened Saturday served as an interesting juxtaposition against an Iowa team that doesn’t play pretty football but at least knows what it is. Wisconsin’s defense played well enough to win, holding Iowa quarterback Deacon Hill, the former Badger, to 6-of-14 completions for 37 yards. Iowa won anyway by sticking to the ground game and excelling on defense and special teams. The Hawkeyes (6-1, 3-1 Big Ten) took control of the Big Ten West from the Badgers (4-2, 2-1), and it may be a struggle for Wisconsin to right itself, particularly with undefeated Ohio State looming on the schedule in two weeks.
Fickell has a demonstrated history of success at Cincinnati that resulted in a College Football Playoff berth two years ago. It is too early to judge what Wisconsin can become under him. He made marked changes to a program that may require more time than anticipated.
What we do know is that this was the kind of game that was truly going to test whether Wisconsin’s version of an Air Raid offense was ready for the Big Ten. Halfway through Fickell’s first season, we are seeing that it isn’t anywhere near good enough.
(Photo of Braeden Locke: Jeff Hanisch / USA Today)