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CHICAGO — Attributing blame for the University of Wisconsin football team's blowout loss to Notre Dame on Saturday is difficult because there's a bevy of options from which to choose.

The top culprits are five offensive turnovers, poor special teams plays, including UW's first allowed kick return touchdown in 10 years, and an inability to extend drives.

The Badgers safety didn't mince words after No. 18 UW fell to No. 12 Notre Dame 41-13 on Saturday at Soldier Field in Chicago.

There were smaller details that the Badgers (1-2) missed on repeatedly that led to the 41-13 defeat, the second-largest under coach Paul Chryst.

Here are four observations after rewatching UW-Notre Dame.

1. More motion, but still not enough

The Badgers used pre-snap motion on 18 of 72 tracked plays against the Irish, by far the most they have this season.

On most of the snaps when the game still was competitive, Notre Dame’s defensive alignment had five men at or just off the line of scrimmage, two linebackers at normal depth about 5 yards off the ball and a safety standing about 2 yards behind the linebackers. That eight-man box was part of what made it so difficult for the Badgers to run the ball.

When UW used motion — especially when fullback John Chenal moved from the backfield to a wide receiver spot on the outside — the safety or one of the linebackers followed him and got the numbers in the box more manageable for the offensive line. On a typical run play, there will be one player in the box that’s not accounted for because the offense is either running the play away from that player or it’s trusting the ball-carrier to make him miss at the second level.

UW gained an average of 6.2 yards on plays that featured pre-snap motion, including the offense’s longest play of the game, a 43-yard play-action pass to tight end Clay Cundiff. Pre-snap motion didn’t guarantee good plays — there were six such plays that got 0 or negative yardage — but it helps the offense change the numbers in the box and forces the defense to adjust pre-snap.

2. Linebackers didn’t get proper depth

It’s hard to poke holes in the way the Badgers’ defense played against Notre Dame, but one problem came up consistently and it cost UW dearly.

The linebacker group, both inside and outside, wasn’t getting proper depth in their pass-coverage drops, creating wider windows for Irish quarterbacks to throw the ball. The issue was glaring on some of the short passes to the outside that helped Notre Dame convert crucial third downs in the third quarter.

A couple plays to watch if you want a visual of the problem:

  • First quarter, ND’s first drive, second-and-17. Jack Coan throws to Avery Davis for 20 yards. This was a good anticipation throw by Coan, but outside linebacker Nick Herbig should’ve dropped back further in his zone coverage. There was no receiver out of the backfield Herbig would’ve been trying to cover and the receiver in the flat was already accounted for by safety Scott Nelson. If Herbig drops properly, Coan isn’t likely to make that throw and risk an interception, or he has to throw it so high that the catch becomes extremely difficult.

  • Fourth quarter, ND’s first drive, third-and-5. Drew Pyne throws to Kevin Austin for 7 yards. Senior outside linebacker Noah Burks doesn’t have a threat to in his zone and doesn’t widen out enough to close the window to the sideline throw. Austin runs a good route to get free from cornerback Alexander Smith, and Pyne makes a decent throw, but Burks wasn’t in a position to take the throw away or make it more challenging. It’s possible Burks was responsible for the QB scramble, and he correctly didn’t get too far from the line, but the drive continued.

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The linebackers have been so effective in UW’s pass rush and helped the Badgers get six sacks against the Irish. But they’ve got to be more disciplined in their pass coverage zones in big moments.

3. A new formation

UW debuted a personnel package against the Irish, one we’ll dub 11T.

A grouping with one tight end, one running back and three receivers — 11 personnel — has been UW’s most-used this year. But against the Irish, the Badgers replaced one of the receivers with an extra offensive lineman, using junior Cormac Sampson as an extra tackle.

The offense gained 66 yards on the four plays it used the formation. Those plays included the 22-yard pass to Kendric Pryor on the offense’s first play, the 35-yard shovel pass screen to Chez Mellusi and the touchdown pass to Pryor from 8 yards out in the third quarter.

Expect to see this formation going forward — it makes the defense get an extra lineman on the field, but UW can still run a lot of its passing game out of 11T.

4. Bad day from the RBs

A casual fan can tell just from the rushing yard total that it was a tough day for the UW backfield. The Badgers gained 74 net yards on 28 carries, an average of 2.6 yards per rush. UW entered the game averaging more than 200 yards per game on the ground and Notre Dame was allowing about 145.

The offensive line’s issues in blocking had more to do with the tailbacks’ lack of success on the ground than poor play by the runners. But the tailbacks made their own mistakes that weren’t good signs.

Twice in the third quarter running backs weren’t lined up in the correct spot and quarterback Graham Mertz had to move them from the slot to the backfield pre-snap. Isaac Guerendo made the error first, the second was Mellusi. Both times it was a dead giveaway the Badgers were throwing the ball. UW’s offense has enough issues without the defense knowing with certainty what play’s coming.

Mellusi also put forth a lazy effort on Mertz’s second pick-six in the final minutes of the game. Yes, it was already a blowout and the touchdown allowed only added to an already miserable fourth quarter. Yes, Mellusi is vital to the offense this year and getting hurt in such a situation would be a big blow. But Mellusi’s weak attempt at tackling Drew White after he secured the interception was inexcusable.

Help your QB out and save him a bit of embarrassment. Mellusi was brought into the program in part because of his experience at Clemson; he knows what it takes to reach the top. That play wasn’t championship effort.


This article originally ran on madison.com.

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