STATE COLLEGE, Pa. − Three University of Wisconsin tailbacks rushed for 252 yards on 28 carries at Penn State, numbers that normally signal a victory for the Badgers.
Indeed, the formula for winning football games at UW starts with a productive running game.
“It’s going to give you a chance,” coach Paul Chryst said.
Saturday at Beaver Stadium, it didn’t.
Tailback Jonathan Taylor got UW off to a stunning start with a 71-yard touchdown run for a 7-0 lead. After that, however, the Badgers couldn’t complement the rushing of Taylor, Taiwan Deal and Garrett Groshek with even a rudimentary passing attack, causing the offense to fizzle out and UW to drop a 22-10 decision to Penn State in what many were calling the Disappointment Bowl.
Both teams opened the season with lofty national rankings and both teams entered the game with three losses. But UW’s deepening offensive struggles assured that only the Badgers would go home disappointed.
The Wisconsin Badgers fell to the Penn State Nittany Lions, 22-10, on Saturday at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pennsylvania.
UW’s short-handed defense gamely refused to give in to Penn State’s dynamic offense, keeping UW within striking distance most of the way. But in what has become a broken record through 10 games, UW’s passing game wasn’t up to the task of balancing out the offense and putting up enough points to win.
Instead, the passing game regressed to levels not seen since spread-offense advocate Gary Andersen was the coach.
“Our big emphasis is always establishing the run,” Taylor said. “But just establishing the run won’t get you wins. You’ve got to complement that with the pass game and make sure that you’re playing clean football.”
UW’s offense failed on all counts against Penn State’s defense, which has done nothing extraordinary this season except rush the passer. The Nittany Lions entered the game ninth in the nation in sacks.
Penn State limited UW to 60 yards passing on a cold, windy day. It was UW’s lowest total since it had 46 in a victory over Nebraska in 2014, Andersen’s last year. Of course, UW rushed for 581 yards and rolled over Nebraska in that one. Earlier that season, the Badgers threw for only 50 yards in a close loss to LSU.
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“I’d say it was a combination of everything,” wide receiver A.J. Taylor said. “We can’t use the weather or anything like that as an excuse because both teams had to face that. I just think things weren’t clicking for us. We couldn’t get past ourselves. We were kind of defeating ourselves as an offense.”
Not only did the Badgers defeat themselves as an offense, they rolled up a pretty good score on themselves. Quarterback Jack Coan, making his second start, lost two fumbles and threw two interceptions. Coan was sacked five times, with most of them falling on the shoulders of the celebrated offensive line. The veteran line was also responsible for four presnap penalties, which would be easily attributed to the noise levels had such penalties not been happening all season. And the wide receivers were all but invisible, catching only four passes for 36 yards.
Of course, Chryst orchestrates the offense and he has been unable to build a viable passing attack to balance out the offense, something he routinely achieved during his seven seasons as UW’s offensive coordinator and his first three seasons as head coach. The highlight came in 2011 when the Russell Wilson-led offense averaged 235.6 yards rushing and 234.3 yards passing.
After Saturday’s loss, UW is averaging 266.6 yards rushing and 162.8 yards passing, by far the greatest disparity since Chryst returned in 2015. It’s hard to throw when you don’t call pass plays, however, and Chryst all but abandoned the pass until the fourth quarter against the Nittany Lions.
He knew that Coan was inexperienced and that Penn State had a fierce pass rush, then saw two of UW’s first four possessions end with third-down sacks of Coan. It clearly affected Chryst as a play-caller because UW ran only nine pass plays in the first three quarters and Coan had as many completions (3-for-6) as Penn State had sacks.
“We knew coming in it was a good defense and statistically it backs it up,” Chryst said. “You knew that coming in, so you want to be smart on some of the things you’re doing. … I think it does affect you some. But you also have enough different things you can go to. For an offense to get rhythm, you’ve got to get first downs and we didn’t do that. And we weren’t great on third down, so it’s hard to get into a rhythm.”
That’s been the case all season for the passing game. So while Coan missed several throws and Chryst backed off the throttle too far, the line has to do its part as well. The only way for UW to have any chance of balancing out its offense is for the veteran line to keep Coan upright and out of third-and-long situations.
“It’s frustrating, but you definitely don’t throw up your hands or anything like that,” guard Michael Deiter said. “When passes get called, the confidence is there. When you’re going up to the line of scrimmage, you’re thinking, boom, it’ll be a routine pitch and catch and the protection will be good. But if it’s not good, if the guys are jumping offsides, if we’re giving up sacks, how are you supposed to get the passing game started?
That’s something that has eluded UW all season.