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Sunday, September 25, 2022
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Badgers face New Mexico State at home, hoping to shake off past mistakes

The Wisconsin Badgers will attempt to move on from a painful loss with a new opponent in the New Mexico State Aggies. The Badgers possess a significant talent advantage over the Aggies but have made enough mistakes to keep any outcome possible.

The New Mexico State Aggies (0-3) will visit Camp Randall Stadium this Saturday at 2:30 p.m. to take on the now-unranked Wisconsin Badgers (1-1). 

Wisconsin, desperate to bounce back from its stunning 17-14 defeat at home Week 2 versus Washington State, enters an inviting matchup against the dreadful Aggies. New Mexico State followed up a 38-0 loss to Minnesota by falling 20-13 to the University of Texas at El Paso last Saturday. They are coming to Madison with a dreadful offense and a defense that struggles to stop the run, appearing unlikely to collect its first win of 2022. 

New Mexico State offense vs. Wisconsin defense

Through three losses, the Aggie offense has been riddled with uncertainty and ineptitude. Quarterback Diego Pavia started the first two games and completed 11 of 25 attempts for 185 yards, zero touchdowns and three interceptions. 

His miserable numbers pushed freshman Gavin Frakes into the starting role against UTEP, but Frakes completed just 1 of 5 attempts for 11 yards and a pick before handing the reins back to Pavia.

In relief of Frakes, Pavia’s passing numbers — 7 of 20 for 100 yards — were once again unimpressive. It was the junior’s legs, however, that sparked New Mexico State’s comeback effort. Pavia ran for 69 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the loss, fumbling in the red zone with three seconds remaining. On the season he’s averaged 6.3 yards per carry for 145 total yards to lead the Aggies in rushing. 

Regardless of who starts under center, New Mexico State’s offense matches up poorly with a Wisconsin defense that has allowed 2.3 yards per carry and 55 rushing yards per game through two weeks. Neither Illinois State’s multiple running backs nor Washington State’s Nakia Watson managed to generate much on the ground, so it’s reasonable to expect Aggie running backs Star Thomas and Jamoni Jones to have quiet afternoons. 

A mobile quarterback in Pavia would be a new test for Wisconsin inside linebackers Maema Njongmeta and Jordan Turner. The first-time starters have totaled 16 and 11 tackles, respectively, and Turner has contributed a pair of quarterback hits and a sack. Washington State’s Cameron Ward, though a pretty mobile passer, didn’t get involved as a runner in Week 2. 

As expected, Wisconsin has been staunch against the run so far. It’s been the pass defense which, despite accumulating four interceptions through two games, has been exposed at times, although the Aggies likely lack the talent to exploit Wisconsin’s biggest defensive weakness. 

Receiver Justin Powers has three receptions for a team-leading 108 yards, none of which came last week versus UTEP. The 6’4” senior is New Mexico State’s best chance of picking up bulk yardage, so it will be interesting to see which Badger cornerback draws that matchup. 

David Kordell, a 6’3” wide receiver, tallied seven catches for 56 yards and a touchdown to begin the season but has done nothing since. 

Wisconsin’s defense yielded just 253 total yards against Washington State and is hardly to blame for the Week 2 loss. That said, the unit still has room for improvement, and anything short of dominance against New Mexico State would be underwhelming. 

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Wisconsin offense vs. New Mexico State defense

Running backs Braelon Allen and Chez Mellusi appear primed for bounce-back performances this Saturday against an Aggie defense that has been porous against the run. 

New Mexico State began the season by allowing 179 rushing yards and two touchdowns to Nevada. The next week, Minnesota gashed the Aggies for 297 rushing yards (5.2 per carry) and five touchdowns. Despite a better effort against UTEP, the Aggies have still allowed 579 rushing yards (4.4 per carry) and eight scores in the early season. 

The Badger offensive line was a glaring weakness against Washington State. Without right tackle Riley Mahlman (leg), the group created few holes for Wisconsin’s running game, protected Graham Mertz with little consistency and committed several costly penalties. Whether or not Mahlman returns, the line will surely have an easier time this Saturday. 

New Mexico State has sacked opposing quarterbacks only three times in as many games, so Mertz figures to have a clean pocket to work from. 

Wisconsin’s quarterback showcased an impressive deep ball, especially to receiver Keontez Lewis, when given opportunities in the first half last week. Such aggressive throws were rare in the second half, though, and later head coach Paul Chryst expressed mixed feelings about Mertz’s downfield attempts. 

“There were a couple times I thought it was a good decision, and there were a couple that I thought [Mertz] might’ve been forcing it,” Chryst said in his Monday press conference. 

No, not all of Mertz’s deep throws were perfect decisions, but each was impressively accurate and gave the receiver a chance to make a play. 

If occasionally “forcing” the ball downfield bolsters Mertz’s confidence and catalyzes growth among the Badgers’ inexperienced receivers, then fire away, Graham.

The Aggies’ pass defense has surrendered 141.3 passing yards per game, although the unit is still looking for its first interception. Their struggles stopping the run haven’t convinced opponents to throw the ball much, so those numbers don’t mean a ton. Look for Mertz to throw plenty of passes Saturday, even if Allen and the running game carry Wisconsin’s offense. 

This week above all others, Wisconsin fans should pay close attention to third and fourth-down play calling in opponent territory. If Chryst and offensive coordinator Bobby Engram lack confidence in kicker Vito Calvaruso — understandably so, after the transfer badly missed two field goals against Washington State — the Badgers may take some deep shots on third-and-short before going for it on fourth down. 

It’s also possible Wisconsin is quicker to punt in short-yardage situations. A failed fourth-and-short attempt near midfield preceded a lightning-quick Washington State touchdown drive last Saturday, so Chryst trusting his defense with a long field behind it would be a safe strategy. 

Overview

No margin of victory over the Aggies would erase the season-long consequences of Wisconsin’s falling to a middle-of-the-pack Pac-12 opponent in Washington State. 

Even so, competence can lead to confidence, and if the Badgers cut back on penalties at the line of scrimmage, better defend against deep passes and continue succeeding with downfield throws of their own, there may be a sliver of optimism heading into the Sept. 24 Ohio State game.

While Wisconsin’s performance is more important than the score, it absolutely should pummel New Mexico State in a blowout similar to the season opener versus Illinois State. 

The Daily Cardinal will provide further coverage of New Mexico State at Wisconsin as the matchup approaches and, as usual, live Twitter updates will be available during the game @cardinal_sports

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