The No. 18 Wisconsin Badgers beat the unranked Illinois State Redbirds in a 38-0 clobbering Saturday night at Camp Randall Stadium.
The Badgers winning by several scores and holding Illinois State scoreless was no surprise considering the startlingly lopsided matchup. However, Wisconsin’s performance, highlighted by an efficient passing attack, a balanced running game and vulnerability in the defensive secretary, deserves a deeper look.
Illinois State’s best chance of scoring came on its second possession. After a pair of Wisconsin personal fouls had turned Redbirds’ third-down failures into first downs, the visitors found themselves deep in Badger territory. On third and 7 from the 9-yard line, quarterback Zack Annexstad forced a throw to the middle of the goal line, right into the waiting arms of Wisconsin safety John Torchio.
The senior strong safety, having already recorded a sack on the previous possession, outran the Illinois State backfield and dashed to the opposite end zone without much trouble. Torchio tied for the team lead with a trio of interceptions in 2021, but Saturday’s 100-yard pick-six was easily the biggest play of his career— not only did it suffocate any chance of a competitive game, it set the Wisconsin program record for longest interception-return touchdown.
Wisconsin entered the second quarter having run just three offensive plays. The fourth, snapped from Wisconsin’s 4-yard line, was a 96-yard touchdown run for running back Braelon Allen.
The 6’2”, 235 pound sophomore took the handoff and angled left before seeing the hole collapse in front of him, wiggling past linebacker Zeke Vandenburgh and breaking free to the right. Cornerback Franky West nearly chased Allen down 90 yards later, but he missed a shoestring tackle and Allen, like Torchio, had seized a school record — his 96-yard score is the longest run in Wisconsin history.
For a back with such remarkable strength, speed and overall athleticism, Allen’s greatest trait may be his patience. With Le’Veon Bell-like deliberateness, Allen has a knack for waiting behind the line of scrimmage until Wisconsin’s offensive line, which was excellent Saturday, opens gaping holes.
Although it ended in a field goal, the Badgers’ subsequent, 7:39 drive was essential to give Jim Leonhard’s defense some much-needed rest and even out the time of possession. Graham Mertz, whose only pass attempt to that point had been dropped by Markus Allen, went 5-for-5 for 46 yards on the drive.
After Illinois State curiously punted on fourth and 3 from Wisconsin’s 42, the Badgers ran out the clock and took a 17-0 advantage to the locker room.
Having won the opening coin toss and deferring to the second half, Wisconsin received the second-half kickoff and drove nine plays for a one-yard Braelon Allen touchdown.
The Badgers’ fourth touchdown came on their ensuing possession, which began with a 74-yard reception by receiver Chimere Dike. Off a play-action fake, Mertz found Dike on a screen pass with nothing but green grass ahead of him.
Unfortunately, the junior wideout lacked the breakaway speed to score on the play, but he got his touchdown three plays later on a wide-open, 16-yard catch in the corner of the end zone. Dike, expected to lead the receiving corps a year after recording 272 yards, opened the season with three catches for 106 yards and the touchdown.
A rather uneventful fourth quarter saw Wisconsin running back Isaac Guerendo score his first touchdown of 2022, safety Preston Zachman intercept Annexstad while filling in for Hunter Wohler (leg) and, in a bit of a surprise, quarterback Myles Burkett enter the game in relief of Mertz.
Deacon Hill was listed as the second-string signal caller, yet it was the freshman Burkett who handled mop-up duties to close the 38-0 contest.
Mertz finished his night 14-of-16 for 219 yards and a touchdown, with one of his two incompletions being a sharp, opening-drive toss that slipped through Markus Allen’s hands.
Yes, the 74-yard screen to Dike inflated Mertz’s numbers a bit, but the quarterback played a clean, confident game and delivered a handful of impressive throws. While success against a non-Power Five school means little for the junior’s season-long outlook, Saturday was certainly an important confidence-booster to begin Mertz’s 2022 campaign.
A number of Mertz’s pass-catching weapons got involved, which will be an important development as the season progresses. Along with Dike, wide receivers Allen and Skylar Bell each tallied multiple receptions, as did tight ends Hayden Rucci and Clay Cundiff.
As for the running backs, Braelon Allen led the group with 14 carries for 148 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Chez Mellusi totaled 48 yards on 10 carries — back from injury, he displayed the same steady, yet unexplosive production we saw a year ago. The senior is unlikely to pull off the highlight-reel runs which Allen has made a habit of, but if he can average upwards of 4 yards per carry and stay healthy, he’ll be a critical cog of the Wisconsin offense.
Guerendo had just two carries for three yards and the touchdown. His speed, however, was evident on special teams as he opened the second half with a 33-yard kick return. While offensive coordinator Bobby Engram figures to keep Guerendo involved this season as a nice change-of-pace back, his biggest contributions may be as a kick returner.
Defensively, the front seven performed as expected, holding the Redbirds to 57 rushing yards on 26 attempts (a 2.2-yard average). Junior inside linebacker Maema Njongmeta totaled eight tackles in his first game as a starter. Alongside him, Jordan Turner had four tackles and a sack. Nick Herbig started his season strong with a pair of sacks.
The biggest negative takeaway from Saturday’s blowout was the performance of Wisconsin’s secondary. Redbird quarterback Zack Annexstad, in his first substantial action since 2018, finished 16-of-24 for 186 yards. He tallied the bulk of his yards on downfield throws, though, completing passes of 35, 26, 26, 23 and 16 yards.
While turnovers and Illinois State’s lack of aggression in fourth and short situations prevented those plays from leading to points, the Redbirds got to Wisconsin territory fairly often. More skilled and well-coached offenses, namely Ohio State’s, won’t be nearly as forgiving, so it will be important to watch Wisconsin’s pass defense in the coming weeks.
Wisconsin’s starting free safety Hunter Wohler exited the game with a left leg injury and was seen with crutches and a walking boot after the game. Wohler will reportedly be out indefinitely, likely pushing Zachman into a starting role.
Overall, the Badgers dominated the Redbirds as they should have and made an encouraging first impression in 2022. Wisconsin returns to Camp Randall Stadium this Saturday for a 2:30 p.m. showdown with the Washington State Cougars, who opened their season with a 24-17 win over Iowa State.
Stay tuned for The Daily Cardinal’s season-long coverage of the Badgers, and don’t forget to follow @cardinal_sports on Twitter.