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Sunday, September 25, 2022
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Badgers showcase new-look roster in 2022 opener versus Illinois State

The Illinois State Redbirds will take on the No. 18 Wisconsin Badgers in a season-opening showdown Saturday at 6 p.m. in Camp Randall Stadium.

Coming off an unremarkable 4-7 season in 2021, Illinois State, a non-Power 5 program, will undoubtedly have its hands full against Wisconsin. Camp Randall Stadium is often at its most raucous during home openers and 2022 figures to be no different.

Illinois State Offense vs. Wisconsin Defense

Leading the Redbirds’ offense will be junior Zack Annexstad, a 6’3”, 220-pound quarterback who transferred from Minnesota and was named one of the team’s three captains last month. Annexstad’s only significant playing time came in 2018 when he completed 51.9% of his passes for 1,277 yards with nine touchdowns and seven interceptions across seven games with the Golden Gophers. 

For Annexstad, it will be a tall task breathing life into an Illinois State offense that averaged a meager 124.8 passing yards and 18.4 points per game last season. He’ll benefit from playing alongside running back Cole Mueller, who led the team with 977 rushing yards (5.2 per carry) and six touchdowns. Secondary running back Pha’Leak Brown, after carrying the ball 45 times for 163 yards and a pair of touchdowns, also returns for 2022. 

Running the ball is a risky proposition against a Badger defense which —  despite losing Jack Sanborn, Leo Chenal and other front-seven studs — remains incredibly strong up front. 

Wisconsin’s absurd run-stopping numbers in 2021, highlighted by 65.4 yards allowed per game and 2.1 yards per attempt, may be unsustainable. However, defensive linemen Keeanu Benton and Isaiah Mullens, along with outside linebacker Nick Herbig, return as the core of another potentially formidable unit. 

With growth from Maema Njongmeta and Jordan Turner, whose impressive offseasons suggest they will be the primary inside linebackers, Wisconsin should remain one of the better run defenses in the Big Ten. Illinois State won’t be a definitive test of the unit’s abilities. 

How Wisconsin pressures opposing quarterbacks will be important to monitor. Not only did Kansas City Chiefs’ third-round pick Leo Chenal rank second among Badgers with eight sacks in 2021. He was a uniquely versatile pass rusher proficient while pressuring from the edge or blitzing from inside. Jack Sanborn (five sacks in 2021), Matt Henningsen (3.5) and Noah Burks (three) are also gone, so new faces must emerge to provide quarterback pressure — even if they lack Chenal’s diverse skill set. 

Illinois State’s leading receiver Austin Nagel, who averaged 21.4 yards per catch and totaled 407 yards in 2021, has moved on, as has wide receiver Kacper Rutkiewicz and his 155 yards on 11 receptions. Annexstad will likely lean on tight end Bryson Deming (14 catches, 184 yards and two touchdowns) and receiver Jabari Khepera (13 catches, 152 yards and two touchdowns) in attacking the Badgers’ new-look secondary. 

Without all five starters from his nickel package in 2021, defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard is turning to new yet experienced options in the secondary. Second-team All-Pac 12 cornerback Jay Shaw should play opposite Alexander Smith to make up Wisconsin’s outside cornerback duo. At the slot position, played a year ago by now-wide receiver Dean Engram, Toledo transfer Justin Clark appears to be the leading candidate for snaps early on. 

Safety is a position of less certainty for the Badgers following the departure of Collin Wilder and Scott Nelson. John Torchio, who entered for three-safety packages in 2021 and totaled 35 tackles with three interceptions, should be a regular, perhaps alongside Hunter Wohler. 

Travian Blaylock was a leading candidate for snaps at the position but tore his right ACL in the offseason, meaning Wohler and others will have to fill that sizable void. Free safety and strong safety aren’t always distinct roles in Leonhard’s defense, so both starters – whoever they end up being – must be capable pass defenders and run stoppers alike. 

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Opening the season against Illinois State and its likely pedestrian passing attack, then against Washington State and New Mexico State, offers a good runway for the Wisconsin secondary to establish clear starters before a daunting Sept. 24 road matchup versus C.J. Stroud and the star Ohio State Buckeye receivers. 

Wisconsin Offense vs. Illinois State Defense

Defense was a less glaring issue for the Redbirds in 2021. They allowed 22.4 points and 351.3 yards per game (213.8 passing, 137.5 rushing) and opponents averaged 3.5 yards per rushing attempt. Notable returners include linebackers Zeke Vandenburgh (73 total tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, four sacks) and Kenton Wilhoit (67 total tackles, two interceptions). 

Illinois State’s 2021 run-stopping numbers come to Camp Randall Stadium with an asterisk, though, as none of Illinois State’s 2021 opponents were Wisconsin’s Braelon Allen. The hulking running back enters his sophomore season with astronomical expectations after averaging 6.8 yards per carry and totalling 1268 yards with 12 touchdowns in his seventeen-year-old campaign. 

Wisconsin will also benefit from the return of Chez Mellusi, who ran for 815 yards in nine games last year before tearing his left ACL. Together, Allen and Mellusi will challenge the strongest run defenses this fall, and they could be primed for a monstrous evening against Illinois State. 

There’s no doubt Wisconsin’s offensive identity is centered around the ground game. That said, the Badgers would be wise to give quarterback Graham Mertz and the passing attack plenty of opportunities Saturday — especially early on. Expectations are high as ever for Mertz entering his third season, and responsibilities are greater. Whereas in 2020 and 2021 veterans Jake Ferguson, Kendrick Pryor and Danny Davis represented stability and familiarity with the offense, Mertz is now the experienced one. 

With Chimere Dike as the lone 2021 contributor remaining on the wide receiver depth chart, new targets must emerge. 

If the offseason is any indication, Dike, redshirt freshman Markus Allen and Engram, a junior in his first season on offense, will be Mertz’s three leading wide receivers. Redshirt freshman Skyler Bell and sophomore Keontez Lewis are additional receivers who could rise to prominence. Tight end Clay Cundiff, who tallied three catches for 86 yards as Jake Ferguson’s backup last season, figures to see his share of targets, too. 

Importantly, with the tough-to-tackle Braelon Allen demanding so many defenders in or near the box, play-action can be a lethal element of Wisconsin’s offense, as these unfamiliar receivers figure to see plenty of single coverage. Confident, accurate downfield deliveries from Mertz, which have been far and few between throughout his career, could punish those thin coverages and catalyze big scoring drives. 

Offensive success against Illinois State would involve both a lopsided score and progress toward clarity about Mertz’s top targets this season. Last season confirmed an excellent rushing attack can carry the Badgers through much of the schedule, but eventually, whether it’s Week 4 in Columbus or Thanksgiving weekend against Minnesota, a competent, if not consistent air attack is essential to beating tougher opponents. 

Even with the considerable roster turnover, the 2022 Badgers should be a top team in the Big Ten West. If they’re to be that team, they should dominate Illinois State without much issue. 

Beyond the final score, a successful season-opening effort would involve an impressive passing performance by Mertz, typical success for the running backs and progress toward establishing starters in Jim Leonhard’s defensive secondary. 

Be sure to follow @cardinal_sports for live updates during Saturday’s game and coverage of the Badgers throughout the 2022 football season. 

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