The Wisconsin Badgers (2-1) unrelentingly thrashed the New Mexico State Aggies (0-4) on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.
Collecting their second win of the season by a 66-7 score, Wisconsin outclassed New Mexico State in every facet of the game. The Badgers bounced back from last week’s loss on the strength of another impressive showing from Graham Mertz, contributions from less familiar faces and the Aggies’ offensive ineptitude.
Lopsided score aside, Saturday’s game provided additional insight on the Badgers’ 2022 roster and how it’ll fare going forward.
Wisconsin wasted no time grabbing a lead after New Mexico State won the coin toss and deferred. Isaac Guerendo returned the opening kickoff to midfield before the last of Braelon Allen’s three consecutive runs went for a 39-yard touchdown.
Later in the quarter, cornerback Ricardo Hallman made one of the more impressive plays of Wisconsin’s season to date. Aggie quarterback Diego Pavia targeted David Kordell downfield and Hallman, in single coverage versus the 6’3” receiver, spun around for a diving, one-handed interception.
Chez Mellusi scored a two-yard touchdown to begin the second quarter, extending Wisconsin’s lead to 14-0. The Badgers’ next drive, aided by a pair of New Mexico State personal fouls, also ended with points as Graham Mertz delivered a strike to an open Keontez Lewis for an 18-yard touchdown.
Although it was Lewis’ only reception of the day, he’s now made an impact for two straight weeks, and has made a case for regular snaps and targets going forward.
The Badgers were back in the end zone before long. One play after cornerback Jay Shaw dropped an interception, linebacker Maema Njongmeta snagged his first career pick. Quarterback Gavin Frakes’ pass bounced off running back Jamoni Jones’ facemask and right into Njongmeta’s hands, setting Wisconsin up at the two-yard line. Allen punched it in with his second rushing score of the game, making it 28-0.
Despite finishing with three tackles and half of a tackle for loss — both personal season-lows — Njongmeta has been a standout among the Wisconsin defense’s many first-year starters. The redshirt junior has combined with Jordan Turner to solidify the center of Wisconsin’s defense and lessen the blow of losing Leo Chenal and Jack Sanborn to the NFL.
Wisconsin led 35-0 at halftime thanks to Allen’s third touchdown. Mertz was picked on a tipped yet ill-advised throw in the red zone and the Aggies put together a long drive, only to miss a chip-shot field goal.
Highlighting an uneventful second half were the first two touchdowns of receiver Skylar Bell’s career. The first was a 49-yarder. Virtually uncovered on a downfield route, the redshirt freshman pulled in an accurate pass, dodged the high safety and easily ran to the end zone.
The second was a beautiful 18-yard throw from Mertz to the left side of the end zone. With some space behind a couple defenders, Bell snagged the pass and got his feet down inbounds.
Two Guerendo touchdowns, Nate Van Zelst’s first career field goal and at least 60,000 departed fans later, Wisconsin had secured a 66-7 victory.
While the lackluster opponent merits an asterisk, Mertz put together another very impressive afternoon. He completed 12 of 15 attempts for 251 yards, three touchdowns and the interception. With a few exceptions, Mertz made intelligent reads and delivered firm, accurate throws to all parts of the field.
With the game well in hand, backups Myles Burkett and Deacon Hill both took snaps in the second half. It was the latter’s on-field debut as a Badger.
Mertz’s improved passing has certainly lent itself to more production by this wide receiver group compared to last year’s. That said, the pass-catching group deserves credit for its work thus far. Lewis, Bell and Chimere Dike have created separation and stretched the field, albeit against unremarkable secondaries.
Whereas the 2021 passing game featured Jake Ferguson with little help (and a less developed Mertz, of course), this year’s Badgers appear to have a number of capable receivers, not to mention tight ends Clay Cundiff and Hayden Rucci.
Wide receiver Dean Engram made his presence felt for the first time this season, catching three passes for 63 yards on quarterback Myles Burkett’s first drive of the third quarter. His absence from the offense has been noteworthy, especially considering the occasional struggles of Wisconsin’s cornerbacks.
A very effective slot cornerback last season, Engram has been much less valuable since joining the offense this offseason. It will be important to monitor his usage going forward.
It’s also apparent that Engram isn’t especially comfortable as a punt returner. On one punt Saturday, he crept forward before backpedaling over five yards to make the fair catch. He should be fine with more experience, but that type of last-second adjustment would be anxiety-inducing in a close game.
The Aggie offense was uniquely incompetent. New Mexico State split quarterback snaps between Diego Pavia and Gavin Frakes, but neither managed respectable numbers. The former was 6-of-19 for 52 yards and a pick, the latter 3-of-10 for 66 yards and two interceptions. Errant passes to open receivers were frequent, and with the exception of Hallman’s, the turnovers were ugly.
Wisconsin outgained New Mexico State 595 yards to 242 and 24 first downs to 14. Every yard felt like a mile to the visitors, who have objectively played as one of the worst teams in the country.
Saturday’s final score is all but meaningless. New Mexico State is a bottom-tier program enduring a miserable season, so such a blowout was entirely predictable.
The primary benefit of the win is confidence — the Badgers will now travel to Ohio State as significant underdogs, so it was important to wash the taste of last Saturday’s loss out of their mouths.
An in-depth preview of the Ohio State matchup will be online later in the week along with additional coverage of Badger football, so stay tuned.