The Wisconsin Badgers (3-3, 1-2) got back in the win column with a 42-7 blowout of Northwestern (1-5, 1-2) on Saturday.
With plenty of Wisconsin fans populating Ryan Field in Evanston, the Badgers collected their first conference win on the strength of Graham Mertz’s career-best performance, Braelon Allen’s return to form and a trio of takeaways.
Saturday’s contest began in frustrating fashion for the Badgers. A 10-play, 66-yard drive set up kicker Nate Van Zelst for a 35-yard field goal attempt, but he missed wide left. Van Zelst and Vito Calvaruso (out with a right leg injury) combined to make just three of six field goal attempts in 2022, adding to Wisconsin’s special teams woes through six games.
Wisconsin began its next possession in the shadow of its own end zone but proceeded to drive 98 yards for a touchdown. Receiver Skyler Bell caught two passes for 36 yards, the second of which being a wide-open, 15-yard score.
A Kamo’i Latu interception led to a 52-yard catch-and-run touchdown by Chimere Dike, making it 14-0 Wisconsin at the beginning of the second quarter.
The Badgers extended their lead to 28 with another Dike score and, fascinatingly, a 23-yard touchdown pass by Braelon Allen. Lined up in the wildcat, the running back rolled right and found an open Chez Mellusi 10 yards downfield. Mellusi did the rest, dodging a couple defenders and finding the end zone.
Wisconsin has faced criticism for calling passing plays for Allen, especially in last week’s Illinois loss. While letting a running back throw the ball may not be a recipe for long-term success, it can prove useful, as Saturday’s touchdown displayed. Wildcat throws typically require the ball carrier to sell the run, and Allen did just that to draw coverage away from Mellusi.
Northwestern put together its first good drive of the game but, with one more snap from Wisconsin’s three-yard line before halftime, attempted and missed a 21-yard field goal.
The Wildcats drove 62 yards to start the half before Latu snagged his second pick of the afternoon. With Hunter Wohler (leg) missing several games, Latu has filled in well as Wisconsin’s starting free safety. The Utah transfer now has 20 tackles, five passes defensed and two interceptions after Saturday’s performance.
Much like the second quarter, the fourth quarter began with a Chimere Dike touchdown. It was a career-best outing from the 6-foot-1-inch junior, who caught 10 passes for 185 yards and three touchdowns.
A year after being the third receiver behind Danny Davis and Kendrick Pryor, Dike was expected to lead this year’s group and has absolutely done that — 25 catches for 442 yards are strong numbers through six games, as is his four-touchdown total.
Receiver Markus Allen, on the other hand, had scant production in the passing game but caught his first career touchdown, a 19 yarder, to close the Saturday scoring barrage. Having tallied just seven catches for 91 yards this season, the redshirt freshman would provide a huge boost to the offense if he gets more involved going forward.
The Allen score was Mertz’s fifth passing touchdown of the day and Wisconsin’s sixth as a team. While that team total may have seemed unfamiliar, it was actually unheard of — Mertz and Braelon Allen combined to accomplish the first game with six passing touchdowns in program history.
With pressure mounting and recent struggles glaring, Mertz had the best game of his career to date. The much-maligned junior completed 20 of 29 attempts for a career-high of 299 yards. He also had five touchdowns in the 2020 opener versus Illinois, but Saturday was far more impressive — especially considering the difficult circumstances.
As The Daily Cardinal’s Rohan Chakravarthi astutely pointed out, Wisconsin’s offensive line was excellent in the win, keeping clean pockets for Mertz to throw from and keeping the quarterback upright — Mertz was hurried once, sacked zero times.
Braelon Allen bounced back from his tough game versus Illinois and ran for 135 yards on 23 carries. He, too, benefited from improved offensive line play as well as from less predictable play calling.
Wisconsin ran six first-down passes in the first half, and Mertz completed five-of-six attempts for 62 yards and a touchdown on those plays. For context, the Badgers ran five such plays all game last week.
Saturday was a clear display of how the Badgers can maintain a run-heavy offense (38 carries, as opposed to 30 pass attempts) while utilizing more varied play calling. Offensive coordinator Bobby Engram deserves credit for his performance, and it will be interesting to see how the game plan continues to evolve going forward.
The Badger defense played fairly well as it held the Wildcats to 342 total yards. A week after letting Illinois’ Chase Brown run wild, the unit held Northwestern ball carriers to 79 yards on 27 carries.
Dual-threat running back Evan Hull managed just 13 yards on nine carries, although he impressed in the passing game with four catches and 62 yards.
Northwestern’s three quarterbacks combined for 263 yards, two interceptions and a lost fumble while completing 54 percent of their attempts.
Wisconsin entered the game with a new duo at inside linebacker. Usual starters Jordan Turner and Maema Njongmeta, active but banged up, sat. Tatum Grass and Jake Chaney started and both played well. Grass had five tackles and Chaney four, with the latter adding a quarterback hurry.
Linebacker Nick Herbig, emotional about Paul Chryst’s departure, turned in an excellent performance with seven tackles and a sack.
Herbig wasn’t alone in speaking highly of Chryst this past week. Given the team played so well amid these circumstances says a lot about the group and inspires confidence for the Jim Leonhard era, however long that may last.
Then again, Northwestern was an extremely weak opponent, even if slightly more competent than Illinois State and New Mexico State. The Badgers, still searching for their first victory over a quality opponent, will now visit an underperforming, 2-4 Michigan State team.