The Wisconsin Badgers battled scorching heat and early inconsistencies Saturday to defeat the Buffalo Bulls 38-17 at Camp Randall Stadium.
Saturday’s game was head coach Luke Fickell's first regular season matchup with the Badgers. Fickell opened his first season in front of a sold-out crowd of 76,224 at Camp Randall — the first since 2009 — and a record-high temperature of 92 degrees.
Despite the score showing a blowout for the Badgers, the matchup against Buffalo felt much tighter. Both teams had trouble on offense, and the Badgers had several defensive blown coverages and many dropped passes.
Both the Badgers and the Bulls’ struggles were prominent in the first half. The game started with both teams punting as Wisconsin managed just one first down, and Buffalo followed with a quick three-and-out.
But in typical Wisconsin fashion, the Badgers leaned heavily on the running game to lead them to victory.
Chez Mellusi both started and finished Wisconsin's second drive — carrying on the first play and scoring on the last play with a 1-yard touchdown. Mellusi played a crucial role in this drive with two carries for more than 10 yards each.
Buffalo responded with a drive of their own. The first two plays didn't go well for Buffalo, but Wisconsin’s defense broke down on 3rd-and-4, allowing Bulls wide receiver Darrell Harding Jr. to get wide open on a slot fade for a 51-yard gain to the Wisconsin 8-yard line. Buffalo's quarterback, Cole Snyder, finished the drive with a touchdown pass to wide receiver Cole Harrity, taking advantage of another miscommunication in the Badgers' secondary.
The following 10 to 15 minutes were chaotic. Wisconsin punted three times, and Buffalo punted twice. Buffalo also turned the ball over on downs, and Wisconsin quarterback Tanner Mordecai threw an interception, eventually resulting in a missed 37-yard field goal attempt by Buffalo’s Alex McNulty.
During this period of sloppy gameplay, the Badgers had some significant missed opportunities, including a dropped potential touchdown pass to Skyler Bell. The Badgers’ defense also missed a couple of tackles.
Finally, Wisconsin scored with a 29-yard touchdown pass to Chimere Dike. However, Buffalo quickly responded with a no-huddle drive that resulted in a 53-yard field goal, making the score 14-10 in favor of the Badgers at halftime.
The second half began much the same way with three consecutive punts. However, with 8:28 remaining in the third quarter, Chez Mellusi completely shifted the momentum with an explosive 89-yard touchdown on the first play. The 5-foot-11, 212-pound senior exploited a gap and showcased his speed to elude the linebackers and weave his way to the end zone.
While much attention this offseason was focused on the upgraded passing game and star running back Braelon Allen, it was a pleasant surprise to witness another offensive weapon emerging. Wisconsin now has a legitimate argument for boasting the most impressive running back room in college football following Mellusi’s performance against Buffalo.
Buffalo punted again, and this time it was Braelon Allen who led the way with 56 yards on the drive, including a 6-yard rush for a touchdown to widen the Badgers’ lead to 28-10. This drive showed Allen's ability to dodge defenders and break multiple tackles, confirming his status as one of the best running backs in college football.
Wisconsin’s Nathanial Vakos kicked a field goal to open the fourth quarter, but Buffalo didn't give up. Although Buffalo turned the ball over on downs, they quickly got it back as linebacker Shaun Dolac intercepted a pass from Mordecai and ran it back to Wisconsin’s 11-yard line. With excellent field position, Buffalo replied with an impressive over-the-shoulder catch by Harrity, cutting Wisconsin’s lead down to 14.
However, the Bulls' efforts weren't enough to stop Braelon Allen. He finished his own three-play drive with a combined gain of 46 yards, including a 22-yard touchdown run that extended Wisconsin's lead back to 21.
Buffalo shifted to a hurry-up offense, making some progress down the field and benefiting from a 15-yard penalty against Wisconsin's inside linebacker Jordan Turner for targeting and Turner’s ejection from the game. However, Buffalo couldn't hold onto the ball and turned it over with under four minutes remaining in the game. After that, Wisconsin's Jackson Acker carried the ball to run out the clock, securing the Badgers' 38-17 victory.
Wisconsin once again relied on their rushing game to carry them to victory despite high expectations for a new "Air Raid" passing attack. Mellusi and Allen combined for 298 rushing yards and four touchdowns, making a name for themselves early in the season.
Coach Fickell summed it up as “a one-one punch,” during a post-game press conference.
Additionally, Mordecai's debut went differently than planned. While Mordecai managed some decent throws during the game, his performance was inconsistent at best.
The SMU transfer completed 24 of 31 passes for 181 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Bulls quarterback Snyder outshone Mordecai, throwing for 194 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions.
Winning this game didn't require greatness from him, but if the Badgers aim to compete for the Big Ten Championship, he'll need to step up his game significantly.
The Badger defense left much to be desired. While they limited Buffalo to 17 points, it was evident there were significant vulnerabilities in their performance. There were clear issues in the secondary's communication, particularly in the first half when Buffalo's passing game troubled the Badgers. Buffalo's running backs, Mike Washington and Ron Cook, managed to exploit weaknesses in the Badgers' rushing defense for significant gains in the first half as well.
One positive note was the Badgers' ability to defend on third and fourth downs. They held the Bulls to a mere 2-for-15 conversion rate on third down and 1-for-4 on fourth down attempts. Hunter Wohler was a standout player on defense, leading the team with 10 tackles, while Jordan Turner contributed with 7 tackles. Due to Turner’s mid-game targeting suspension, the Badgers will have to play the first half of next weekend’s game without him.
While it wasn't the prettiest of starts, the Badgers managed to clinch their first victory of the season.
Wisconsin is set to travel to Pullman, WA next Saturday for their upcoming game against Washington State, who opened the season with a convincing 50-24 victory over Colorado State.