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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Football: Wisconsin v. Illinois State preview

A breakdown of the Badgers’ first game of the 2022 season
Justin Mielke

The Redbirds of Illinois State University will make the 200 mile trip north on Saturday to take on the Wisconsin Badgers in each team’s opening game of the 2022 college football season.

Saturday will mark just the 25th night game in the history of Camp Randall Stadium. The Badgers hold a 19-5 record in those games and have won their last seven, dating back to 2016.

Wisconsin has not lost a season opener at home to a non-conference opponent since 1995, they hold a 15-0 mark in games since then.


Football: What to expect from Graham Mertz this season

Illinois State Preview

Illinois State is led by head coach Brock Spack. Now in his 14th season in Normal, Spack is the program’s all-time leader for wins with 89. He has brought the Red Birds five playoff appearances, including a trip to the FCS National Championship in 2014. 

Prior to Illinois State, Spack spent 12 seasons as the defensive coordinator at Purdue. The Badgers met Spack and the Boilermakers eight times in those 12 seasons, with Wisconsin winning five of the eight games.

Offensively, the Red Birds will be steered by Minnesota transfer Zack Annexstad. Annexstad became just the second ever true freshman walk-on to start a season opener back in 2018 before a series of injuries derailed his Minnesota career.

Now, back in a starting role, Annexstad will play for just the third time since 2018. 

Behind him in the backfield is second year running back Cole Mueller. Arguably the Red Birds’ best offensive player, Mueller ran for nearly 1000 yards in his freshman season. Mueller is a preseason second-team all Missouri Valley Football Conference (MVFC) selection after finishing 15th in the FCS in rushing yards a season ago.

The combo of Annexstad and Mueller are bound to make up one of the best backfield duos in the FCS and will provide a surprising early season challenge to a relatively inexperienced Wisconsin defense.

Illinois State returns 17 starters from a season ago. Most notably from this group is senior linebacker Zeke Vandenburgh. Vandenburgh is a hard-hitting linebacker that has played in 41 games at Illinois State. 

Vandenburgh is a preseason first-team all MVFC selection and a stout leader on the Illinois State defense that will need all the help they can get Saturday evening.

Senior defensive lineman Braydon Deming is also a member of the preseason all-MVFC team. The Montana transfer was a monster last season in his first year at Illinois State. He led last year’s Red Birds team with 8.5 tackles for loss, showcasing his ability to be a disruptor at the line of scrimmage.

The Red Birds are 1-8 all-time against the Big Ten Conference, with their lone win coming in a 2016 matchup against Northwestern.

Football: Previews, predictions for each Big Ten team this season

Wisconsin Preview:

Now in his eighth season as the head man at his alma mater, Paul Chryst will look to bring the Badgers to their 21st consecutive bowl game.

Despite losing 15 starters from last season, Wisconsin is poised for a better season than a year ago, in which they finished 9-4 after a win in the Las Vegas Bowl against Arizona State.

The Badgers should have one of the best backfields in the nation, with Graham Mertz running the show at quarterback.

Mertz, now in his third season as a starter, has struggled for the majority of his Wisconsin career. But, late last year, he seemed to get more comfortable in the offense and began to limit the turnovers that had plagued him through the majority of his first two seasons.

He threw seven interceptions in the first five games a year ago but finished the season strong, throwing just four in the last eight games.

It will be interesting to see which version of Mertz shows up this year. He is one of the most significant recruits that Wisconsin has signed in program history but has failed to live up to the lofty expectations that he came in with.

In his first two seasons as starter, Mertz and the Badgers have opened up against Big Ten teams and a very difficult early season schedule. This year will be different as Wisconsin starts with three non-conference games. Hopefully these three games will be enough for Mertz to get comfortable with his new receivers and gain some confidence heading into Big Ten play.

Behind Mertz in the backfield is quite possibly the best running back duo in America with sophomore star Braelon Allen and senior Chez Mellusi.

Mellusi, a Clemson transfer in his second year at Wisconsin, was the Badgers starting running back for the first nine games last season. He was excellent in those nine games, racking up more than 800 rushing yards, including four games over 100 yards. His season unfortunately ended against Rutgers where he suffered a knee injury.

Now back healthy, Mellusi will primarily serve as the backup running back behind Allen but still should see the ball quite a bit, especially in the early season.

Allen took the nation by storm a year ago, as the then 17-year old true freshman ran for more than 1200 yards. Allen arrived at Wisconsin as a linebacker, but was quickly moved to the offensive side of the ball.

Allen is one of the preseason favorites for the Doak Walker Award, given annually to the best running back in college football, as well as one of the most popular picks for the Heisman Trophy, given to the best player in college football.

The three-headed monster in the backfield will be a problem for any team Wisconsin faces this season but an even bigger task for an FCS school like Illinois State.

Up front, Wisconsin will have an experienced offensive line, led by senior guard Tyler Beach, who will play in his 48th game as a Badger on Saturday night.

The offensive line is an extra large group this season, with no starter listed any shorter than 6’5” or any lighter than 310 pounds. This group, like on any team, will determine how successful the Wisconsin offense is. 

The receivers on this year’s Wisconsin team are relatively inexperienced. Junior Chimere Dike leads the group with 20 appearances and seven starts. He will play primarily alongside redshirt freshmen Markus Allen and Skyler Bell, as well as Keontez Lewis, a sophomore transfer from UCLA.

It will be interesting to see how this group pans out, as there is more talent, but less experience than in the past few seasons for Wisconsin.

While the offense returns the majority of their most important players from a season ago, the same can not be said for the defense. Nick Herbig and Keeanu Benton have started 20 and 24 games at Wisconsin respectively, but the most games started for the Badgers after these two is Isaiah Mullens’ with seven starts.

Herbig and Benton both have first team All-American potential, with Herbig being selected as a preseason first team All-American by Phil Steele. 

The Badgers had possibly the nation’s best defense a season ago and it will be interesting how defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard will adapt to losing key players like Jack Sanborn, Leo Chenal, Collin Wilder and Faion Hicks. 

The secondary is the most interesting unit for this year’s defense. Kentucky transfer Cedrick Dort will start at nickleback on Saturday. He was an effective member of the secondary throughout his Kentucky career, logging 44 appearances including 25 starts. 

Jay Shaw is another transfer who will start in the defensive backfield for Wisconsin Saturday. The UCLA transfer has amassed 43 appearances and 16 starts throughout his college career. 

Both Shaw and Dort will provide some necessary collegiate experience in an area of the field Wisconsin typically dominates in.

One more player of note in the Wisconsin secondary is sophomore Hunter Wohler. Wohler played, though sparingly, in all 13 games last year and has garnered some serious buzz throughout training camp.

Wohler will start at free safety on Saturday night and is poised to breakout in his second year at Wisconsin.

Football: Season predictions, a game-by-game look at Wisconsin’s schedule

Game Predictions:

While Illinois State does bring in experience and some high-level talent, they quite simply do not match up evenly with Wisconsin.

The Badgers are more skilled at every position, and should be in a great position to start their season off with a win.

It seems likely that Wisconsin will play all three quarterbacks on Saturday as they try to solidify their backup quarterback situation after losing Chase Wolf for the season.

It should be a nice opportunity for Wisconsin’s strong freshman class to get some early playing time, especially on the defensive side, as this game will most likely be out of reach well before reaching the fourth quarter.

Final Prediction:

Wisconsin wins 42-13

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