Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Football: Badger stars shine in Wisconsin’s opening game

Wisconsin opens 2022 season with resounding win over Illinois State, two school records
Photo by Justin Mielke, The Badger Herald

Taking care of business — that seemed to be the University of Wisconsin football team’s motto Saturday night in their inaugural game of the 2022 season.

Though the game was projected to be a blowout, Wisconsin still performed beyond the expected standard. Winning 38–0 against the Redbirds of Illinois State, the Badgers’ abundance of playmakers were on full display — a foresight into the success of the season.

Despite obliterating the opponent in the final score, however, Wisconsin opened the game sluggishly.


After forcing an Illinois State University punt to start the game, Wisconsin followed with a lackadaisical three-and-out on their opening drive. The next 10 minutes consisted of a dropped pass, a roughing the passer penalty and a late hit penalty.

“We’ve got third down and it’s a drop,” Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst said in a post-game interview. “And now those were the only plays for the offense — that was your first quarter three-and-out. And then we had a couple of those penalties that we gave them first downs.”

Football: Wisconsin v. Illinois State preview

In total, Wisconsin only had the ball for 1:28 in the first quarter. Despite the blowout, running back Isaac Guerendo said the team needs to work on starting the game faster.

“We only had three plays in the first quarter,” Guerendo said. “We have to take advantage of the opportunities we get. On the offense, we can never really go three-and-out.”

But the stagnancy in the first 10 minutes quickly turned into electricity when Wisconsin was pinned down in their own end zone. With the ball on Wisconsin’s 9-yard line, Illinois State quarterback Zack Annexstad threw an interception to Wisconsin safety John Torchio. The senior then sprinted down the field, evading tackles, and returned the interception for a 100-yard touchdown — the longest in Wisconsin school history.

“[Torchio] actually came up to me before the play and told me, ‘I’m going to get a pick right here,’” Wisconsin linebacker Nick Herbig said.

Torchio’s interception was clearly the turning point in the game. From then on, Wisconsin played sound, Badger football.

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

Roughly four minutes after Torchio’s interception, Braelon Allen rushed to the left, brushed off a tackle and cut back to find a hole which took him all the way to the endzone. The 96-yard touchdown run was the longest run in program history. Finishing with 148 yards over 14 carries, Allen continues to progress as one of the nation’s finest running backs.

The most important takeaway from the night is the progression of quarterback Graham Mertz. The highly-touted recruit from Kansas has disappointed Badger fans in the past. Last season, Mertz threw for just 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. While he showed flashes of potential late last season, the lack of trust in Mertz inhibited a balanced Wisconsin offense.

But Saturday felt different. Mertz did not force things downfield into tight windows and traffic. Instead, the junior quarterback stayed composed and efficient, mostly operating in the pocket. Mertz completed 14 of his 16 passes for 219 yards and a touchdown.

“I thought [Mertz] saw things pretty well,” Chryst said. “I thought a number of guys got involved. That part was good.”

While it is easy to dismiss the performance due to a subpar opponent, Mertz’ development was evident Saturday night. New offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Bobby Engram worked with Mertz in the offseason on footwork and mitigating risky throws. When Mertz faced pressure, albeit less than normal, the quarterback continued to keep his eyes downfield, either quickly finding his second or third option, or abandoning the play.

“Fundamentals, reading the defense and [Mertz’s] leadership as a team captain this year,” Wisconsin wide receiver Chimere Dike said. “Guys have always believed in him. I expect success in him.”

Wisconsin’s offensive weapons cannot be overlooked. The Badgers have a deep running back unit, with Allen at the helm, running back Chez Mellusi earning solid minutes and Guerendo used sporadically.

But the passing game is a major area for growth for this year’s team. Dike led the Badgers with 106 receiving yards. Seventy-four of those yards came from a screen pass that led to an eventual 16-yard touchdown for Dike. Prior to Saturday night’s affair, it had been 21 games since a Badger receiver topped 100 receiving yards in a game.

Football: What to expect from Graham Mertz this season

With such explosive playmakers scattered across the field, Wisconsin hopes to capitalize on bigger chunk plays this season. More importantly, however, is the consistent connection between Mertz and his receivers.

“[The wide receivers] threw more this offseason than we ever have,” Dike said. “We obviously have a young receiving corps, but I look forward to how we can continue to improve this season.”

Again and again, the Badger defense continues to be an emblem of consistency. Under defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, Wisconsin’s defense has not allowed an offensive touchdown in 15 of 62 games.

“I was saying it all off-season that our defense is deep, we got a lot of guys that can play and make plays,” Herbig said. “The defensive guys are close in the locker room. We’re one big family and build confidence off one another.”

Facing an air-raid, pass-heavy offense from Washington State next week, the passing defense will need to improve. Despite dropping an egg on the scoreboard, Illinois State’s passing game was competent, even stellar at times. The Redbirds finished with five passing plays over 15 yards.

With all-new starting cornerbacks in Ricardo Hallman, Jay Shaw and Semar Melvin, it is expected for the unit to make a few mistakes. But coverage failures and missed tackles will count exponentially more in short time, as Wisconsin faces Ohio State in three weeks. Overall, with 74,000 raging Badger fans in attendance, the Wisconsin football team gave their fans plenty to cheer about.

In next week’s matchup against Pac-12 opponent Washington State, the Badgers hope to build off their week one success. The key is to continue to improve the passing game and defensive rapport as the team prepares for its tougher Big Ten schedule. Though it is just one game, Badger fans should be hopeful for this season. They clocked in, went to work and took care of business.

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