Wisconsin uses big plays on defense and offense to overcome mistakes and roll over Illinois State, 38-0

Jeff Potrykus
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

MADISON – This was the type of season-opening victory football coaches love.

Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst saw his team score with big plays – one on defense and one on offense – and a quartet of scoring drives at least 59 yards in a comfortable 38-0 victory over Illinois State Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.

Yet Chryst saw enough miscues – penalties, missed tackles and blown coverages – to grab the attention of his players and keep them humble as they prepare for their next foe.

Opening against an FCS opponent picked to finish eighth in the 11-team Missouri Valley Football Conference in front of a crowd of 73,727, the Badgers had several physical miscues and too many penalties before settling in and opening a working lead with big plays.

“It was certainly a game where there are things we can look at that are positive and we can build off,” Chryst said. “And there’s things you know during the game and when you take a look at the film, areas we’ve got to clean up.

“Want guys to enjoy the victory and then come back and continue to get better.”

Bobby Engram’s debut as offensive coordinator was solid but hampered by the fact that his unit was on the field for only 19 plays and 11 minutes 8 seconds in the opening half.

Quarterback Graham Mertz, coming off a season in which he had more interceptions (11) than touchdown passes (10) and completed just 59.5% of his passes, appeared confident and generally made sound decisions.

Mertz finished 6 of 7 for 59 yards in the opening half, with the lone incompletion a drop by wide receiver Markus Allen. Mertz finished 14 of 16 for 219 yards and one touchdown. He completed 14 consecutive passes, for 219 yards, after the initial drop, before an incompletion on his 16th attempt.

"Definitely not satisfied," Mertz said. "There's a lot of stuff to learn from and make corrections on. And we will. That is the fun part of the season."

Perhaps most impressive is that Mertz completed passes to seven receivers.

"Protection was good," Chryst said. "And I thought he saw things pretty well. I thought a number of guys got involved. That part was good."

Wisconsin running back Braelon Allen (0) celebrates his 96-yard touchdown run during the second quarter.

Braelon Allen stars in season opener with longest run in program history

UW’s ground game, which generated 26 touchdowns and an average of 210.9 yards per game last season, rolled up 125 yards in the opening half Saturday and 221 overall.

Tailback Braelon Allen set the program record for longest run with a 96-yard touchdown with 13 minutes 30 seconds left in the opening half to help UW take a 14-0 lead. Allen broke the mark of 93 yards, set in 2013 by James White against Indiana.

Allen, who averaged 6.8 yards per carry and rushed for 1,268 yards as a freshman, finished with 148 yards on 14 carries (10.6-yard average) and two touchdowns.

"I’ve always been impressed with him, how he approaches every day," Chryst said of Allen. "He is a worker. What hadn’t changed is that he expects a lot of himself."

Chez Mellusi, who missed the final four games last season after suffering a torn ACL, ran hard and finished with 48 yards on 10 carries.

Isaac Guerendo had a 33-yard kickoff return to open the second half and scored on a 1-yard run in the fourth quarter.

"It was great to see Chez get in there and run," Chryst said. "Isaac had some tough runs I thought."

More:What to know about Wisconsin Badgers quarterback Graham Mertz, including stats, age, height, weight and more

More:What to know about Wisconsin Badgers running back Braelon Allen, including stats, age, height, weight and more

Wisconsin safety John Torchio scores a touchdown on his 100-yard interception return during the first quarter against Illinois State on Saturday night at Camp Randall Stadium.

John Torchio's 100-yard interception return touchdown breaks Joe Ferguson's record

Safety John Torchio recorded UW’s first touchdown, with the first record of the night. His 100-yard interception return helped UW take a 7-0 lead with 1:52 left in the opening quarter. That broke the mark of 99 yards, set by safety Joe Ferguson in 2017 against Utah State.

"Heck of a play by Torch," said outside linebacker Nick Herbig, who recorded two sacks. "Heck of a play."

Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, who had to replace eight starters, saw his unit commit two personal fouls on one Illinois State drive and miss a handful of tackles early.

"You’ve absolutely got to be cleaner," Chryst said.

Torchio’s interception ended Illinois State’s lone scoring chance of the first half. 

The Badgers last season led the nation in rushing yards allowed (64.8 per game) and total yards allowed (239.1 per game).

Illinois State lost tailback Cole Mueller, who rushed for 977 yards last season, to a left-leg injury with 9:08 left in the opening quarter.

The Redbirds finished with 243 yards, including 57 rushing on 26 attempts.

Leonhard and the defensive staff rotated players through on the line, at linebacker and in the secondary. 

"We played a lot," Herbig said. "I feel like our defense is better that way. The guys are more rested."

Fourteen players finished with at least two tackles, led by inside linebacker Maema Njongmeta with eight. 

Badgers defense loses Hunter Wohler to an injury

However, UW lost sophomore safety Hunter Wohler with an apparent leg injury. His status for Week 2 is to be unclear.  

"Hunter is a heck of a player," Herbig said. "I hate to see him go down. That kid works hard. But it is the game of football. Things happen. 

"His head is high. He is going to be here for us every single day."

UW’s offense went three and out on its first possession of the game, with Markus Allen dropping what should have been an easy conversion on third and 4.

Nose tackle Keeanu Benton and Wohler were assessed personal fouls to keep Illinois State’s second drive alive. The Badgers then gave up a pair of third-down conversions – both on passes – and the Redbirds faced third and 7 from the UW 9.

Torchio said enough.

He was lined up on left hash of the UW formation, read the eyes of quarterback Zack Annexstad and saw a receiver breaking across the middle, to his right. Torchio deftly drifted over to that side, intercepted the pass at the goal line and then followed a convoy of blockers down the right sideline for a 100-yard return with 1:52 left in the opening quarter.

Max Lofy and Wohler threw key blocks to help Torchio break Ferguson’s school record for longest interception return.

UW’s offense joined the party – after two penalties.

Cornerback Jay Shaw was called for holding on a punt return, putting the ball at the UW 8. Right tackle Riley Mahlman was called for holding on first down, putting the ball at the 4.

Wisconsin Badgers wide receiver Chimere Dike (13) celebrates with teammates after scoring a touchdown in the third quarter of the game against the Illinois State Redbirds.

Offense takes over led by Allen, Graham Mertz-Chimere Dike connection

Allen cleaned up the mess by racing 96 yards for a touchdown, to break White’s record and help UW take a 14-0 lead with 13:30 left in the half.

Facing third and 9 from their 31 in the final seconds of the first half, the Badgers let the clock run out.

They took the second half kickoff and started from their 41 after a 33-yard return by Guerendo and marched 59 yards in nine plays and 5:18 for a touchdown.

Allen capped the march with a 1-yard dive on fourth and goal with 9:39 left in the third quarter. Mertz hit Chimere Dike for gains of 74 and 16 yards on UW’s next possession, with the second throw a touchdown to help push the lead to 31-0.

Guerendo, who missed the final nine games last season after suffering a foot injury at Illinois, capped a 14-play, 76-yard drive with his 1-yard run.

Next up is a home game against Washington State of the Pacific 12. The Cougars should present a much stiffer test for UW, something Chryst and his staff no doubt with note this week as they go over the good and the bad from the opener.

"We've got to continue to work and continue to improve," Chryst said, "individually and certainly as a team."