No. 18 Wisconsin faces Illinois State intent on better start

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No. 18 Wisconsin faces Illinois State intent on better start originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Wisconsin again will feature its powerful ground game, with plenty of focus on junior quarterback Graham Mertz as well, when the No. 18 Badgers host Illinois State on Saturday night at Madison, Wis., in the season opener for both teams.

Mertz, entering his third year as the starter, has been wildly inconsistent. He struggled last season against a rugged early schedule as the Badgers got off to a 1-3 start with losses to Penn State, Notre Dame and Michigan.

The Badgers bounced back to win seven straight after the emergence of running back Braelon Allen but missed a spot in the Big Ten championship game when they closed the regular season with a 23-13 loss at Minnesota.

The Badgers were 6-3 in the Big Ten West, finishing in a three-way tie for second place and a game behind Iowa. Wisconsin wrapped up its overall 9-4 campaign with a 20-13 victory over Arizona State in the Las Vegas Bowl.

Illinois State won two of its first three games last season but finished 4-7, including 2-6 in the Missouri Valley Conference.

"You see Illinois State and you see a really good football team," Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. "Well-coached. I know a lot of those coaches and respect a lot of those coaches. But I believe every time you play this game, the main focus is making sure you're ready for it."

Mertz has faced extremely high expectations since his debut as a starter in October 2020 when he completed 20-of-21 passes with five touchdowns in a 45-7 victory over Illinois.

In the three early season losses last season, Mertz combined to throw two touchdown passes and six interceptions. He finished the season with 10 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, completing 59.5 percent of his passes. For his career, Mertz has 19 TDs and 16 interceptions.

Senior quarterback Chase Wolf suffered a knee injury in practice last week that required surgery, leaving Wisconsin with no experienced back-up.

On the ground, the 235-pound Allen ran for a team-high 1,268 yards and 12 touchdowns as a freshman. He teams with senior Chez Mellusi, who ran for 815 yards and five TDs in nine games last season before a season-ending knee injury.

Junior Chimere Dike — 19 catches for 272 yards and one touchdown — is the top returning wideout, and the Badgers must replace tight end Jake Ferguson, a fourth-round pick by the Dallas Cowboys.

On defense, the Badgers must replace several key starters from a unit that allowed 16.2 points and 239.1 yards per game last season, both No. 1 in the Big Ten. One key returnee is outside linebacker Nick Herbig, who had a team high nine sacks along with 14 1/2 tackles for loss.

Former Minnesota quarterback Zack Annexstad is expected to start for Illinois State. Annexstad passed for 1,277 yards with nine touchdowns and seven interceptions as a freshman for the Golden Gophers in 2018 but barely saw action afterward and left the program.

"Quarterback is such a huge position to have a void in — can't be short there, and we were last year," Illinois State coach Brock Spack said. "He's been an awesome addition to our team. I think he's changed our team immensely just by his presence here. He's been outstanding as a leader."

The Redbirds will return leading rusher Cole Mueller, who ran for 995 yards and six touchdowns last season.

New offensive coordinator Tony Petersen, who inherits a unit that averaged 18.4 points and 252.4 yards per game, is familiar with the Badgers after being the offensive coordinator last season at Illinois.