The No. 18 Wisconsin Badgers (1-0) kicked off the 2022 college football season on Saturday night with a 38-0 victory over the visiting Illinois State Redbirds at Camp Randall Stadium.
Behind a balanced and efficient offensive performance, the Badgers totaled 440 yards in Bobby Engram’s first game as offensive coordinator.
Even on a night where Jim Leonhard’s defense came out flat, they still managed to pitch a shutout against the Redbirds.
Although the game was against a lowly FCS opponent, there were still plenty of noteworthy takeaways. Even though nobody asked for my thoughts, you’re going to get them anyway.
Here are a few observations upon re-watching the Wisconsin Badgers 38-0 victory over Illinois State:
Notes on Wisconsin’s offense
Sep 3, 2022; Madison, Wisconsin, USA; Wisconsin Badgers head coach Paul Chryst talks with quarterback Graham Mertz (5) during the third quarter against the Illinois State Redbirds at Camp Randall Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Graham Mertz looked sharp all night, completing 14 of 16 passes for 219 yards and a touchdown. He looked poised in the pocket, went through his progressions, and threw the ball accurately. Most importantly, he didn’t make any bad decisions. Small sample size against a weak opponent, but I liked what I saw from Mertz in week one.
Despite having surgery less than two weeks ago, I thought left tackle Jack Nelson looked rock solid in his first start since moving from right guard, and the Pro Football Focus numbers reflect that. In 47 snaps, the Wisconsin native received a high-quality mark as a run blocker and an elite grade (86.6) in 20 snaps in pass protection. I think he’ll be a significant upgrade at the position this season.
Riley Nowakowski played more snaps (14) at fullback than Jackson Acker (10). It might be something, might be nothing, but It’s worth monitoring in week 2. Wisconsin football often plays two fullbacks, so it could have just been a matter of getting them both in-game experience. However, it could also signal that the UW staff views Nowakowski as a superior run-blocker.
Clay Cundiff (27 snaps) and Hayden Rucci (34 snaps) were each used extensively on offense, with Jack Eschenbach (13 snaps) clearly behind them on the depth chart. Cundiff will be used in an all-around role, while Rucci has the blocking tight end role in the bag. I’m excited to see how this TE room develops under OC Bobby Engram.
Wisconsin’s starting offensive line didn’t allow a single pressure in pass protection, so a tip of the cap to the hogs doing the dirty work that goes underappreciated.
Although Chez Mellusi’s stat line of 10 carries for 48 yards isn’t anything special, I thought he ran hard and had a little extra burst – especially for a player returning from a serious injury. He looks healthy and will undoubtedly play an essential role in the Badgers’ offense.
Notes on Wisconsin’s defense
MADISON, WISCONSIN – OCTOBER 02: Wisconsin defensive coach Jim Leonhard looks on in the fourth quarter against the Michigan Wolverines at Camp Randall Stadium on October 02, 2021 in Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images)
Wisconsin’s rebuilt secondary had a few moments, but overall, they didn’t look great, and I think that’s fair to say. UW played without its No. 1 cornerback Alexander Smith and Tulsa transfer Justin Clark – so the depth was a bit of an issue. However, given the competition, the secondary came out flat and gave up multiple chunk plays – which was a bit concerning, in my opinion. I thought junior CB Semar Melvin looked good in limited action. It’ll be interesting to see how they bounce back against Washington State on Saturday.
With Jim Leonhard as defensive coordinator, Wisconsin football has held opponents scoreless in 15 of 62 games (24%). Coach Leonhard is the best DC in the country, and it’s not even up for debate.
Safety Preston Zachman stood out in his 14 snaps on Saturday night. According to PFF, Zachman was the Badgers’ highest-graded defender (91.0), recording two tackles and an interception. With Wohler expected to miss a significant amount of time, the Badgers will get an extended look at the Pennsylvania native.
I’ll keep this one short and sweet; Keeanu Benton and Nick Herbig are SO league. The Badgers’ star defenders accounted for eight total pressures – four apiece and were UW’s two highest-graded pass-rushers. You’re watching a couple of All-Big Ten players; that much I know for sure.
Wisconsin football has a new starting inside linebacker tandem, and they flashed a little bit on Saturday night. I thought Maema Njongmeta played fast and had a nice game, registering eight tackles, and Jordan Turner got his feet wet and even recorded a sack. There will be an adjustment period, but the duo has a high ceiling due to their athleticism. It’s also worth noting that the top four inside backers all saw snaps.
Backup nose tackle Gio Paez played 15 snaps and flashed some playmaking ability. If he can become a consistent rotational player for the Badgers, that would go a long way.
Opposite Nick Herbig, I thought C.J. Goetz (31 snaps) and Darryl Peterson (22 snaps) were nearly invisible. On the other hand, Kaden Johnson looked pretty good, registering two tackles and a pressure in just 12 snaps. It’s just one game, and this group is talented, but you’d like to see them applying more pressure against an FCS opponent.
Utah transfer Kamo’I Latu looked really good in his 13 snaps. He plays with a full head of steam and will help fill Hunter Wohler’s void while he’s injured. I can’t wait to see him knock someone’s block off.
Notes on Wisconsin’s special teams
Sep 4, 2021; Madison, Wisconsin, USA; Wisconsin Badgers punter Andy Vujnovich (38) during the game against the Penn State Nittany Lions at Camp Randall Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Giving Isaac Guerendo a chance as a kick returner was the right choice. He looked good and broke off an excellent 33-yard return in the second half. His speed makes him a threat to go the distance any time he touches the ball. My gut tells me he will take one to the house before the season ends.
Arkansas transfer Vito Calvaruso missed most of fall camp due to injury, but he connected on his lone field goal attempt from 28 yards out on Saturday. I’m intrigued to see Calvaruso show off his leg strength this season.
Cornerback Max Lofy looked good on special teams, appearing on kick returns, kick coverage, punt returns, and punt coverage. He also recorded a tackle on special teams. Sometimes you have to make the most of your opportunities, and that’s exactly what he did.
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