MADISON – This was the type of win football coaches love to open the season.
Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst saw his team score with big plays — one on defense and one on offense — and four scores of at least 59 yards in a comfortable 38-0 victory over Illinois State on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium .
Still, Chryst saw enough mistakes – penalties, missed tackles and natural coverages – to get his players’ attention 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 plenty of physical mistakes and too many penalties before settling down and opening a working lead with big plays.
“It was definitely a game where there are things we can see that are positives and we can build on,” Chryst said. “And there are things that you know during the game and when you take a look at the film, areas that we need to clean up.
“I want the guys to enjoy the win and then come back and keep getting better.”
Bobby Engram’s debut as offensive coordinator was solid, but he was hampered by the fact that his unit was on the field for only 19 plays and 11 minutes, 8 seconds in the first half.
Quarterback Graham Mertz, coming off a season in which he had more interceptions (11) than touchdown passes (10) and completed just 59.5 percent 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 touchdown fall coming from Marcus Allen. Mertz finished 14 of 16 for 219 yards and a touchdown. He completed 14 straight passes, for 219 yards, after the initial down, before falling short on his 16th attempt.
“I’m definitely not satisfied,” Mertz said. “There are a lot of things we have to learn from and make corrections. And we will. That’s the fun part of the season.”
Perhaps most impressively, Mertz completed passes to seven receivers.
“The protection was good,” Chryst said. “And I thought he saw things pretty well. I thought there were a lot of kids involved. That part was good.”
Braelon Allen is leading the way to start the longest season in program history
UW’s ground game, which produced 26 touchdowns and averaged 210.9 yards per game last season, rolled for 125 yards in Saturday’s opening half and 221 yards overall.
Running back Braelon Allen set the program record for longest drive with a 96-yard touchdown run with 13 minutes, 30 seconds left in the first half to help UW take a 14-0 lead. Allen broke the 93-yard mark set by James White in 2013 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 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 hasn’t changed is that he expects a lot from himself.”
Chez Mellusi, who missed the final four games last season with a torn ACL, ran hard and finished with 48 yards on 10 carries.
Isaac Guerendo had a 33-yard punt 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: Everything you need to know about Wisconsin Badgers quarterback Graham Mertz, including stats, age, height, weight and more
More: What you need to know about Wisconsin Badgers running back Braelon Allen, including stats, age, height, weight and more
John Torchio’s 100-yard touchdown return breaks Joe Ferguson’s record
Safety John Torchio scored UW’s first touchdown, his first touchdown of the night. His 100-yard punt return helped UW take a 7-0 lead with 1:52 left in the opening quarter. That broke the 99-yard mark set by safety Joe Ferguson in 2017 against Utah State.
“Great game by Torch,” said outside linebacker Nick Herbig, who recorded two sacks. “Perfect game.”
Defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard, who had to replace eight starters, saw his unit commit two personal fouls on an Illinois State drive and lose a handful of tackles early.
“You definitely need to be cleaner,” Crist said.
Torchio’s interception ended Illinois State’s only scoring opportunity in 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 first quarter.
The Redbirds finished with 243 yards, including 57 rushing on 26 attempts.
Leonhardt and the defensive staff rotated players on the line, linebacker and secondary.
“We played a lot,” Herbig said. “I feel like our defense is better that way. Guys are more rested.”
Fourteen players finished with at least two tackles, led by inside linebacker Maema Njongmeta with eight.
The Badgers defense loses Hunter Wohler to injury
However, UW lost sophomore safety Hunter Wohler to an apparent leg injury. His status for Week 2 is unclear.
“Hunter is a good player,” Herbig said. “I hate to see him go down. That kid works hard. But it’s the game of football. Things happen.
“His head is up. He’s going to be here for us every day.”
The UW offense went three-and-out on its first possession of the game, with Marcus Allen throwing what should have been an easy conversion on third-and-four.
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 passes — and the Redbirds faced third-and-7 from the UW 9.
Torchio said enough.
He lined up in the left split of the UW formation, read quarterback Zack Annexstad’s eyes and saw a receiver break across the middle to his right. Torchio deftly drifted to that side, intercepted the pass at the goal line, then followed a block escort down the right sideline for a 100-yard punt return with 1:52 left in the first 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 a hold on a punt return, putting the ball at the UW 8. Right tackle Riley Mallman was called for a first down, putting the ball at the 4.
Offense takes over led by Allen, the Graham Mertz-Chimere Dike connection
Allen cleaned up the mess by running 96 yards for a touchdown to break White’s rushing record and give UW 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 over on the opening drive of the second half and started at their own 41 on a 33-yard return by Geredo and marched 59 yards in nine plays and 5:18 for a touchdown.
Allen capped the drive with a 1-yard plunge 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 running back scoring a touchdown to help extend 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 the 1-yard run.
Next up is a home game against Washington State of the Pacific 12. The Cougars should present a much tougher test for UW, something Chryst and his staff will no doubt take note of this week as they overcome the good and the bad. bad from the start.
“We’ve got to keep working and keep getting better,” Chryst said, “individually and certainly as a team.”
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This article originally appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Braelon Allen, Graham Mertz lead Wisconsin to victory against Illinois State