MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin pulled away from Buffalo for a 38-17 victory on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium to kick off the Luke Fickell era. It wasn’t always pretty, but the new-look Badgers got the job done. Below are four initial takeaways.
During his Wisconsin career, running back Chez Mellusi has battled a season-ending torn ACL in his left knee in 2021, a broken right wrist in 2022 and a role change with Braelon Allen’s ascension. But Mellusi reminded everyone in the season opener about his talent and the way his speed and power can be a critical weapon in Phil Longo’s Air Raid offense.
Mellusi scored on a 1-yard touchdown run and then broke off an impressive 89-yard third-quarter touchdown run in which he eluded nearly the entire Buffalo defense on the way to the end zone. That run sent him past his previous career high of 149 yards rushing set against Purdue in 2021. Mellusi carried 13 times for 157 yards with two touchdowns.
Allen the pass catcher
When Allen said this month that his goal was to catch 50 passes this season, it seemed hard to believe he would have a realistic chance to hit that mark given the variety of offensive weapons Wisconsin figured to have at its disposal. But that notion may not be so far-fetched based on how he was used Saturday.
Allen was a frequent target for quarterback Tanner Mordecai. Allen caught four passes for 18 yards in the first half and finished with a team-high seven catches for 25 yards while serving as a safety valve on short throws out of the backfield. That eclipsed Allen’s previous career high of four catches against Minnesota in 2021. Brian Calhoun holds the record for most receptions in a season by a Wisconsin running back with 53 catches in 2005. Allen also made plenty of noise on the ground Saturday, rushing 17 times for 141 yards and two scores.
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Mordecai’s Badgers debut
The only time Wisconsin fans saw Mordecai in a game-like setting for the Badgers came during an open scrimmage during the spring when he threw four interceptions. Mordecai generally took care of the football in most practices, but interceptions reared their ugly head again in the opener. During the second quarter, he stared down tight end Tucker Ashcraft as he ran across the field and then threw behind him on a pass that Buffalo safety Devin Grant intercepted. In the fourth quarter, Mordecai didn’t see All-MAC linebacker Shaun Dolac on a pass intended for slot receiver Vinny Anthony over the middle. Buffalo scored a touchdown on the ensuing drive to cut the score to 31-17.
Mordecai did throw a 29-yard touchdown pass to receiver Chimere Dike and had a would-be 60-yard touchdown pass to Skyler Bell that Bell dropped after he beat two defenders. Mordecai also demonstrated some moxie when plays broke down, particularly on a third-and-3 from the Buffalo 48-yard line when he juked a defender to pick up 3 yards for a first down that led to the Dike touchdown. Still, there will be enough on film to learn from for Mordecai.
Defense gains steam
There was some uneasiness across Camp Randall Stadium after Buffalo rolled down the field and scored a touchdown on its second offensive possession. Wide receiver Darrell Harding Jr. sneaked behind cornerback Alexander Smith for a 51-yard reception down the right sideline. Buffalo quarterback Cole Snyder then found receiver Cole Harrity for a 7-yard touchdown pass after Badgers safety Kamo’i Latu bit on a fake inside.
But the Badgers bowed up the rest of the way in impressive fashion. They twice stopped Snyder on quarterback sneak attempts on fourth-and-1, one coming in the second quarter and another in the fourth quarter. Wisconsin also held Buffalo to zero yards on three plays after Mordecai’s interception gave the Bulls the ball at the Badgers’ 16. Kicker Alex McNulty then missed a 34-yard field goal.
For a defense trying to establish a new identity under coordinator Mike Tressel without nose guard Keeanu Benton and outside linebacker Nick Herbig, it was a solid start, although the Week 2 road game against Washington State will determine much more. Inside linebacker Jordan Turner, who finished with eight tackles, was ejected for targeting in the fourth quarter and will miss the first half of the Washington State game next week.
(Photo of Tanner Mordecai (8) and Chez Mellusi: Jeff Hanisch / USA Today)