MADISON — The No. 18 Wisconsin Badgers (1-0, 0-0 conference) overcame early issues, to shut out the Illinois State Red Birds (0-1, 0-0 conference), 38-0.
Wisconsin’s only offensive drive in the first quarter of the game was a three-and-out, that ended on a dropped pass and the Wisconsin defense was uncharacteristic, allowing Illinois State to convert back-to-back third downs, just after giving up automatic first downs on back-to-back third downs, due to penalties, to open up the Red Birds’ second drive of the game.
However, Wisconsin was able to shift the tide back in its favor and end Illinois State’s longest drive of the game, at 15 plays and 71 yards, when John Torchio stepped in front of a Zach Annexstad pass at the goal line and return the interception 100 yards for a touchdown.
“To be honest, I think that was the turning point in the game,” Nick Herbig said. “We were kind of flat, weren’t playing up to what we should play to, I think Torch really turned the game around for us.”
Torchio’s interception return was the longest in school history, besting Joe Ferguson’s 91-yard interception return against Utah State, during the 2017 season opener.
“Right before that happened, I’m getting lined up and Torch goes ‘hey Herbi, I’m going to pick this one,’” Herbig said. “So I’m pass rushing and I turn around and sure enough, there is Torch with the ball in his hands, I mean he is called the jewelry thief for a reason.”
Herbig himself, contributed defensively, recording two of Wisconsin’s four sacks in the game.
Torchio’s interception certainly was a turning point for the defense as Wisconsin only allowed Illinois State to convert one more third down, for the remainder of the game.
The Red Birds finished 3-for-11 on third down conversions and recorded 243 total yards (57 rushing, 186 passing).
Torchio also added a sack, to go along with his interception, while Maema Njongmeta led Wisconsin with eight tackles, in his first career start.
Offensively, Wisconsin did not have ball for a second time in the game until the second quarter, going 11 minutes, 13 seconds between possessions. However, Braelon Allen made it worth the wait.
Following a holding penalty, Wisconsin was pushed back to its own 4-yard-line and Allen hit a hole in the offensive line and was off to the races, registering a 96-yard rushing touchdown.
The 96-yard rushing touchdown was the second school record that the team had recorded in as many scores, with Allen breaking James White’s longest rushing touchdown record, of 93 yards, which White set in 2013 against Indiana.
“There was part of me that was like, he might catch up to me, but I knew I wasn’t getting tackled,” Allen said.
Allen finished the game with 14 carries for 148 yards and later added his second score of the night, a 1-yard touchdown on fourth-and-goal.
Wisconsin was 2-2 on fourth down conversions in the game.
Apart from Allen, the Wisconsin offense was paced by Graham Mertz, who turned in his most efficient performance since the 2020 season opener, when he went 20-21, 248 yards and five touchdowns.
Mertz’s first pass of the game was dropped by Markus Allen and Mertz then completed 14-straight passes, including a 74-yard completion to Chimere Dike to open a third-quarter drive and then later a 16-yard touchdown pass to Dike, to book-end the 4-play, 93-yard scoring drive. Mertz finished the game 14-16, 219 yards and the touchdown pass to Dike.
Mertz completed passes to seven different receivers with Dike and Markus Allen leading the way with three receptions each. Dike led all receivers in the game with 106 yards, while Markus Allen had 34 yards.
Wisconsin later added a touchdown from Isaac Guerendo, his first since his 82-yard touchdown run against Eastern Michigan, last season. While Chez Mellusi rushed 10 times for 48 yards in his return from injury.
Wisconsin hosts Washington State (1-0, 0-0 conference), next Saturday.