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Wisconsin Football offensive grades: Graham Mertz efficient in opener

Badgers quarterback Graham Mertz looked sharp Saturday night.

NCAA Football: Illinois State at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The Wisconsin Badgers defeated the Illinois State Redbirds 38-0 to begin their 2022 campaign, cruising to victory after a sluggish start in which Graham Mertz and the offense did not see much action early. Here are the offensive grades for Saturday’s game.

Quarterbacks: B+

Starting quarterback Graham Mertz had an efficient outing, completing 14/16 passes for 219 yards and a touchdown and no interceptions.

Mertz consistently completed easy looks created by offensive coordinator Bobby Engram, distributing the ball to several options, as seven players saw action in the receiving game on only 14 completions.

However, Mertz was fairly conservative, working in the short and intermediate range, rather than testing the waters on deeper routes, even when receivers won favorable matchups on the outside.

Additionally, Mertz occasionally tucked his head down and ran while moving out of the pocket, instead of keeping his eyes downfield while extending the play, limiting the damage on such occasions.

Mertz showcased his intelligence on the touchdown throw to Chimere Dike, moving the overhang defender toward the middle of the field before hitting the corner post for the score.

But, Mertz missed some easy reads as well. While that may not be a current issue, given the strength of Wisconsin’s early opponents, it’ll be harder to progress to the end of his reads while facing pressure.

Still, Mertz’s efficient game and execution of what was asked of him earned him a B+ for his performance.

On a side note, true freshman Myles Burkett saw snaps as the backup over redshirt freshman Deacon Hill in garbage time.

Running Backs: A

True sophomore Braelon Allen was the star of the day, rushing 14 times for 148 yards and two scores, including a 96-yard touchdown run, which was the longest in school history.

While Allen averaged a meager 4.0 yards per attempt on his other 13 attempts, his ability to bounce off tacklers, move swiftly downfield, and utilize power was displayed during Week 1.

Backup running back Chez Mellusi rushed for 48 yards on 10 attempts in his first action back from injury.

While Mellusi doesn’t have breakaway traits necessarily, the senior is able to move the chains consistently with short-yardage runs to keep the game moving.

Third-stringer Isaac Guerendo also saw his first action since his injury, rushing twice for three yards on the day, while adding a nice 33-yard kickoff return.

The running backs were the bread-and-butter of the Badgers' offense on Saturday, with the entire team rushing 37 times for 221 yards en route to the 38-0 victory.

Wide Receivers: B+

Junior Chimere Dike led the team with 106 receiving yards, hauling in a 74-yard screen pass in which he nearly took the pass to the endzone.

Dike had a slower start, but more so due to the lack of opportunities as opposed to performance issues. However, the receiver had two catches for 90 yards on the same drive, including a 16-yard touchdown on a corner post. Dike made an impact in several ways, recording a crucial block on Braelon Allen’s 96-yard touchdown.

NCAA Football: Illinois State at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Markus Allen was the most-targeted receiver for the Badgers, hauling in three of his five targets for 34 yards. Quarterback Graham Mertz seemed to trust Allen, despite an early drop, looking for the redshirt freshman often.

Skyler Bell, Wisconsin’s other starter opposite Chimere Dike, had a quieter night, catching two passes for 21 yards. Bell ran some deeper routes but was only targeted in screen opportunities, where he worked after the catch on a play.

Cornerback-turned-receiver Dean Engram was held without a catch on Saturday and didn’t see much success in the return game, getting negative yardage overall on two punt returns.

Overall, the receivers played well, but the lack of volume in the passing game and the drop kept the grade at a B+ for the group.

Tight Ends: B

Two tight ends were featured on Saturday, with Hayden Rucci catching two passes for 27 yards, while Clay Cundiff caught two passes for 23 yards.

Rucci has been a pleasant surprise in the receiving game, showcasing potential as a multi-faceted, run-blocking tight end.

Cundiff and Jack Eschenbach were seen as the favorites for the two-deep rotation, but the latter lost out in favor of the physical tight end, while the former has taken over as the top player on the depth chart.

Neither player dropped a pass, so it was a relatively clean performance from the tight ends, but a lack of significant volume limited their impact on Saturday’s game, ranking them at a B.

Offensive Line: B-

The left side of the offensive line appears to be set with Jack Nelson, Tyler Beach, and Joe Tippmann. However, the right side of the offensive line remains questionable, especially with Riley Mahlman suffering a lower leg injury.

Braelon Allen only averaged 4.0 yards per carry on his other 13 rushes, and while he attributed his performance to inconsistencies with decisiveness on Monday, the offensive line does need some improvements.

They had their moments, particularly on Braelon Allen’s 96-yard touchdown run and Chimere Dike’s 74-yard reception, but consistency is key.

Graham Mertz was also sacked twice, while backup Myles Burkett was sacked on his lone dropback after right tackle Logan Brown was immediately beaten off the edge.

After the game, head coach Paul Chryst lauded Brown’s availability, while acknowledging that the Badgers would likely have to rely on several offensive linemen this season.

“You appreciate him being ready to roll,” said Chryst. “Everyone knows we’re gonna need a lot of guys.”

Brown made a nice run block on a three-yard rush by Chez Mellusi on his first snap but had the whiff in pass protection.If Brown continues the inconsistent performance, Wisconsin will have to find ways to protect the right side to keep Graham Mertz operating out of clean pockets.