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No. 19 Badgers vs. Buffalo offensive grades: Tanner Mordecai shaky in debut

Here are the offensive grades from Wisconsin’s 38-17 win over Buffalo on Saturday.

The Wisconsin Badgers kicked off the Luke Fickell era with a 38-17 win over the Buffalo Bulls in an up-and-down game that eventually led to a comfortable victory to start off the 2023 season.

Much of the eyes were on quarterback Tanner Mordecai and offensive coordinator Phil Longo’s “Air Raid” attack, but it was more so the running game that stood out on Saturday, while the defense was able to withhold the Bulls to 17 points.

Here are the offensive grades from the No. 19 Badgers 38-17 win over Buffalo.

Quarterback: C-

Tanner Mordecai’s first outing as a Badger was shaky. Now, it may not seem that way from the 77% completion rate, but there’s much more to unpack outside of the box score here.

Mordecai had just two completions over 15 air yards, while 21 of his passes were completed within five air yards, describing the type of outing that the Badgers offense had on Saturday.

It was a ton of dink-and-dunk passes, with the objective of getting the ball out early on a variety of screen passes and quick throws.

Overall, on certain plays, it felt that Mordecai was getting off initial reads too early or not even looking downfield before resorting to the checkdown.

But, a lack of consistency was to be expected in his first game with a new offense, and it was clear the Badgers wanted to play fast in hopes of wearing out their opponents.

Still, there were two ugly interceptions, with the first ball behind tight end Tucker Ashcraft on a regular mesh concept, while the second was straight to a linebacker as Mordecai didn't wait for his wideout, Vinny Anthony, to clear the second window on a crosser in a clean pocket.

There’s a lot of gelling still required in this offense, so I may be giving Tanner Mordecai a little benefit of the doubt, as I felt offensive coordinator Phil Longo could've made his life easier by opening up the playbook more.

There were some really nice throws, including a dropped would-be 60-yard touchdown on a dime to Skyler Bell, as well as a downfield 29-yard strike to Chimere Dike and a tough 24-yard completion to Tucker Ashcraft while being hit, improving his grade.

But, there was much to be desired from Mordecai’s initial performance as a Badger, which he’ll look to improve on next week.

Running Backs: A+

The running backs were the stars of the show on Saturday, as Chez Mellusi and Braelon Allen combined for 298 rushing yards and four touchdowns on the day.

Mellusi kicked things off with the first score of the season for Wisconsin, following things up later with a huge 89-yard touchdown to provide the Badgers with a necessary spark and extend their lead to 21-10.

Mellusi finished his day with 13 carries for 157 yards and two touchdowns in a career performance for the running back, with both latter marks serving as career highs.

The backup running back looks faster, stronger, and has improved vision heading into 2023, which is dangerous for the Badgers’ rushing attack.

Allen, on the other hand, rushed for 141 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries, closing the game out with a plethora of explosive plays.

In addition, Allen earned seven targets, catching each of those passes for a combined 25 yards.

One thing is apparent: offensive coordinator Phil Longo’s scheme should create much better rushing lanes for the offense.

Given the spread look, the Badgers were able to have more space at the line of scrimmage, lessening the onus on their backs and offensive line, while creating the possibility of more explosive plays.

Overall, the Badgers had nine huge explosive plays(10+ yards) that combined for 233 yards. Not a bad day for the running backs.

Wide Receivers: B-

On a day featuring a significant amount of short passes, Tanner Mordecai spread the wealth around his pass catchers.

Eight different receivers, including Mordecai himself, earned a target on the day, with Will Pauling leading the way, catching all five of his passes for 55 yards.

Prior to the game, I projected Pauling to be the team’s top receiver in 2023, which came to fruition on Saturday, although Braelon Allen had the most targets with seven.

Pauling did have one play where he seemingly could've gotten extra yardage, which Luke Fickell chuckled about postgame, but it was a productive day for the slot receiver.

Bryson Green came in after, hauling in four of his five passes for 23 yards. Green saw a number of screens thrown his way, with one bigger catch going for 12 yards and boosting his stats.

With his downfield catch radius, it would've been nicer to see at least one shot go in his direction, which is something the staff needs to re-evaluate for next week.

Skyler Bell had the big drop of the day, letting a would-be 60-yard touchdown go through his hands on a drive that resulted in a Tanner Mordecai interception. That play alone tanks the receiver grade down, given the magnitude and timing of the drop.

Chimere Dike only saw two targets of Mordecai’s 31 passes, but made the most of his opportunities with a 29-yard touchdown, while the other play was an inaccurate throw from the quarterback.

The receivers seemingly would hope for more downfield shots as the season goes on to open up more of the passing game, but it was a solid start for the group in the new-look offense.

Tight Ends: B-

We’ve said it over the past week: Tucker Ashcraft is going to earn some serious playing time in 2023, despite being a true freshman.

Ashcraft earned the lone targets from a tight end on Saturday, catching a 24-yard pass from Tanner Mordecai, while finishing the day with two catches for 36 yards.

Ashcraft and fellow tight end Hayden Rucci as seen as more prolific blockers, but it’s nice to see the rapport develop between the true freshman and Mordecai, providing the Badgers with a receiving threat at tight end.

The tight ends likely won’t take up significant volume in 2023, and the lack of overall action drops the grade to a B-, but it was still a good start for the group in Week 1.

Offensive Line: A

Last year, the offensive line proved to be a problem, as continuity issues plagued an injury-laden unit, which contributed to the inefficient passing attack and struggling offense.

In Week 1, the Badgers fared much better, both on the ground and in the air, accommodating well to a new offense.

On the ground, the Badgers consistently created holes at the line of scrimmage against lighter boxes, leading to a number of explosive plays.

In the air, Tanner Mordecai was sacked just once, which came on a linebacker blitz that Braelon Allen couldn't fully pick up, while the pocket was generally clean for the quarterback to operate.

Longo’s offense will aid the offensive line, as the spread formation leads to lighter boxes and less confusion around the line of scrimmage, while the quick game leads to a quicker time-to-throw and less worrying about holding blocks for a long period of time.

Despite the loss of center Jake Renfro, the Badgers held up well, and even rotated Joe Huber, Trey Wedig, and Michael Furtney at the guard spots, trying out different rotations up front.

Next week will provide a tougher challenge, but it was a good start for the offensive line.