MADISON – The most significant development during Wisconsin’s 66-7 victory over New Mexico State on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium took place on the UW sideline.
That came when, after seeing UW fail to move the ball for a second consecutive series, offensive line coach Bob Bostad made two changes on his unit.
Right tackle Logan Brown, making his second start in place of Riley Mahlman (leg injury), and right guard Michael Furtney stayed on the sideline for UW’s fourth offensive possession. They were replaced by Trey Wedig and Tanor Bortolini, respectively.
UW responded by scoring on four consecutive possessions, with three of the drives 56 yards or longer — to turn a 7-0 lead into a 35-0 halftime advantage.
The drives were: seven plays 63 yards; four plays, 56 yards; two plays, 2 yards; and five plays, 63 yards.
“We were fortunate kind of with what Bort was able to … that he could play,” UW coach Paul Chryst said. “Same thought with Trey. Kind of get them in (there) and get them some reps. Wanted to do it early. I thought it was energizing having them in there.”
Brown and Furtney eventually returned to the lineup for the final series of the half and got the opening series of the second half.
BOX SCORE: Wisconsin 66, New Mexico State 7
GAME AWARDS: Quarterback Graham Mertz has another quality performance in the win over New Mexico State
Tanor Bortolini and Trey Wedig solidify Badgers’ offensive line
Nevertheless, the insertion of Bortolini, who missed the first two games because of a knee injury, and Wedig appeared to solidify the No. 1 unit. The Badgers scored touchdowns on all five series Bortolini and Wedig were on the field together.
Bortolini missed the first two games because he suffered a partially torn meniscus and damaged cartilage in his right knee in camp. Wedig has worked at center, right guard and right tackle so far this season.
Quarterback Graham Mertz didn’t know until he took the field for the fourth series he had a new right side of the line.
“I noticed it when I looked up and I’m calling the play and see a different face,” he said. “They came in and did a great job.
“We’ve got a bunch of guys in that room who can step in and play. I’m comfortable with whoever is up there.”
UW (2-1) opens Big Ten play next week at No. 3 Ohio State. The Buckeyes rolled to a 77-21 win over Toledo to improve to 3-0.
After his team’s mistake-filled 17-14 loss to Washington State one week earlier, Chryst wanted to see UW play a clean game by cutting down on penalties and turnovers.
The Badgers were penalized 11 times for 110 yards, suffered three turnovers and missed two field-goal attempts in their three-point loss to Washington State.
They played a much cleaner game against New Mexico State (0-4).
Graham Mertz passing and Braelon Allen rushing each account for three touchdowns
UW was penalized twice for 25 yards in building a 35-0 halftime lead and finished with four penalties for 50 yards. Mertz threw an interception in the red zone, although the ball was tipped near the line of scrimmage.
Mertz hit 8 of 11 attempts for 146 yards and a touchdown in the opening half. He finished 12 of 15 for 251 yards, with three touchdowns and one interception, before exiting in the third quarter.
That pushed Mertz’s season marks to 44 of 62 (71.0%) for 697 yards, with six touchdowns and two interceptions.
“Across the board,” Mertz said, “guys were playing physical. Even on special teams, you could see guys flying around and having fun doing it.”
Braelon Allen rushed 15 times for 86 yards and three touchdowns. Fellow tailback Isaac Guerendo rushed 12 times for 74 yards and two touchdowns and Chez Mellusi rushed 10 times for 71 yards and a touchdown.
UW’s defense came in allowing a total of 17 points, 55.0 rushing yards per game and limiting foes to a 22.7% conversion rate on third down. Jim Leonhard’s unit had the advantage for most of the day against an offense that averaged just 4.4 yards per play and 230.7 total yards per game in the first three weeks.
The Aggies converted just 1 of 8 third down chances and generated just 100 total yards in the opening half, when the outcome was decided. New Mexico State avoided the shutout with a fourth-quarter score against UW’s reserves and finished with just 242 yards on 66 plays. Seventy-five of the yards came on the touchdown drive.
“The response,” Chryst said, “that part I was pleased with. You get a chance to play the game and I thought guys were ready and came out and played.”
The Badgers turned to two new kickers — freshman Gavin Lahm on kickoffs and redshirt freshman Nate Van Zelst on field goals and extra points.
The reason? Jack Van Dyke and Vito Calvaruso were out with right-leg injuries. According to Chryst, the staff knew late Thursday/early Friday Lahm and Van Zelst would be needed.
Lahm recorded eight touchbacks on 11 kickoffs and Van Zelst hit all nine of his extra-point attempts and his lone field-goal attempt, from 27 yards in the final quarter.
Isaac Guerendo’s big return to open game propels the Badgers for success
The Badgers got the ball first and started from the New Mexico State 49 after Guerendo returned the line-drive kickoff 50 yards.
UW needed just three plays — all runs — to score. Allen capped the drive with a 39-yard run over the right side with 13:30 left in the opening quarter.
The Badgers’ second series ended at their 48 when Mertz threw just wide of Chimere Dike, who was open near the New Mexico State sideline.
Andy Vujnovich’s punt carried into the end zone and the Aggies took over at their 20 with 6:57 left in the quarter.
The Badgers got the ball back quickly, thanks to a one-handed interception by cornerback Ricardo Hallman on a deep ball.
UW started from its 42 but went three and out, as Mertz was sacked on third and 5. It appeared Allen missed a blitz pick-up on the play.
Bob Bostad’s change to Badgers’ offensive line pays off
The Badgers got the ball back at their 37 after another New Mexico State punt and Bostad pulled Brown and Furtney and inserted Wedig and Bortolini.
Those moves appeared to bolster the line and UW drove 63 yards in seven plays, the last five runs for a combined 47 yards — for a 14-0 lead. Mellusi capped the drive with a 2-yard run.
New Mexico State went three and out again and Bostad stuck with the revamped line.
The Badgers took advantage of two New Mexico State personal fouls to drive 56 yards in four plays, with Mertz hitting Keontez Lewis for an 18-yard score to help push the lead to 21-0 with 12:22 left in the half.
Badgers defense sets up another Wisconsin touchdown
UW’s defense came up with its second takeaway, as linebacker Maema Njongmeta caught a ball that bounced off the hands of a New Mexico State tailback and into the air. Njongmeta caught the ball at the 6, gained 4 yards to the 2 and Allen scored on a 1-yard run two plays later.
UW’s lead was 28-0 with 11:17 left in the half and the offense wasn’t finished.
The Aggies had to punt again, this time after picking up one first down, and UW took over at its 37.
Mertz hit Skyler Bell for 37 yards to the Aggies’ 26 on first down and Allen capped the five-play drive with a 2-yard run to help UW take a 35-0 lead with 6:09 left in the half.
UW’s last series of the half ended when Mertz threw an interception inside the Aggies’ 5, although the ball was tipped near the line of scrimmage.
New Mexico State drove to the UW 12 but Ethan Albertson pushed his 29-yard field-goal attempt to the right with four seconds left in the half.
Bell added an 18-yard touchdown catch in the second half and led UW’s receivers with four catches for 108 yards.
The competition ramps up significantly for the Big Ten opener against the Buckeyes. Mahlman’s status for the league opener remains uncertain. But even if Mahlman misses his third consecutive game, it appears Bostad has found a new No. 1 line.
“Certainly proud of the way the guys handled the whole week,” Chryst said. “I thought one thing that hit me today watching it was there was a lot of guys that got it going and allowed others … we were able to play a lot of guys.
“That happens because you had a group take care of business and give them the opportunity to play. That’s always good.”
More: What you need to know about ‘Jump Around’ at Badger football games
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin Badgers rout New Mexico St. with big day from Mertz, Allen