MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin used to make trips to the Big Ten championship game a nearly annual excursion.
After playing in five of the first seven Big Ten championship games, the Badgers have made it to Indianapolis just once in the last four years. They blew a chance to get there last year by losing at Minnesota in their regular-season finale.
That gives them extra incentive as they enter this season a Western Division favorite once again. The 18th-ranked Badgers would prefer to go a step beyond that.
“The goal is to win the Big Ten, obviously,” running back Braelon Allen said. “It hasn’t been done in 10 years. That’s definitely the main focus and something we harped on all summer long, our desire to be in Indianapolis and bring home a Big Ten championship.”
Wisconsin will need consistency, which the Badgers lacked a year ago.
They lost three of their first four games before winning seven straight once Allen grabbed a featured role. Then their offense sputtered at Minnesota before a Las Vegas Bowl victory over Arizona State.
Wisconsin will try to produce a faster start with plenty of new faces.
Coach Paul Chryst brought in former Baltimore Ravens tight ends coach Bobby Engram as offensive coordinator. On defense, the Badgers must replace eight of the top 10 tacklers from a unit that allowed the fewest yards per game and yards per play of any Football Bowl Subdivision team last season.
The defense’s inexperience means the offense must perform better.
Allen rushed for 1,268 yards and 12 touchdowns as a freshman. He benefits from the return of Chez Mellusi, who ran for 815 yards in nine games last season before tearing his anterior cruciate ligament.
Mellusi could only watch last year as Wisconsin struggled at Minnesota when Allen was held in check.
“I was sitting on the couch,” Mellusi said. “I was at home watching that game. So it was very difficult for me. It was hard. Not even just me, I feel everyone on this team is going to do everything they can to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
MERTZ BACK AT QB
Graham Mertz enters his third season as Wisconsin’s starting quarterback realizing he must get steadier.
Mertz owns a 13-7 record as a starter. He has a combined 16 touchdown passes and four interceptions in the 13 wins. In the losses, he threw 12 interceptions and three touchdown passes.
He will be working with new wideouts. Chimere Dike is the only returning Badger who had more than 86 yards receiving last season.
Although Wisconsin must reload on defense, the Badgers return their 2021 sack leader: Outside linebacker Nick Herbig had nine sacks as well as 14 ½ tackles for loss last season.
TRANSFERS IN SECONDARY
Wisconsin’s defensive backfield includes plenty of proven players who got their experience at other schools. The Badgers added cornerbacks Just Clark (Toledo), Cedrick Dort (Kentucky) and Jay Shaw (UCLA) plus safety Kamo’I Latu (Utah).
NEW LINEBACKERS COACH
Chryst brought in Mark D’Onofrio this summer to replace Bill Sheridan as inside linebackers coach. D’Onofrio hadn’t coached since 2018 but is a former defensive coordinator at Temple, Miami and Houston.
Sheridan joined Wisconsin’s staff in February after spending two years as Air Force’s defensive line coach, but he resigned less than three months later. The NCAA is investigating Sheridan and three other former Air Force assistants for potential rules violations.
Bob Bostad, who coached Wisconsin’s inside linebackers last season, is back to his old position as offensive line coach. Bostad previously coached Wisconsin’s offensive line from 2008-11.
Wisconsin doesn’t face the early gauntlet it encountered last season, when its 1-3 start included losses to Penn State, Notre Dame and Michigan. But the Badgers do visit No. 2 Ohio State on Sept. 24 and travel to No. 15 Michigan State on Oct. 15. Their most notable nonconference game is a Sept. 10 home date with Washington State. The opener is Sept. 3 against Illinois State.
TOP PHOTO: FILE – Wisconsin running back Braelon Allen heads for the end zone for a touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Illinois on Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, in Champaign, Ill. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)