Over 76,000 fans crammed into Camp Randall Stadium to watch the first stages of a new era of Wisconsin Badgers football. Last November, Wisconsin hired Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell who comes with College Football Playoff — a goal the Badgers program had flirted with, but never attained in the event’s 9-year history.
Subject to this hopeful, yet raucous atmosphere for their 2023 season opener was the Buffalo Bulls, aiming to build on the successes of last season under third-year head coach Maurice Linguist.
While the Bulls remained within striking distance for roughly 60 percent of the contest, Wisconsin eventually opened up the gap and claimed a 38-17 victory in Fickell’s highly-anticipated debut.
The Badgers, in typical Wisconsin fashion, led with dominant running back play and two players exceeded 140 yards in the 2023 opener. Chez Mellusi obtained a career-best 157 yards and two touchdowns on 12.1 yards per carry, notably shedding contact and turning on the jets in an 89-yard third quarter touchdown run. Additionally, Braelon Allen contributed the team’s final two touchdowns on 141 yards in a game where the Badgers collectively totaled 314 rushing yards.
After Mellusi’s first touchdown in the opening quarter, Buffalo quickly responded with a 2-minute drive, capped by a touchdown pass from quarterback Cole Snyder to wide receiver Cole Harrity. Tied 7-7, the Bulls’ defense provided numerous opportunities to obtain the lead, but that objective never came to fruition. Wisconsin saw a four-possession sequence which saw three punts, but the best chance at vaulting ahead came when Buffalo safety Devin Grant intercepted Tanner Mordecai.
With only the quarterback to beat, Grant slipped on the turf at the Wisconsin 16-yard line. But the golden opportunity was squandered as Buffalo missed a 34-yard field goal after gaining zero yards on the possession. Shortly after, a punt fest ensued until Mordecai started heating up as a passer toward the end of the half. He connected with wide receiver Chimere Dike for a 29-yard touchdown to hand Wisconsin a 14-7 advantage. Then, Buffalo kicker Alex McNulty impressively drilled a 53-yard field goal to send the game into halftime 14-10.
The second half was utter Mellusi and Allen domination, highlighted by Mellusi’s 89-yard scamper. Wisconsin built its lead up to three touchdowns until Snyder and Harrity connected for their second touchdown together in the fourth quarter. But even that two-score deficit was short lived, as Allen only needed three plays before contributing a 22-yard touchdown run to settle the dust.
Snyder finished the contest 26-of-41, completing the second most single-game passes of his college game. With the second-year starter exhibiting careful decision-making, Buffalo never coughed the ball up once and won the turnover battle, 2-0, against a traditionally stout defense. But the slew of incompletions, short completions, and short runs ultimately prevented the offense from keeping up with the Mellusi and Allen-led Badgers. On the other side of ball, Buffalo’s First Team All-MAC defenders Marcus Fuqua and Shaun Dolac shined with the most tackles on the Bulls — 11 and 8, respectively. Fuqua led the country in interceptions last year, but it was Dolac picking off his first career pass Saturday — setting up Buffalo in the red zone for its second and final touchdown of the day.
Sitting at 0-1, Buffalo returns home next Saturday to face Fordham of the FCS. The Bulls lost their FCS buy game a year ago on a Hail Mary, so Linguist and his players cannot afford to overlook this opponent, even after keeping it close with the No. 19 Badgers for a half.