Badgers fans were given some devastating news Sunday afternoon, as Jeff Potrykus of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel confirmed that quarterback Graham Mertz tested positive for COVID-19.
Mertz’s positive result came via a rapid test, and now the program must confirm that result with a PCR nasal swab test, which returns slower results but is more accurate.
Until the results from the PCR test come back, Wisconsin will hold out hope that the result was a false positive. If not, Mertz will miss the next three games at minimum, as Big Ten rules state any player with a PCR positive must sit out at least 21 days before resuming football activities. That 21 day period includes games at Nebraska, versus Purdue, and at Michigan.
Mertz was outstanding in his debut against Illinois on Friday, completing 20 of 21 passes against Illinois for 248 yards and 5 touchdowns. Despite struggling in the run game, Mertz’s efficiency kept the offense rolling against the Illini, and his absence would be a crushing blow for offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph, who relied on Mertz’s lively arm to create chunk plays in week one.
Should Mertz be unavailable on Friday, redshirt sophomore Chase Wolf is expected to be the starter. Wolf, a three star recruit in the class of 2018, has attempted just two passes in his Wisconsin career.
Wolf is toolsy and reports out of practice suggest he has the arm strength and athletic ability to be a playmaker at the power five level. QB coach Jon Budamayr praised Wolf’s attitude and consistency this offseason, and spoke highly of his potential at the position.
"I couldn't ask for a better approach than what Chase brings every day," said Budamayr. “He's one of the most consistent guys I've been around. Every day he works to get better. He understands where he's gotta grow. The approach that he's brought each day has been phenomenal.”
“I’m excited to watch him continue to grow. I think he's got a lot of potential. Gotta help him get there,” Budamayr added.
There’s plenty of optimism surrounding Wolf, but Mertz leaves very large shoes to fill, both on and off the field. Plenty of praise was lavished on Mertz for his on-field performance, but teammates have gushed just as much about his leadership off it.
“I think it’s the way he [Mertz] responds to adversity ... with my fumble, just being able to have him lift me up, he’s kind of taking that role as a leader. It was awesome to be on the other side of him catching balls,” said Jake Ferguson after the Illinois game on Friday.
It’s unclear as of now whether this positive test will impact the status of the game against Nebraska this Saturday. Teams with a one-time positivity rate of 5% or a population positivity rate of 7.5% are forced to suspend practice and competition for at least one week per Big Ten rules, although it’s not clear how close Wisconsin is to those critical figures.
The Badgers were without receiver Adam Krumholz, linebacker Spencer Lytle and offensive lineman Joe Tippman for undisclosed reasons on Friday. It is unknown whether or not their absence was in any way related to COVID.
PCR results for Mertz will come in within the next couple days. Until then, Wisconsin’s football team must hope for the best and plan for the worst.