When Graham Mertz followed through with his commitment to Wisconsin and arrived on campus in early 2019, Wisconsin fans everywhere grew excited with the anticipation of having a true blue-chip prospect at quarterback. With expected starter Jack Coan out indefinitely with a foot injury, that excitement will finally pay off when the redshirt freshman gets his first college start against the Illinois Fighting Illini.
While Mertz did see limited action in the second halves of Wisconsin’s blowouts against Central Michigan and Kent State, this will be Mertz’s first chance to face a Big Ten defense that frustrated the Badgers last year, delivering a 24-23 upset win for the Illini in Urbana-Champaign.
Through his brief appearances and practices, Mertz has shown impressive ability. In the two games he played, the former All-American Bowl MVP completed nine of his ten pass attempts, which is impressive consistency for a player as young as he is — although he will be facing much tougher defenses down the stretch. He’s an excellent pocket passer with superb vision down the field and has looked comfortable with throwing the ball 30+ yards.
Against the Illini, Mertz will face a mixed bag of challenges. The Illini defensive line is inexperienced, having lost 43 out of 52 starts from last season, which will allow the Badgers to establish the running game and should give Mertz plenty of time in the pocket. However, the Illini are returning with a strong secondary, and a defense that as a whole put together 2.2 turnovers a game with a nation-leading six defensive touchdowns.
While the Badgers hope that wideouts Danny Davis III and Kendric Pryor will be able to fill the gaps left by the departures of AJ Taylor and Quintez Cephus, Mertz will face a real challenge throwing the ball downfield without an established first-option against a seasoned secondary. Yet from what evaluators have seen so far, Mertz should have the tools — the arm and the downfield vision--to rise to the challenge.
The Wisconsin offense faces its fair share of question marks this season, but a strong performance from Mertz and the Badgers can be expected on Friday night as the Badgers look to avenge last season’s stunning upset. As is typical of Wisconsin, success depends on the strength of its offensive line. If the Badgers are able to take advantage of a depleted Illini front-seven and establish a strong running game early on, Mertz will have plenty of time in the pocket to make plays and show off his arm. Despite the losses of key playmakers, if Mertz is able to get comfortable and limit sloppy turnovers, he should be able to lead the Badgers to victory.