MADISON – If you thought using the word “swag” wasn’t cool anymore — Graham Mertz is here to bring it back.
“I was happy that we played with a little extra chip on our shoulder and a little extra swag,” Mertz said postgame after No. 14 Wisconsin’s 45-7 victory over Illinois Friday night at Camp Randall.
Friday’s game could not have gone any swaggier for the first-time starting quarterback Mertz, who was asked to take over the offense earlier this month in the absence of junior Jack Coan (foot). Mertz completed 20 of 21 passes for 248 yards and five touchdowns. Not a single pass from Mertz all evening was at risk of being intercepted.
Midway through the third quarter, Mertz tied a school record with 17 consecutive completions. According to Mertz, he didn’t even know the completion streak was occurring.
“In the end, I just want to get a W,” Mertz said. “I’m most proud of that and most proud of the team … I think we did a great job tonight of being truly in the moment, and knowing what we need to do and then getting it done.”
Wisconsin Head Coach Paul Chryst seemed to ease Mertz into the game, scheming up a collection of basic run plays and screen passes in the first quarter. When asked about the uncertainty regarding a first-time starter, Chryst indicated that Mertz passed all of the early tests.
“I thought he had good poise,” Chryst said of Mertz. “I thought he saw the field well. You never know quite how someone's going to react in their first start … I thought there was a good plan for him by the offensive coaches. He was able to execute it.”
As the game progressed, the offensive aggressiveness followed.
With Wisconsin leading 14-7 late in the second quarter, Mertz connected with tight end Jake Ferguson on a near-side deep ball for 34 yards. Two plays later, Ferguson split two Illini defensive backs up the middle of the field while hauling in one of his three touchdown receptions on the night.
It was the type of calm, precision passing that Wisconsin has been missing for nearly a decade.
“The kid’s smooth, the kid’s definitely smooth,” Ferguson said of Mertz postgame. “He was smiling cheek-to-cheek after the first touchdown. He knew and everyone in that huddle knew that we were rolling. It was just awesome to see that out of him. First game, golly, kid can play.”
For Mertz, it was as simple as picking up Illinois’ coverage quickly and trusting that the veteran tight end would be there for him.
“They throw in man [coverage] every once in a while … I think when you get man, you can throw guys open and guys can go make plays,” Mertz said. “The play with [Ferguson], I knew it was man, I knew we had to hold the safety … I put all my trust in him.”
On a night when the running game was not up to typical Wisconsin standards, Mertz and the Badgers still took advantage of their run-heavy profile with some creative goal-line play action. Illinois sold out for the run both times, leaving Ferguson alone on the far side of the endzone for two of the easier touchdowns he’ll score in his entire collegiate career.
“With the two goal-line touchdowns, we knew those were going to be there,” Ferguson said. “They know we like to pound it, especially on the goal line. Just trying to sell [the run] and get out of there.”
It wasn’t without a little help from the offensive line, who kept the pocket clean for Mertz all evening. The O-line allowed just two sacks, and the slow-moving Mertz wasn’t forced to do a whole lot of scrambling.
Junior center Kayden Lyles attributed the strong performance to a solid week of preparation given the sudden change at quarterback.
“We knew the day that [Mertz] stepped in that it was going to be a big change,” Lyles said postgame. “We just accepted it, and spent that last week and a half grinding on communication and everything. It showed tonight that everyone was on their A-game.”
In retrospect, the performance from Mertz was both stunning and yet … somewhat unsurprising, given his status as the highest-rated quarterback recruit in school history. Everyone knew the former four-star from Kansas had the tools to succeed in the Big Ten, but Friday night was Mertz’s first chance to really prove it to the world–and prove it he did.
“Nothing at all,” said Wisconsin cornerback Rachad Wildgoose, when asked if anything about Mertz’s performance was shocking. “He does it everyday in practice. Nothing he did surprised me, nothing he did was shocking, everything he did was expected.
“I already knew he was going to ball out today.”
Mertz’s school-record completion streak came to an end in the third quarter, as his third-and-seventeen checkdown was dropped by running back Garrett Groshek. It would be the only incomplete pass of the evening for the redshirt freshman in his starting debut.
“That’s on me, I have to get it to him faster,” Mertz said with a sarcastic smirk. “We were joking around about it.”
For Mertz, like plenty of high-profile Badgers throughout the years, the individual records don’t seem to matter too much. He did admit that receiving praise on social media from numerous football stars around the league — most notably Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes — was pretty special.
“It’s great to hear from those guys and it means a ton,” Mertz said. “I’m just happy that the guys in the locker room are pumped.”