The Graham Mertz hype train has left the station.
Coming into Friday’s clash against Illinois, it was hard to temper expectations about the debut of the much-touted signal caller. Somehow, Mertz exceeded all those expectations with a record-breaking performance in a dominant 45-7 victory for the No.14 Wisconsin Badgers.
Mertz was 20 of 21 passing for 248 yards and five touchdowns, with the only incompletion a drop from running back Garrett Groshek. In the process, he set program records for single-game completion percentage (95.2%) and touchdown passes (five).
“We talked about all week just playing with swag … I was happy that we played with a little extra chip on our shoulder and a little extra swag,” said Mertz in his post-game press conference.
That extra swag was noticeable all game. Wisconsin played confident and loose, and the Badgers kept their foot on the gas all game, controlling the tempo from start to finish.
After Illinois stunned then-No. 6 Wisconsin in 2019, Lovie Smith proclaimed “we caught them,” referring to the Badgers and the rest of the programs in the Big Ten West. On Friday, Wisconsin made it clear that the Illini still have plenty of work to do if they want to consistently compete in the division.
The Illini looked sloppy from the word “go,” and Illinois running back Mike Epstein coughed up the ball on the second play of the game. Wisconsin linebacker Noah Burks recovered, setting the Badgers up in Illinois territory with an outstanding opportunity to seize the lead.
Moments later, Mertz hit fullback Mason Stokke on a beautiful back shoulder fade to give Wisconsin a 7-0 lead, and the Badgers never looked back.
Wisconsin marched down the field on their next scoring possession, a 14-play, 88-yard drive that took eight minutes and 17 seconds off the clock, leaving the helpless Illini defense completely exhausted. Mertz capped it off with a simple play-action pass to a wide open Jake Ferguson in the endzone, the first of three touchdowns for the athletic tight end.
Ferguson attributed his success to his quarterback in the post-game press conference.
“The kid’s smooth, the kid’s definitely smooth,” Ferguson said. “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.”
Ferguson had a bit of a mental lapse in the second quarter, fumbling after a reception as he stretched for a first down. Illinois linebacker Tarique Barnes recovered and scampered 38 yards to the endzone, momentarily halting Wisconsin’s momentum and cutting the Badger lead to a touchdown.
The tight end admitted that the fumble got to him, but several teammates, including Mertz and Groshek, helped set his mind straight.
“I walked off the field and got in my head a little bit,” Ferguson said. “Having guys like that [Groshek, Mertz], even guys on the defense came up to me … I think that really helped me get out of my head a little bit.”
Ferguson made up for it on Wisconsin’s next offensive possession. Facing second-and-seven at midfield, Wisconsin dialed up a play for its big tight end, isolating him against a linebacker on a streak to the left boundary. Mertz threw a beautiful ball, and Ferguson ended up hauling it in for a gain of 35 yards.
Two plays later, Mertz found his tight end once again. Ferguson lined up in the slot and ran a streak to the endzone in between the two Illini safeties. Mertz took the snap and eyed down Danny Davis for a brief second, drawing a safety away from the middle of the field. Then, he unleashed a bullet to Ferguson, who highpointed the ball beautifully to put Wisconsin up 21-7.
The play displayed all the tools that have Wisconsin fans so excited about Mertz. Of course, he showed off his pinpoint accuracy and tantalizing arm strength, but as impressive was his football IQ and confident decision making, traits that Wisconsin fans have longed to see at quarterback.
Wisconsin added a fourth touchdown at the very end of the half, a 53-yard bomb from Mertz to Danny Davis, who flashed his big-play ability by shedding the Illini defensive backs and getting wide open deep down the middle of the field. Mertz delivered a beautiful ball, and the rest was history.
Mertz added another score in the second half, but the bigger story after the break was the play of the defense, who shut out the Illini and stopped Illinois on three fourth downs. The Badgers turned over Illinois twice: the aforementioned Burks fumble recovery and an interception from redshirt freshman safety Titus Toler late in the fourth quarter.
The defensive line, led by sophomore Keeanu Benton, had its way with Illinois in the trenches. Brandon Peters managed to scramble for 75 yards, but sans those plays the Illini rushed for just 56 yards. Peters felt the pressure all night, and completed just eight of 22 attempts for 87 yards. Wisconsin got home for three sacks, including one from true freshman Nick Herbig, who played the majority of snaps at outside linebacker opposite Burks.
“Our D-line I think dominated the game. I thought they played amazing, to have them making plays like that means so much to our defense,” said Jack Sanborn, who recorded three tackles at inside linebacker.
The secondary did an outstanding job neutralizing Illinois’s receiving corps, with cornerback Rachad Wildgoose completely neutralizing star receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe.
Wildgoose attributed his success to his versatility, which he developed in the nickel as the team’s slot cornerback in recent years.
“When I came in as a freshman, I was thrown in the nickel,” Wildgoose said. “As I grew and got better with my technique and my ball skills, I developed outside. In the nickel, you kind of play safety, nickel, and corner, so I was fortunate enough that coach Leonhard put me in those positions to be versatile.”
“I think I played well-technique wise. They gave me a lot of targets tonight, given that that was their number one. The ceiling has yet to be reached,” Wildgoose added.
Wisconsin will have another chance to hit that ceiling next Saturday when they take on Nebraska in Lincoln. The Cornhuskers were blown out 52-17 by Ohio State Saturday afternoon, but showed some promise in the first half, especially in the trenches. Wisconsin will need to run the ball more effectively next week against a defense that appears to be much stronger than Illinois’— at least on paper.
Still, it’s safe to be optimistic about the team’s chances, especially after the way Graham Mertz has begun his career as Wisconsin’s quarterback.