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Saturday, February 24, 2024
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The trials and tribulations of Graham Mertz

After entering Madison as one of the most heralded recruits in program history, quarterback Graham Mertz’s Wisconsin tenure has been replete with inconsistencies and head-scratching moments.

There are three truths in life: death, taxes and Wisconsin football’s mediocre quarterback play. Since the superhuman efficiency of Russell Wilson in 2012, Wisconsin has featured the pedestrian likes of Alex Hornibrook, Bart Houston, Jack Coan, Joel Stave, etc. Mertz’s arrival in 2019 was supposed to break this trend of mediocrity in the passing game and bring in a new age of highflying offense along with Wisconsin’s traditional stifling defense and smash-mouth, explosive running attack. 

At his heights, the Blue Valley North product has looked fantastic with an accuracy and talented passing ability that even garnered the attention of one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. At an early Elite 11 practice, Peyton Manning said Mertz was very similar to himself in terms of his throwing ability and playstyle. 

Later that fall, Mertz tore apart some of the highest competition at the Under Armour All-American game. Badger fans were becoming ecstatic by the thought of escaping the overthrows of Alex Hornibrook and the blahness of Jack Coan. 

With Mertz, some posited Wisconsin could be a devastating offensive juggernaut that could tear up defenses through the air and with run over teams because of Jonathan Taylor’s lightened boxes resulting from the threat of Mertz’s precise pocket-passing. The Badgers were seemingly on a trajectory for a College Football Playoff or a Rose Bowl win. Of course, none of this came to be.

During Graham’s first year on campus, Wisconsin actually had pretty decent quarterback play from Jack Coan which led to Mertz redshirting. Coaches were happily pleased with Mertz’s performance as a backup, as there were behind-the-scenes rumors that he almost started a couple of games when Jack Coan was suffering a shoulder injury. At the end of the year, Coan transferred to Notre Dame after the coaching staff informed him Mertz was likely to supplant Coan as the full time starter. 

So, Wisconsin was finally getting what it wanted: an elite pocket-passing quarterback who could elevate the rest of the roster. Even though Jonathan Taylor was gone, the defense projected to continue its dominance, and Wisconsin was projected to be one of the top teams in the country. Early returns were fantastic with a near-perfect game in the 2020 opener against Illinois. Mertz was hitting every sort of play-action pass to the likes of tight end Jake Ferguson, fullback Mason Stokke and wideout Danny Davis. However, Mertz would only go on to throw four more touchdowns and five interceptions, leading to some of the poorest offensive performances in Badger football history. 

But this all happened in the shadow of COVID-19. Fans started to believe this bad quarterback play was an aberration because of poor receiver play. 2021 would be Wisconsin’s year with a fantastic schedule that would allow Mertz to show off against the likes of Penn State, Michigan and Notre Dame. Instead, he was again subpar, throwing 10 touchdowns and 11interceptions. 

Fans were incredibly frustrated with the program, as there was no longer a feature running back to fill the hole left by Jonathan Taylor and the defense was struggling. Mertz would then have a stronger stretch of play over the rest of the season as the offense emerged to feature Braelon Allen. Mertz was starting to play efficiently when the offense had fewer passing attempts per game and a lot of work was taken off his shoulders. However, that stretch of quality play ended during a terrible performance against Minnesota, where his lackluster performance led to the Badgers missing out on the Big Ten title game in back-to-back years. 

This year has been Mertz’s strongest stretch of play in Madison. While there have definitely been bad plays and silly what-are-you-doing interceptions, Mertz has looked more like a high-quality Big Ten quarterback with high passing yardage. 

He has developed a penchant for completing more deep shots to wideouts like Chimere Dike and deep in-breakers to Keontez Lewis. Although he has struggled at times this season (see Ohio State), he definitely took a step forward with performances like against Northwestern, where he finished with five touchdowns. The problem is his stronger play has coincided with steps back for Wisconsin’s defense, running game and offensive line. 

While Mertz has made more plays on the run this year through bootlegs and scrambling, he is definitively a pocket-passer. However, given he does not have great footwork, he isn’t able to navigate the pocket and evade pressure when the offensive line struggles. This has been a core reason for why Wisconsin looked uncompetitive against Illinois and Ohio State.

If the Badgers are to return to playing the old style of Wisconsin football, where they win nine or 10 games a year along with Big Ten West championships, consistent quarterback play is needed. Mertz’s inconsistency held the Badgers back from winning the Big Ten West in 2020 and 2021. While he took a step forward this year, seemingly everything else on the team took an enormous leap backwards. 

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All in all, Mertz entered Madison as the heralded savior of Badger football, capable of leading Wisconsin back to the elite tier of college football. However, as Wisconsin’s starting quarterback, his play led to the firing of one of the most successful coaches in school history and wasted some of Wisconsin’s most talented defenses in years.

While it is never simple enough to merely blame the quarterback, as there were already signs the ship was slowly sinking in Wisconsin, Mertz proved he was far from the program savior he was prophesied to be. Rather than his arrival being the tidal wave that would send this program to loftier heights, it was an albatross signaling this ship was about to sink. 

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