Wisconsin QB Graham Mertz nearly perfect as Badgers roll Illinois in Big Ten opener

MADISON, Wis. — Illinois defenders and the rest of the Big Ten got their first extended look at Graham Mertz on Friday night.

Wisconsin’s redshirt freshman quarterback, making his first college start after playing in two games last season, announced he is ready for the searing heat of the national spotlight.

Mertz, starting in place of Jack Coan (injured foot), passed for four touchdowns and hit all 14 throws in a flawless first half to help Wisconsin build a 21-point lead and tied the program mark for touchdown passes in a game with five in the Badgers’ 45-7 victory at Camp Randall Stadium.

His final numbers – 20 of 21 (95.2%) for 248 yards and the five scores – did not surprise his teammates. 

“Nothing he did surprised me, nothing he did shocked me,” cornerback Rachad Wildgoose said. “Everything he did was expected.

“I already knew he was going to ball out.”

Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz is tackled by Illinois linebacker Tarique Barnes during the second quarter at Camp Randall Stadium.

Tight end Jake Ferguson, who had touchdown catches of 5, 14 and 3 yards and finished with seven catches for 72 yards, entered the night with similar expectations. 

“The kid is smooth,” said Ferguson, who recovered nicely after losing a fumble that was returned 39 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter. “The kid is definitely smooth.

“He was smiling cheek to cheek after that first touchdown. He knew and everybody in that huddle knew that we were rolling.”

UW (1-0), ranked No. 14 in the Amway Coaches Poll, won its 25th consecutive home opener. The last home-opening loss UW suffered was a 43-7 decision to Colorado in 1995.  

Illinois (0-1) lost its eighth consecutive game in Madison. The Illini last won at Camp Randall Stadium in 2002.

Mertz completed 9 of 10 passes in limited duty last season and on Friday became the first freshman quarterback to start an opener for UW since John Josten in 1978.

Consider the numbers Mertz put up in the opening two quarters.

He hit 14 of 14 attempts for 190 yards and four touchdowns. He averaged 13.6 yards per completion and his touchdown passes were 10 yards to fullback Mason Stokke, 5 yards to Ferguson, 14 yards to Ferguson and 53 yards to wide receiver Danny Davis in the final minute of the first half.

Five UW players caught at least one pass in the half, with Ferguson leading the way with six catches for 69 yards and two scores.

Mertz’s first incompletion came with 6 minutes, 2 seconds left in the third quarter – on a drop by tailback Garrett Groshek. 

“That was on me,” Mertz said with a smile.

Mertz tied the program record for consecutive completions by hitting 17 straight for 214 yards.

“In the end I just wanted to get a ‘W,’ ” Mertz said. “I’m most proud of that. This week of preparation was great for everybody. I thought the O-line played great and the play-makers kept making plays.

“My expectations were to win the game.”

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Illinois coach Lovie Smith was impressed with Mertz but much less so with his defense.

“Their quarterback played outstanding ball,” Smith said, “but we have to give him a lot more competition on some of the touchdown passes on the defensive side of the football.”

UW’s defense struggled to contain quarterback Brandon Peters on outside runs (seven carries, 75 yards) but nevertheless pitched a shutout. The Illini converted only 2 of 10 third-down chances and they were 0-for-3 on fourth down.

“There were so many good things that we did,” said linebacker Jack Sanborn, one of eight UW players with at least three tackles. “Just from what I could tell, our D-line dominated the game.”

UW’s running game without Jonathan Taylor was pedestrian. Groshek led a trio of backs with 70 yards on 13 carries and UW finished with 182 yards on 54 attempts, an average of 3.4 yards per carry.

Turnovers were UW’s Achilles’ heel in the loss to Illinois last season but the Badgers turned the tables in the opening quarter and set the tone for the night.

Defensive end Garrett Rand forced tailback Mike Epstein to fumble and linebacker Noah Burks fell on the loose ball at the Illinois 33 with 14:35 left in the quarter.

UW needed six plays to take the lead, with Mertz hitting Stokke for a 10-yard score with 11:37 left, on third-and-1.

Jim Leonhard’s defense continued to stymie Illinois and the UW offense put together a 14-play, 88-yard touchdown drive for a two-score lead.

Illinois cut the lead in half with a defensive score.

UW faced third and 8 from its 22 when Mertz hit Ferguson for 8 yards. Ferguson lost the ball, however, and linebacker Tarique Barnes scooped it up and raced 39 yards for the score with 3:22 left in the half.

The Illini scored 17 points off three UW turnovers in a 24-23 victory last season and got back in the game Friday by forcing another turnover. If the UW players and coaches were experiencing flashbacks to last year’s loss, the offense wiped them away with touchdowns.

Mertz capped a five-play, 72-yard drive with a 14-yard strike to Ferguson to help UW take a 21-7 lead with 1:06 left in the half.

UW’s defense then recorded two sacks and forced an incompletion on the next series, the staff smartly used two of its three timeouts and forced the Illini to punt from their 5. Blake Hayes hit a 48-yard punt that went out of bounds at the UW 47 with 36 seconds left in the half.

Mertz and Danny Davis needed one play to find the end zone. Mertz hit Davis in stride down the middle of the field for the 53-yard touchdown with 28 seconds left in the half.

Larsh’s conversion pushed the lead to 28-7, Mertz was up to 14 for 14 for 190 yards and four touchdowns and Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes took note by tweeting: “That man @GrahamMertz5 going crazy tonight!”

Fullback John Chenal got UW’s fifth touchdown with a 2-yard run for a 35-7 lead with 12:23 remaining  in the game.

The results were different than last season in Champaign, on a night when UW’s redshirt freshman quarterback showed he is ready for the Big Ten in 2020.

“I thought he had good poise,” UW coach Paul Chryst said of Mertz. “I thought he saw the field well. You never know how someone is going to react in their first start but I thought he was himself.” 

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