The B1G 10: Graham Mertz is playing better. Ohio State will test whether that's good enough.
Every Tuesday, Matt Hayes tackles the 10 hottest topics in the Big Ten.
1. The B1G Story
Here we are again, another inflection point for Graham Mertz and the Wisconsin Badgers, another opportunity to make it all work on the big stage.
Needless to say, these things haven’t gone well in the past.
“There are times when it looks like it should look like,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said of the Badgers’ passing game after 3 games this season.
He could’ve easily been describing any of Wisconsin’s 3 seasons with Mertz — the biggest quarterback recruit in program history — and the whiff of what could be with his clear talent muddled by uneven play.
Mertz has a career TD/INT ratio of 25/18, and until this season, was averaging just over a paltry 6 yards per attempt and was barely completing 60 percent of his passes.
The mega recruit who chose Wisconsin over Alabama threw 7 TDs in his first 2 career starts in 2020 and immediately raised the bar so high, there was no way to go but down.
And down it went.
Over the next 21 starts, Mertz and the Badgers went 2-6 vs. ranked teams, and he threw 11 interceptions. Close losses to Penn State, Northwestern and Indiana, and bad losses to Notre Dame, Michigan and Iowa.
Doesn’t matter where the games were played or the conditions. When the big game arrived, Mertz and the Badgers were, for the most part, constantly chasing.
Now here we are in the biggest opportunity of Mertz’s 4 years in Madison, a shot at mighty Ohio State in Columbus and a chance to redeem all that has gone wrong. Players and coaches have spoken about Mertz’s leadership, his growing maturity and his ability to embrace the moment in what could be his last season at Wisconsin.
He’s a different player. A smarter player. Smoother, more polished, and he understands where Chryst wants the offense and how to get there.
He’s completing 71 percent of his passes, and the ball is going downfield more than it ever has — his impressive average per attempt (11.2) has nearly doubled his career average. He’s thrown 6 TD passes against just 2 interceptions. His QB rating (190.88) is 5th in the country.
If it weren’t for that hiccup loss in Week 2 against Washington State, the only Power 5 game on the early season schedule, maybe it’s easier to look at Ohio State and think this is the moment we see the Mertz that arrived at Wisconsin with so much hype and hope.
Instead of: I’ll believe it when I see it.
“I think Graham has been doing a good job of getting the ball out, and it helps when there are guys open,” Chryst said. “Competition gets tougher, you know, you’ll be challenged more.”
Welcome to being challenged, everyone.
2. The hunt
Chryst is one of the most respected quarterbacks coaches/teachers in the coaching fraternity.
He has a history of developing quarterbacks, of coaching hard and getting the most out of the overlooked and under-recruited. Yet it hasn’t taken hold with Mertz.
There was so much concern at the position this offseason that Wisconsin went after Oklahoma transfer QB Caleb Williams, who was genuinely interested in the Badgers because of Chryst’s reputation.
Williams wasn’t the only transfer portal quarterback the Badgers were pursuing, but an actual connection never materialized and Wisconsin stuck with Mertz. After a knee injury to top backup Chase Wolf, true freshman Myles Burkett is the new No. 2.
So yeah, this is a big moment for Mertz — against a rebuilt Ohio State defense and new DC Jim Knowles. The same Ohio State defense that last weekend gave up explosion plays to Toledo in the passing game.
The same Buckeyes defense that has played 3 woefully average quarterbacks. If ever there were a moment for Mertz to step in and swing big, this is it.
It’s not like Chryst has suddenly changed his run-first philosophy, but Wisconsin isn’t beating Ohio State without high-level efficiency in the passing game.
“The one thing that Graham has been doing a good job of is, take what’s there,” Chryst said.
3. The Mertz Project, The Epilogue
We’re dangerously close to another Scott Frost/Adrian Martinez situation, this one at Wisconsin.
The only difference is, Chryst wins games and Frost didn’t.
But the analogy of Chryst being tied at the hip with Mertz like Frost was with Martinez to his detriment — and all that goes with it — isn’t lost. Or as one Big Ten coach told me, “My guess is Paul hasn’t had anything behind (Mertz).”
Until now. The staff loves how quickly Burkett is learning and his attention to detail. Are they willing to play a true freshman on the road against Ohio State?
Not unless something goes horribly wrong with Mertz — who, again, has played well this season despite the loss to Washington State.
The Badgers are 16-7 in games Mertz has started, including 9-6 in the Big Ten. But last year’s team was better than 9 wins, and better quarterback play against Penn State and Minnesota would’ve translated to 11 wins and another shot at Michigan in the Big Ten Championship Game.
Burkett may not play this weekend, but don’t expect Chryst — who’s not averse to pulling quarterbacks and finding answers — to avoid making a move this season if it doesn’t work with Mertz.
4. Who is the real Goldy?
We’ve heard all offseason how the old is new again, and how the Minnesota offense has slipped back into a nice, worn pair of jeans.
QB Tanner Morgan, lost the past 2 seasons without his 2019 OC Kirk Ciarrocca, is humming along again with Ciarrocca by his side.
In 3 games, Morgan’s numbers and efficiency are way up, and the Gophers have cruised through 3 gimme putts with the nation’s No. 2-ranked offense (554.7 ypg.). Now here comes a grinder of a game at Michigan State — suddenly desperate after an ugly loss at Washington.
This is where we learn what Minnesota is, and if the return of Ciarrocca to Minneapolis really could be a defining moment for PJ Fleck’s program. You could argue that Morgan was the most important player in the Big Ten in 2019 outside of Justin Fields, when he threw 30 TDs and led Minnesota to 11 wins.
The 2 seasons since with a different OC, however, have been wildly disappointing. The first 3 games this season, all at home, have been a completely different story.
Time to see if it continues to play out on the road — and now, without leading receiver Chris Autman-Bell, who suffered a season-ending leg injury Saturday.
5. The Weekly 5
Five picks against the spread, from our friends at FanDuel:
- Maryland at Michigan (-17.5)
- Central Michigan at Penn State (-25.5)
- Minnesota at Michigan State (-1)
- Wisconsin at Ohio State (-17.5)
- Indiana at Cincinnati (-14)
Last week: 2-3.
6. Your tape is your résumé
An NFL scout analyzes a draft-eligible Big Ten player. This week: Ohio State DE Zach Harrison.
“He’s going be this year’s Travon Walker. He already has clocked in the 4.5 40 range — for a 270-pound end. His athleticism and skill are off the chart. He’s just so quick off the edge, and he works. He gets after it. That’s what I love the most. He doesn’t stop.
“Great frame, long arms, plays with leverage. I may as well be reading you Walker’s eval from last year. He’s a straight-line athletic freak, but can he be a change of direction guy? He probably has a 2nd day (round) grade right now because he’s raw, but he’s going to move up draft boards once he starts testing and people start interviewing him.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll, and one big thing: 1 non-superstar you can’t lose for an extended time:
1. Ohio State: DT Michael Hall Jr. A force in the middle, and disrupter against the run. Bonus this season: pass rush (2 sacks already).
2. Michigan: DT Mazi Smith. A big man, a big obstacle in the middle against the run. Had a strong season last year, but was overshadowed by the star edge players.
3. Penn State: S Ji’Ayir Brown. Smart player, big hitter, always around the ball. The quarterback of the defense.
4. Minnesota: TE Brevyn Spann-Ford. A giant target (6-7, 270) and fantastic blocker in the Gophers’ run-heavy, play-action offense. He’ll be even more important now that Autman-Bell is out.
5. Michigan State: TE Daniel Barker. He’s good for 20-plus catches a season, and has 12 career TDs. His super senior 6th season will be his best yet.
6. Wisconsin: LB Nick Herbig. Not nearly enough is made of Herbig’s ability to disrupt off the edge. He’s not the most physically imposing guy (6-2, 225), so he’s easily overlooked. Bad mistake.
7. Iowa: TE Sam Laporta. Imagine if Laporta played at Ohio State. Or Michigan. Or anyplace with a functional offense and QB. He’d be an All-American and a top-20 pick in the NFL Draft.
8. Purdue: WR Charlie Jones. Speaking of Laporta, look what happened when Jones got away from the Iowa offense. Had 21 catches in 2021. Has 32 and 5 TDs already at Purdue.
9. Maryland: DT Mosiah Nasili-Kite. Underrated interior pass rusher and former JUCO star, he has been the one consistent force on a defense that has had its struggles over the past 2 years.
10. Indiana: LB Cam Jones. A 5th-year super senior who has been a critical part of coach Tom Allen’s rebuild. A 3-year starter and the emotional core of the defense.
11. Rutgers: S Christian Izien. Stayed for the unknown with Greg Schiano, Part II, when he could’ve transferred for the better. Has been the one constant on defense since 2020.
12. Illinois: RB Chase Brown. A terrific player who doesn’t get nearly enough credit because he plays at Illinois. Could’ve left after a big 2021 season, but he stayed and is poised for his biggest season yet.
13. Northwestern: OT Peter Skoronski. Former 4-star recruit has been a starter from Day 1 as a freshman in 2020. Without his elite pass protection, Northwestern isn’t throwing the ball with the efficiency it has this season.
14. Nebraska: WR Trey Palmer. Has helped revitalize the passing game with his deep speed and his yards after the catch. Former LSU star could’ve stayed in the SEC (see: Alabama), but chose the unknown at Nebraska.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: I had such high hopes for Purdue this season. Thought the West Division was there to win. It looks bleak now. Talk me off the ledge. — Donald Peterson, Phoenix.
I’m not sure we’ve seen 2 tougher losses this season in all of college football — but certainly in the Big Ten. Both Penn State and Syracuse scored in the last minute to beat the Boilers, and the way both games were somewhat gifted on numerous levels is what’s so disturbing.
At the top of the list: the 30 yards in penalties Syracuse got before it touched the ball on the final drive, allowing it to begin at midfield with 45 seconds to play. Just mind-numbing.
It’s little things that become big things, and those big things add up. They prevented Purdue from winning an important league game to begin the season and a nonconference game against one of the worst Power 5 teams of the past 3 years.
The season isn’t lost, the West Division is still within reach and in Purdue’s control even with the loss to Penn State. But they’re not winning conference games unless they clean up small breakdowns that already are sucking life from the young season.
88.2. OK, so Michigan QB JJ McCarthy’s completion percentage is ridiculous against 3 overmatched opponents. If you think that’s good, take a look at this:
In 3 games, McCarthy has 7 carries and 30 completions. On those 37 plays, the offense has generated 546 yards and 4 TDs. That’s 14.7 yards every time McCarthy runs the ball or completes a pass.
And since he’s completing nearly 90 percent of his passes, that means nearly every snap McCarthy takes is a big win for the Wolverines’ offense.
10. Quote to note
Michigan State coach Mel Tucker: “There are no excuses or no explanations. We’re going to learn from (the Washington loss), and we’re going to have a better response next weekend.”