Rapid Reaction: Graham Mertz introduces himself to the college football world, Wisconsin gets revenge on Illinois
Final score: #14 Wisconsin 45 Illinois 7
Quick recap: A lot of hype, a lot of excitement and a lot of build up. In a lot of ways, the start of the B1G season was therapeutic to the conference and its fans on Friday night, especially for those wearing Wisconsin gear. That probably wasn’t the case for those in Illinois. The Badgers got revenge on the Fighting Illini for a 24-23 upset in Champaign in 2019, scoring the first touchdown of the game just 4 minutes into the first quarter. Wisconsin never looked back. Aside from a Tarique Barnes scoop-and-score in the 2nd quarter to close the lead to 14-7, it was all Wisconsin. After that 2nd quarter fumble, the Badgers marched right down the field and put together a 5-play, 72-yard drive, capped off with a 14-yard touchdown pass from Graham Mertz to Jake Ferguson. Then, with less than a minute to play in the half, Mertz hit Danny Davis on a 53-yard TD pass to make the score 28-7. Wisconsin added two more touchdowns in the second half, but the stifling defense was just too much for Illinois QB Brandon Peters, who finished the day completing just 8-of-19 passes for 87 yards.
Key player: You read the headline, right? There’s no bigger story in the B1G than Mertz right now. OK, maybe he’s the only story since the B1G just kicked off the season on Friday night, but the redshirt freshman stepped in for the injured Jack Coan and was about as close to perfect as he could possibly be. Mertz finished the 1st half completing 14-of-14 pass attempts for 190 yards and 4 touchdowns, leading the Badgers to a 28-7 lead at half. He would go on to complete 17-straight throws before a 3rd quarter incompletion ended his streak. Mertz finished the day completing 20-of-21 for 248 yards and 5 touchdowns. Yeah, this kid is here to stay.
Key moment: Leading 21-7 late in the 1st half, the Wisconsin defense held Illinois to a 3-and-out with under 1 minute to play, sacking Brandon Peters twice and forcing a punt from the Illini 5-yard line. On the first play of the Badgers’ ensuing possession, Mertz found Danny Davis wide open in the middle of the field for a 53-yard touchdown pass to take a 28-7 advantage into the locker room. Considering how poorly Illinois’ offense had been playing, that touchdown pass felt like the dagger.
Key stat: Perhaps no stat sticks out more than Illinois’ inability to stay on the field. The Illini converted on just 2-of-10 opportunities on 3rd down and failed on all 3 attempts on 4th down. They needed to wear down the Wisconsin defense, at least to some degree. Instead, the Badgers played fresh all night.
What it means for Wisconsin: Wisconsin has itself a quarterback, folks. A pretty good one, too. Illinois won’t be the best defense that Mertz faces this year, but for a redshirt freshman to be able to show that much consistency and stretch the field that well, it’s a sign of good things to come. The Badgers did struggle on the ground early, clearly a repercussion of losing career 6,000-yard rusher Jonathan Taylor, but if Mertz continues to play at this level, Wisconsin is in good position to repeat as B1G West champions. Defensively, the Badgers looked really good to, holding Illinois to 215 yards and not allowing a single offensive point.
What it means for Illinois: There better be some short memories in the Illinois locker room. Not many expected the Fighting Illini to upset Wisconsin two years in a row, but there was some faith that they would be able to at least compete with the Badgers. That really wasn’t the case. This is an Illinois team that is supposed to be the most experienced and talented that Lovie Smith has had in Champaign. If the Illini don’t bounce back next weekend against Purdue, the 2020 season could start to look ugly.