Wisconsin football: Grading the Badgers' big win over Illinois
With such a long extended offseason in the B1G, the anticipation of Friday night’s conference opener between the Wisconsin Badgers and Illinois Fighting Illini could not have been higher. While it was strange to see an empty Camp Randall Stadium, it felt good to get the B1G back.
College football had been missing something these last several weeks of action, and the conference has already filled that void as Wisconsin fans and the college football world were introduced to quarterback Graham Mertz. The Badgers freshman put together an incredible, record-setting performance.
Mertz was the story of the game in Wisconsin’s 45-7 season-opening victory that should have Badger fans incredibly excited for what’s to come the rest of the season and the next few years. And what about the rest of the Badgers? After evaluating what we saw on Friday night, I pulled out my report card and graded all units on the field.
Let’s take a look.
What? Why not an A+? Well, I’m a bit of a harsh grader. Let’s start with the star of the game. Mertz outperformed any sort of expectations even his family likely had for him in his first start as a college quarterback. The highly touted recruit, who had offers from all the big-name programs, appeared in just two games as a true freshman last year in blowouts. But on Friday he entered the national college football discussion immediately in his first meaningful minutes of playing time.
Mertz tied Tanner McEvoy’s school record for consecutive completions with 17 in a single game. Mertz finished 20-for-21 passing for 248 yards, but there was much more to it than that. His 95.2% completion percentage is a new school record and his five touchdown passes tied a school record as well. He went tight end Jake Ferguson’s way plenty of times especially in the end zone where he was wide open for all three scores. Ferguson finished with seven catches for 72 yards and three touchdowns.
So why not an A or an A+ on offense?
While it was an incredible night for the Badgers in all phases, there were some flaws. The offense allowed a touchdown when Ferguson fumbled; it was returned 39 yards to the end zone for Illinois’ Tarique Barnes in the second quarter.
Coming into the season, my expectation was the running game would be the strength with the passing game needing a little work. While I’m still not 100% sold on Wisconsin’s wide receiver group, the running game wasn’t operating like a typical Badgers offense. Garrett Groshek was the most efficient running back He had 13 carries for 70 yards and added four catches for 29 yards. Nakia Watson led the team in carries with 19 and had 62 yards, and Isaac Guerendo added 11 carries for 36 yards.
Replacing Jonathan Taylor with one person is impossible, but the running game left a little to be desired.
Okay, maybe I’m not that harsh of a grader. Wisconsin’s defense did not allow a single point on Friday night, so it’s difficult to be better than that as a unit. If not for the offense, the Badgers would have had a shutout in their season opener.
Wisconsin forced a fumble on the second play from scrimmage. Garrett Rand forced the fumble by Mike Epstein and it was recovered by Noah Burks. That led to the Badgers’ first touchdown of the game for an early 7-0 lead.
Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters completed just 8 of 19 passes for 87 yards, and the best part of the Illinois offense was Peters finding a ton of room to run on a few long gains. He finished with 75 yards rushing. Peters targeted wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe often, but Wisconsin’s secondary shut him down to the tune of just three catches for 26 yards.
The Badgers finished with six tackles for loss including three sacks, and they forced another turnover when Titus Toler intercepted a pass late when Isaiah Williams was lined up at quarterback for the Illini.
Wisconsin played well at all levels on defense. The Badgers earned their A+ grade in this one.
Special Teams: B
Just last week, Andy Vujnovich was granted a waiver to be Wisconsin’s punter this season after he transferred from Division III school Dubuque. He made an impact on the game early, flipping the field after the Badgers’ offense went three and out on their second possession. Vujnovich sent a rocket 60 yards that was downed at the Illinois 7-yard line to back up the Fighting Illini. His next punt wasn’t as good, as he sent it 36 yards out of bounds to give Illinois better field possession than expected.
In the end, Vujnovich finished with four punts with an average of 46 yards. At kicker, Collin Larsh knocked through all six extra points and made a 19-yard field goal late. Kickoff specialist Jack Van Dyke was given the task of replacing Zach Hintze, who had been a touchback machine for the Badgers. Van Dyke kicked off eight times with two touchbacks.
The Badgers didn’t do much in the return game in kickoffs or punts to have much of an opinion on the group at this point.