Wisconsin football: Will Graham Mertz air it out this year?
Wisconsin heads into an early bye week with a 1-1 record, and we should get one big question answered in the 2 games that immediately follow the break, against Notre Dame and Michigan.
The running back rotation seems to have been sorted out with Chez Mellusi, Jalen Berger and Isaac Guerendo settling into roles. The defense should rank among the best in the country once again, especially in stopping the run. And all areas of the kicking game have performed well for the most part.
But what about this Wisconsin passing game?
Through 2 games, we haven’t really seen Graham Mertz try to push the ball down the field much, and you’d have to imagine that is coming at some point. Based on practice reports and updates from fall camp, it sounded like the deep ball was going to play a decent part in this year’s attack. The Badgers were never going to completely change their run-heavy philosophy and throw 40 times per game, but to this point, short and medium routes is about all we’ve seen.
Against Penn State, Mertz’s 22 completions went for just 185 yards, and he looked to tight end Jake Ferguson a ton for short gains. None of Ferguson’s 9 receptions went for more than 10 yards. The coaching staff may have thought a conservative approach would be enough to beat the Nittany Lions, and maybe that was the correct way of thinking. It took the extreme unlikelihood of 3 scoreless possessions inside the Penn State 8-yard line for the Badgers to lose.
Against Eastern Michigan, the Badgers had a clear game plan to run the ball as often as possible, as they finished with 55 carries. Mertz did not need to throw much. When he did throw, his passes didn’t spend much time in the air: his 14 completions went for just 141 yards. It would’ve been nice to see this passing game develop some confidence by throwing some deep balls against an inferior opponent, but Wisconsin probably did not want to show much of anything for some of its tougher opponents to dissect on film.
Both scenarios for Wisconsin not wanting to throw the ball deep could make some sense. The real concern would be if Paul Chryst just doesn’t trust in Mertz or the wide receivers’ ability to get open down the field.
While the depth appears to be there at wide receiver, Wisconsin lacks a truly elite one. The Badgers do not have a Quintez Cephus, who had the ability to take over a game and is in his second season in the NFL. No matter which quarterback threw his way at Wisconsin, Cephus won one-on-one battles consistently and came through in crucial moments to extend drives.
The obvious candidate to become some version of Cephus is Danny Davis, who put together a solid stat line against Penn State. Mertz did not complete a pass to a wide receiver till midway through the second quarter of that game, but Davis still finished with 8 receptions for 99 yards — including an incredible third-down catch near the goal line that gave the Badgers a first-and-goal from the 1-yard line late in the game. Had Wisconsin been able to get into the end zone on that drive, that catch would’ve been remembered as a crucial early-season moment.
Davis could develop into the game-changer Wisconsin needs, but so far the 5th-year senior has never finished a season with more than 418 yards. If Davis can consistently make plays in a leading role, it could open up opportunities for Chimere Dike and Kendric Pryor, who is among the fastest players on the Badgers’ roster.
With Mertz in his 3rd year in the program, it’s past time to truly see what the prized former 4-star recruit can do. If Chryst wanted a game manager, he could’ve stuck with Jack Coan.
The development of Mertz is going to be the reason Wisconsin does or does not reach that next level as a program. The Badgers don’t have big-time recruiting classes compared to the very top programs, but elite-level quarterback play can help close the gap.
Explosive plays have become crucial for success in college football, and if Wisconsin doesn’t get more aggressive in the passing game out of the bye week, its ceiling on offense — and overall — will be limited.