Wisconsin keeps the axe, but Graham Mertz's struggles continue
For the 16th time in the last 17 years, the Wisconsin Badgers won the battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe over the Minnesota Golden Gophers. It wasn’t pretty, but Wisconsin beat its rivals at home 20-17 in overtime on Saturday to finish its regular season with a .500 record at 3-3. While it’s always fun watching players go back and forth and “chop” down the goal posts every season for the Badgers, questions at the quarterback position are likely to continue into the offseason.
Wisconsin’s highly-recruited redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz wasn’t able to finish this game as he unfortunately went down with an injury late in the third quarter. He went to the locker room before returning to the sidelines in street clothes as he watched Collin Larsh’s 31-yard field goal through the uprights to give the Badgers the win. It’s a shame, because Mertz was starting to get into somewhat of a roll that we hadn’t seen from him in recent weeks, contributing to the Badgers failing to score more than 7 points in any of their last three games, all losses.
With Wisconsin’s offense struggling yet again and trailing 10-7, Mertz extended a drive with a solid throw to wide receiver Jack Dunn for 24 yards on a crucial third-and-7 play. Two plays later, he hit tight end Jake Ferguson for 23 yards, and he was fired up looking to the sideline, which was good to see. Later in the drive, Mertz took a hard hit on a 7-yard run to the 4-yard line and left the game. The next play, backup QB Chase Wolf hit Dunn for a touchdown to give the Badgers their first lead.
Before that drive, Wisconsin’s passing game was a mess.
Confidence appears to be decreasing
For the first half, it looked more of the same from the struggling passing game. Wisconsin’s only success throwing the ball came through quick, shorter routes and dump off passes. Mertz completed 8 of 14 passes for 64 yards, and none of the completions went more than 10 yards in the air.
Late in the second quarter, the Badgers were forced to move the ball through the air to try and get some points heading into halftime, but the entire operation looked like a mess. In the second to last possession, Mertz missed Chimere Dike on a deep ball that had no chance, followed by a bad miss to a wide open Dunn that would’ve moved the chains.
Wisconsin’s defense got a quick stop, and the offense had another chance to add something to get a little momentum for the second half. One 5-yard pass to running back Garrett Groshek and 3 incomplete passes later, Minnesota took over on downs.
Big Ten Network analyst Matt Millen said it best toward the end of the first half.
“He is just off.”
Even before Mertz’s injury, Wolf got the start in the second half in a package that was essentially just a Wildcat offense with him taking the shotgun snap and running for yardage, and Mertz returned to the game quickly after the Badgers were called for a holding penalty.
Wisconsin punted on that first drive, and on its second possession is when Mertz led the team down the field with 2 impressive throws before leaving the game for good with an injury.
Overall outlook at quarterback
In defense of Mertz, things haven’t exactly gone the way of Wisconsin’s offense ever since he put together an incredible performance in the season opener against Illinois, putting his mark on Badgers football record books forever. The day after, Mertz was reported to have tested positive for COVID-19, and injuries at the skill positions certainly hurt. The Badgers’ top two wide receivers, Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor, continue to be inactive. In addition, Wisconsin was without three of its top four running backs on Saturday, including the most talented player in the backfield with Jalen Berger, who only appeared in half the games this season.
There are plenty of excuses built in as he doesn’t have a lot of experience to throw to, but at a certain point, a quarterback of Mertz’s caliber should be able to make the most basic throws, which he has been missing often due to confidence that appears to be dwindling.
Maybe if he would’ve kept playing and led Wisconsin to a win over Minnesota, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Maybe sitting him out a couple plays is just what he needed and was ready to turn the corner because he did look much better in his final drive.
At this point, we don’t know what will happen with Wisconsin to finish the season, though I’d imagine the Badgers will appear in a bowl game. We’ll see if Mertz will be ready to play, but if not, Wisconsin will likely turn to Wolf, as it appears Jack Coan still isn’t ready to go.
As for the future of the passing game, offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph sure made it sound like Davis and Pryor will be back next season, so a full offseason working with them should be huge for Mertz and his development.
It’s not quite panic time in Madison because I still believe in the talent Mertz has, and this is about as strange as a college football season as you’ll see with the Badgers missing three games and several practices canceled. The stop and start nature of this year cannot be helpful in the progression of a freshman quarterback.
Wisconsin doesn’t have this high of a recruit come in at the quarterback position very often, and it would be a shame if this doesn’t work out. The Badgers just signed their best recruiting class for the third season in a row, and next year could be the start of a special run for the Badgers. But it all starts with the most important position in sports.