Upon Further Review: Mertz debut, Badgers first game of 2020 worth the wait

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It took a while to get here but it was worth the wait. And we’re not just talking about the Wisconsin Badgers finally playing their first game of the 2020 season, which resulted in a 45-7 victory at home over Illinois.

On Friday night, the Big Ten season opener, redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz made his collegiate starting debut and somehow exceeded expectations.

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A highly touted recruit who many fans have been itching to see play ever since he verbally committed to Wisconsin, Mertz got his chance after Jack Coan was injured during training camp. And he was almost perfect.

Mertz had just one incompletion in 21 pass attempts — and even that was a drop — as he tied or set several school records, throwing for 245 yards and five touchdowns in the rout.

Wisconsin pretty much dominated on both sides of the line of scrimmage. The Badgers had the ball for 43 minutes, 28 seconds and, unsurprisingly, outgained the Illini 430-218.

But this night will be remembered as Mertz’s coming-out party. In a year in which has undergone many twists and turns – both with Big Ten football and life in general — this is one surprise in which Badgers fans can rejoice and revel in.

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Here’s a recap of Friday’s game:

 

PLAYER OF THE GAME

There’s no reason to overthink this. Mertz didn’t just have one of the best starting debuts for a Wisconsin quarterback, he had one of the best games for a QB in Badgers history. His passer rating of 273.1 is the third-highest in school annals, behind just John Stocco (296.7 vs. Indiana in 2006) and Alex Hornibrook (277.4 vs. BYU in 2017). Mertz completed 95.2% of his passes (20 of 21), which beat the old record set by Hornibrook in that BYU game (18 of 19, 94.7%). The five TD tosses tied the mark shared by Darrell Bevell (vs. Nevada in 1993) and Jim Sorgi (vs. Michigan State in 2003). The last time a quarterback had three TD passes in his first start was Bevell, who had three, in 1992 against Bowling Green. Only two QBs threw for more yards in their debut (Sorgi and Scott Tolzien; the latter holds the record with 257) and only Sorgi (21) had more completions. Mertz’s 248 yards were also the third-most for any freshman in a game, trailing only Joel Stave (254 in 2012 vs. Illinois) and Bevell (274 vs. Northwestern in 1992). Oh, yeah, Mertz also completed his first 17 pass attempts in the game tying the school record held by Tanner McEvoy, although that came against and FCS team, Western Illinois, in 2014. Finally, in the past 25 years, only Mertz, Cincinnati’s Gunner Kiel (in 2015) and USC’s Matt Barkley (in 2012) have thrown five TDs in a game while completing at least 95% of their pass attempts. Yup, it was quite a debut.

 

DON’T FORGET ABOUT ME

Someone had to catch all those passes and Jake Ferguson turned out to be Mertz’s favorite target in this one. The tight end had a career-high seven receptions for 72 yards and had three touchdowns — two of which came in the red zone when he pretended to block and leaked into the end zone without anyone covering him. Ferguson had two touchdowns in all of 2019. He became just the Wisconsin third tight end in the last 50 years to record three TDs in a game — Owen Daniels in 2005 vs. Temple and Garrett Graham in 2009 against Michigan State were the others. Graham was the last Badgers player to have three receiving TDs in a regular-season game as well (Danny Davis had three against Miami in the Orange Bowl on Dec. 30, 2017).

 

THAT MOMENT

Illinois got its only touchdown after a Ferguson fumble, cutting Wisconsin’s lead to 14-7 in the second quarter. Up to that point, the offensive gameplan had been somewhat conservative, with no play going longer than 19 yards (a Mertz pass to Danny Davis). But on the Badgers’ ensuing drive after the Illini’s score, Mertz floated a beautiful pass to Ferguson on a second-and-7 play which netted 34 yards. It was the first glimpse — in game action, at least — that Mertz was more than a game manager. That play helped set up Ferguson’s second touchdown. After Illinois went three-and-out, Wisconsin had the ball on its own 47 with just 36 seconds to play. On the first play, Mertz hit a wide-open Davis downfield for a 53-yard TD connection. The training wheels were off.

 

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THIS NUMBER

0 — We’ve talked mainly about the offense here but it’s worth mentioning the defense as well. Zero is the number of points allowed by the Wisconsin D. It’s also the number of times the defense was flagged for a penalty. And the number of red-zone appearances by the Illinois offense (which got only as far as the Wisconsin 28-yard line). Finally, zero is also the number of fourth-down conversions — in three attempts — for Illinois. Yes, Mertz, and to a lesser extent Ferguson, got the headlines, but don’t overlook the defensive performance.

 

THEY SAID IT

“Graham (Mertz) was really good in his first start. It was fun having Jon Dietzen back. Defensively I thought we played really well. I thought it was a good plan. Cut guys loose. It was good to get going. It was a good night.” — head coach Paul Chryst

“It was definitely weird not having any fans but the boys … we just kept saying all week, bring your own juice. Collin (Wilder) did a great job of setting that tone and we all just kind of fed off each other, and I’m proud of everybody for that.” — quarterback Graham Mertz

“We talked about all week, just playing with swag. I knew he’d bounce back and we talked about it on the sideline. I’m like, hey, short memory, forget about it and respond. Coach Chryst kept saying we gotta respond, we gotta respond, and I was confident we were going to go do it. I was happy with how we played with that little extra chip on our shoulder and a little extra swag.” — Mertz on Ferguson’s and Wisconsin’s response after the tight end’s fumble which was returned for an Illinois touchdown

“The kid’s smooth, the kid is definitely smooth. He was smiling cheek-to-cheek after the first touchdown. He knew, and everyone in that huddle knew, that we were rolling. It’s just awesome to see that out of him. First game, I mean, golly, kid can play.” — Ferguson on Mertz

“Our D-Line I thought dominated the game. I thought they played amazing. Having them play like that means so much to our defense.” — linebacker Jack Sanborn

 

WHAT’S NEXT

Wisconsin plays its first road game of 2020, heading to Nebraska. The Badgers beat the Cornhuskers in Lincoln, Neb., 37-21 last season. Nebraska opened the season with a 52-17 loss to No. 5 Ohio State on Saturday.