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Grading No. 14 Wisconsin’s dominant win over Illinois to open the season

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Graham Mertz had a historic debut under center and the Badgers blew the doors off of the Illini

NCAA Football: Illinois at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Rubric - Wisconsin Football Unit Grades

Grade Description - accounting for degree of difficulty
Grade Description - accounting for degree of difficulty
A Excellent: Top-5 level performance
B Very good: Top-tier Big Ten performance
C Acceptable: Average for the Big Ten
D Unacceptable: Below average for the Big Ten
F Failure: Rutgers level performance
N/A Insufficient evidence for a grade

While Bob has sailed off into the blogging sunset, only to occasionally return to champion the virtues of Hunter Johnson starting at QB for Northwestern, we are going to continue to use his grading rubric for all Wisconsin Badgers performances this year. For this game I will be doing it, but we will probably be rotating which writers give out the grades so you’ll have new people to yell at each week.

Well holy shit was that certainly something! Redshirt freshman Graham Mertz had a historic debut, tying the school record for consecutive completions (17) and touchdowns (five) while setting the school record for completion percentage (95%) while leading the No. 14 Badgers (1-0 overall, 1-0 B1G) to a 45-7 victory over the hapless Illinois Fighting Illini (0-1 overall, 0-1 B1G).

Let’s get right to the grades because baby...we are buzzing right now!

Offense: A-

QB: A
O-line: C+
RB/FB: B-
WR/TE: B

Rationale:

Mertz was amazing. The only incompletion he had was a drop by Garrett Groshek on a long third down attempt that wouldn’t have been a first down anyways. As far as Wisconsin quarterbacks go, Mertz has the best “arm talent” of anyone in school history. He flicks his wrist and the ball is already 30 yards downfield. He looked poised, confident and didn’t force things when they weren’t there. He just looked effortless back there.

Jake Ferguson, despite his fumble that directly led to the only points Illinois scored, had a great game catching seven passes (on seven targets) for 72 yards and three touchdowns. Groshek was effective running the ball and catching it out of the backfield.

The offensive line was good in pass protection and gave Mertz plenty of time to throw but they didn’t have their best game run blocking. I am interested to hear what Owen thinks about their performance as it seemed to my amateur eye that the Illini were getting too much penetration on running plays and blowing stuff up before it had time to develop.

Defense: B+

Pass rush: B+
Pass coverage: B+
Run defense: C

Rationale:

The defense had three sacks, one fumble recovery and one interception on the night while holding Illinois to only 218 total yards. Brandon Peters completed 42% of her his passes for a paltry 87 yards and never really looked comfortable throwing the ball. He did, however, look comfortable running the ball. The Badgers often have trouble with read options and QBs that can scoot, and even though Peters isn’t Michael Vick he still will make you pay if you don’t respect his legs.

As a team, the Illini averaged 5.2 yards per carry (sack yardage taken out and it bumps up to 6.5), a number I’m assuming Jim Leonhard will want to see come down. However, much of that was thanks to Peters and their traditional rushing attack didn’t get too much going.

On the notes I took during the game I wrote in all caps “Keeanu Benton is going to be a problem!” and it looks like he should be as he recorded four tackles and was credited with the forced fumble.

Wisconsin held Illinois to 0-for-3 on fourth down which is awesome.

Special Teams: B

Kicking: B
Punting: B
Returning: B
Coverage: B

Rationale:

Andy Vujnovich’s first career punt at the FBS level went 60 yards and was amazing. He leveled off after that and ended the day with two good punts and two not so good ones. Collin Larsh made his one field goal attempt and all his extra points. Stephan Bracey looked dangerous on the kick return, although I hope he learned not to catch the ball with his knee on the ground. On punt returns the Badgers had two guys deep, Jack Dunn and Danny Davis III seemed to be back there most of the time.

This was a good game for the special teams.

Coaching: B+

Strategy: B+
Adjustments: N/A
Play-calling: B+

Rationale:

Paul Chryst went for it on fourth down once and got it (technically...it was a close call) and many of the play calls that went for touchdowns were downright brilliant. Who knows if they’ve “dumbed down” the offense for Mertz because it was his first game, but whatever they did, it looked great.

Overall grade: B+

Unit Grades: B+
Big plays: B
Game Control: B+
Penalties & Discipline: B+

Rationale:

This was a really good first game after an extremely long and tumultuous offseason. The players looked ready and the weird circumstances around playing in an empty stadium did not seem to affect them.

Not to be a big time downer, but these grades are a little tempered because it looks like Illinois might just stink out loud this season. Not that they should be overlooked, and to their credit the Badgers didn’t do that, but they did not put up much of a fight.