Following months of uncertainty and the loss of their starting quarterback, the No. 14 Wisconsin Badgers (1-0 overall, 1-0 B1G) started the 2020 season with a new face under center, Graham Mertz. However, it wasn’t the type of start you would expect to see from a redshirt freshman, as Mertz led Wisconsin to a 45-7 victory over Illinois (0-1 overall, 0-1 B1G), avenging its loss from 2019.
Mertz finished the game 20-of-21 passing, with 248 yards and five touchdowns.
His first incompletion came in the second half on his 18th attempt of the game, giving him 17 consecutive completions to start the game, which tied a program record, previously held by Tanner McEvoy (2014, Western Michigan). Mertz’s 17 consecutive completions is also the third-longest streak in a conference game in Big Ten history.
“I thought he had good poise. I thought he saw the field well. You never know quite how someone’s going to react in their first start. I thought he was himself. And that you appreciate. I thought there was a good plan for him by the offensive coaches. He was able to execute it,” head coach Paul Chryst said after the game.
Of Mertz’s five touchdown passes, three went to tight end Jake Ferguson, who became the first tight end to score multiple touchdowns in a single game for Wisconsin since Jacob Pedersen did so in 2011.
Ferguson finished with game with seven receptions, on seven targets, for 72 yards and the three scores.
Illinois got its only score of the game, following a Ferguson fumble, in the second quarter as Tarique Barnes scooped up the ball and took it 39 yards for the score. However, Ferguson rebounded well, as he hauled in two receptions on the ensuing Wisconsin drive. One reception going for 34 yards, his longest of the night, which setup his second score of the game, a 14-yard reception.
Danny Davis III, who matched Ferguson’s 72 receiving yards for the game-high, had two receptions, one of which went for six points, on a 53-yard reception, with 28 seconds remaining in the first half.
With the score, Davis passed Travis Beckum, David Charles and Michael Jones for 13th place on UW’s all-time touchdown receptions list. Davis now has 12 career receiving touchdowns.
While Mertz and company were having a field day with the Illinois defense, Wisconsin’s defense was stifling the Illini attack from start to finish.
Wisconsin held Illinois to 218 total yards (87 passing, 131 rushing), and only got tougher as drives wore on, limiting Illinois to two conversions on 10 attempts on third down and forcing three turnovers on downs, holding Illinois to 0-of-3 on fourth down conversion attempts.
“I thought defensively we had a couple times where they were getting a drive going, yet I thought we responded and had some key fourth-down stops. That’s a big part of it. I think if we can build on that and grow from those things, adversity is going to come your way, but it’s how you respond that matters most. I was proud of the way that different situations, this group tonight, responded,” Chryst said
Wisconsin also forced two turnovers in the game, which led to its first and last scores of the game. The first came on the Illini’s second offensive play of the game, when Garrett Rand forced a Mike Epstein fumble, which was recoved by Noah Burks. The turnover led to Mertz’s first touchdown pass of the night, which went to Mason Stokke, and capped off a 6-play, 33-yard drive.
Wisconsin’s second forced turnover came late in the fourth quarter, when Titus Toler intercepted Isaiah Williams, which led to Collin Larsh’s only field goal of the game.
Williams who was in the game in relief of Brandon Peters, finished the game 0-for-3 with the interception. Peters, who started the game for Illinois finished 8-19, for 87 yards, but did pick up 76 of the Illini’s 131 rushing yards.
Josh Imatorbhebhe, the Illini’s best receiver was targeted many times in the game, but only managed three receptions for 26 yards. Imatorbhebhe was primarily covered by Rachad Wildgoose, who quietly had an excellent game.
Wisconsin’s ground game was able to amass 182 yards, in its first game sans Jonathan Taylor, who is currently playing for the Indianapolis Colts. With Taylor gone, Wisconsin had no bellcow back to look to to lead its ground game and relied on a backfield by committee.
Ten different players recorded rushes in the game for Wisconsin, including three backs that had double-digit carries; Nakia Watson (19), Garrett Gorshek (13) and Isaac Guerndo (11).
Groshek led the way with 70 yards, Watson finished with 62 and Guerendo finished with 36.
Groshek also chipped in four receptions for 29 yards.
“He’s obviously a big part of this not just offense but team. I thought it was a good start for him. Shoot, he’s on our punt team. He does a ton of stuff for us. I thought Grosh got off to a good start,” Chryst said about his senior tailback.
All three showed signs of elusiveness at points in the game, but none were able to break any long runs, as Wisconsin’s longest rush of the game was 13 yards, which three players matched (Groshek, Guerendo and Mertz).
“I don’t know that we did everything in our power. You got to execute, right? I think it was one guy here maybe, one guy there. I think there will be a lot of good learning from it,” Chryst said about the rushing game.
Wisconsin will head to Nebraska next weekend, for a Halloween match-up with the Cornhuskers. The game is set to kick off at 2:30 CST, on FS1.