The Wisconsin Badgers left little doubt on the field who was the better team Friday night against Illinois, dismantling the Fighting Illini to the tune of 45- 7.
While the Badgers started the season off on a high note 1-0 overall (1-0 B1G), let’s dive into the storylines that emerged from the victory.
Graham Mertz hype
The level of expectations and excitement surrounding this kid couldn’t get much higher heading into the opener. Former top-50 recruit with offers from everyone, at the most glorified position on the field, and at a position the Badgers have not been known for success at traditionally.
Graham Mertz blew the lid off his hype now after a near perfect performance against Illinois. The redshirt freshman out of Kansas made it look easy Friday night. If you are looking for an excited account of his night check out the related article above.
I was extremely impressed by Mertz’s composure and ability to make all the throws. The kid has supreme talent and a confidence about him that is infectious.
All that being said, the sample size thus far is very small, and the offensive staff put him in advantageous situations to succeed.
I thought that the coaching staff did a wonderful job of easing him into the game and making the early throws manageable. On the night there were only four or five throws that he had to really rip it into coverage, and he answered the call. The level two dig route to Danny Davis late in the first quarter that went for 19 yards was really the first challenging throw he had on the night, but it was well executed.
The throw that was most impressive though was his touchdown toss to Jake Ferguson down the seam into the teeth of the cover two. That throw in addition to the touch he demonstrated throughout the game were what really stood out. That was a next level throw that flashed confidence and trust in Jake Ferguson.
Overall, #GrahamMertzSZN started about as picturesque-ly as possible. Outside of not getting deep enough on a couple of his drop backs and possibly tucking the ball to run too quickly on a third down opportunity, he was exceptional. Hopefully his performance was an indication of what the freshman signal caller can bring to the table all season long, but he is still young and there will be ups and downs.
Defense didn’t miss a beat
Jim Leonhard dialed up a great gameplan.
Illinois had high hopes for their offense this off-season, and that optimism came tumbling down quickly.
The Wisconsin secondary did a phenomenal job with some pretty good wide receivers, and the defensive line lived up to preseason expectations with a sack, a forced fumble and a stout presence against the run.
The Badgers defense admittedly struggled against setting the edge against the quarterback run with Brandon Peters, but zone-read coverage will likely be focused on ahead of the Nebraska game. True freshman Nick Herbig, in particular, bit often inside, but he also made a big fourth down stop, almost had a pick and recorded a sack.
Illinois did not seem to be at the top of their game offensively against Wisconsin on Friday, but the Badgers defense deserves a lot of the credit. Three sacks, three fourth-down stops and two crucial turnovers in plus territory illustrate the defense seems to be as advertised for now.
The run game drop off
The Badgers have struggled to run the ball against Illinois the past couple matchups. The Illini held Wisconsin to 156 yards on 43 carries last year (3.6 yards per carry), and Friday night the backfield was only able to muster 206 rushing yards on 54 carries (3.4 yards per carry).
While the two games referenced had very divergent outcomes, the inability to get the ground game going against an Illinois defense that ranked above No. 100 in the nation in overall rush defense is a trend that cannot be ignored.
During the game in 2019 Jonathan Taylor was still able to scrape together over 130 yards rushing on over 4.7 yards per carry. While he was unworldly talented, and one of the best backs in college football history, the 2020 rushing attack seemed fairly pedestrian.
Any Badger fan with realistic expectations could have predicted a significant drop off in production from a year ago, but the dip in explosiveness was obvious.
On Friday, fifth-year senior Garrett Groshek was by far the best back that received carries for the Badgers. The team captain accumulated the most rushing yards on over five yards per carry, and also demonstrated the best vision of the group. Groshek is overlooked at times, but the versatility he brings as a runner and in the passing game set him apart right now.
The other two primary ball carriers, Nakia Watson and Isaac Guerendo, both struggled at reading the defense and finding the correct holes to run through. There were multiple occasions where lanes were available, and the two young backs seemed to misread their keys. That vision will hopefully come with experience, but their combined average of 3.3 yards per carry on 30 totes will need to improve.
Grading No. 14 Wisconsin’s dominant win over Illinois to open the season— BOOky’s 5th Quarter (@B5Q) October 24, 2020
The #Badgers whupped the Illini 45-7 and Graham Mertz had a record-setting day in his first start under center. Pretty good way to start the season imo. https://t.co/ppujPHjjPS pic.twitter.com/ZpWuCOWxO3
Like we discussed with the Graham Mertz hype, it has only been one game. There is no need for panic yet which Paul Chryst alluded to in his post-game presser “a few times it felt like we were off on a couple things.” The Badgers young backfield will need to look back at the film in order to push for improvement, and it will be interesting to see the changes made heading into next weekend’s road contest against Nebraska. Some of those changes will also need to take place on the offensive line as well, because there were far too many tackles for a loss and missed assignments.
If the committee approach does not look more crisp next weekend against a Cornhusker defense that the Badgers have averaged 347 rushing yards on a per game basis the past three season, then let’s reconvene.
On the bright side, I thought that the fullbacks and tight ends looked great as lead blockers. In addition to their blocking, Mason Stokke and John Chenal each tallied a touchdown, and Jake Ferguson was all over the field making plays. Outside of a false start, I was also really impressed by the work that Hayden Rucci did as a blocker as well.