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Roundtable: Wisconsin’s season opening victory over Illinois

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Plus, the most impressive team in the Big Ten after Week 1 of the season.

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

Four of us got together to discuss the Badgers victory over Illinois and what else we were impressed by in the first weekend of the Big Ten season.

What is your favorite attribute of Graham Mertz’s game?

Belz: His ability and willingness to push the ball down the field. He had four completions over 20 yards against Illinois in the opener. Last season Coan had 16 of them in 14 games and was successful only 50% of the time. If Mertz can continue to throw the ball down the field for chunk plays it will drastically change the entire complexion of the Wisconsin offense. Offensively, that has been the missing piece for some time now under Jack Coan and Alex Hornibrook before him.

Bob: I really appreciate Mertz’s confidence and swagger. Like Matt said, he can push the ball downfield and he was incredibly accurate. I have vague memories of Wisconsin receivers being extremely open, yet I feared that the QB would short-arm the throw. He said he didn’t feel any nerves going into the game, and with the way he played, I believe him. He has the abilities to be a great quarterback, and his cognitive state helps him.

Ryan: What’s not to love? His poise in the pocket, his confidence, his ability to throw the deep ball… It’s all there. There have been so many times in the past where receivers would be going deep and would have to either wait for the ball to get there, or come back to get it and with Mertz, I feel like they won’t have to do that. He throws such a smooth deep ball and it just looks effortless, which I think may set him apart from past UW quarterbacks. So many that we have had in the past have looked so labored throwing the ball deep, but with Mertz, it’s just a flick of the wrist. Lastly, every pass he throws, is thrown with conviction. You can tell he has confidence in his abilities and is relaxed, like he is just throwing the ball around in his yard.

Drew: Everything above is correct, but my favorite attribute of his is purely selfish. When he drops back to pass I don’t get nervous. I assume the pass will be complete or, at a bare minimum, the correct decision will be made. The last time I felt like this was with Russell Wilson, and I knew during his first game that it was the case. I got the same feeling on Friday night with Mertz slinging it and while this is surely a premature, and potentially unfair, comparison...I don’t think I’m wrong.

Are you worried about the Wisconsin running game? What needs to improve?

Belz: Out of 10 I am at about a five. The Badgers have struggled running the ball against Lovie Smith’s defense the past few seasons, and that was with Jonathan Taylor. The two younger backs, Nakia Watson and Isaac Guerendo, need to be better at understanding the flow of the defense and hitting the hole, and the offensive line needs to clean up some missed assignments. Overall the running attack didn’t seem crisp outside of a couple runs. If the running game can’t get it going against Nebraska then it’s time to panic.

Bob: Going with Matt’s scale, I’m more of a 7. When Wisconsin hands the ball off, I feel a little like when Hornibrook would drop back to pass. I don’t get the excitement anymore. I think the problem is that Watson hasn’t made much improvement in vision and patience from 2019. Further, former Wisconsin RB Anthony Davis was very critical of the Badgers’ ability to break through arm tackles. Overall, there were several plays where I expected a Wisconsin running back to turn into a really nice gain. I really wish Wisconsin had a transfer back this season (presuming the NCAA helped with immediate eligibility). Imagine a Brian Calhoun-like back on this team.

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

Ryan: Yes and no. As Matt mentioned, Wisconsin has had trouble running the ball against Lovie’s defenses. Nebraska’s defense will be the true test of whether or not we should worry this year. Ohio State averaged a yard more per rush against the Huskers, than Wisconsin did against Illinois. The one thing that Wisconsin has going for it now is someone that is more than capable of playing the quarterback position, so I don’t think the Badgers need to lean on the run as much as they have in the past. However, getting the rushing attack going more, will help Mertz more in the passing game. Watson and Guerendo will need to work on their vision a bit more and will need to avoid those shoestring tackles, which tripped up Watson a number of times on Friday.

Drew: Since we are all using the Belz Scale I’d put myself at a four. It was the first game of the season after an unprecedented offense against a defensive coordinator that the Badgers have historically struggled to rush against. There are new starters on the offensive line and new primary running backs toting the rock. While there were many disappointing rushing attempts against Illinois I think the Badgers, of all teams, deserve the benefit of the doubt with their rushing attack.

Who were your offensive and defensive MVPs for the Badgers (Mertz is excluded)?

Belz: Offensively it has to be Jake Ferguson. He was all over the field on Friday night and outside of the fumble, he played extremely well. I thought Danny Davis had a great game too. On defense I will go with Keeanu Benton. It’s not often that the nose tackle is one of the leading tacklers, and he was disruptive all night long. Benton was additionally credited with the opening drive forced fumble. I expect big things from him this year.

Bob: I want to be a contrarian, but it indeed has to be Ferguson on offense. I really liked how Rachad Wildgoose played on defense against Illinois WR Josh Imatorbhebhe. I can’t wait for him to go against other top receivers in the Big Ten like Rashod Bateman. Oh, and seems to be a pretty reliable tackler which is always a plus from a cover corner.

Ryan: Ferguson. A career-high seven receptions, for 72 yards and three touchdowns. If the opener was any indication, Ferguson is going to have a HUGE season with Mertz throwing him the ball. On defense, I am going to agree with Bob and say Rachad Wildgoose. He did a great job of keeping Imatorbhebhe’s impact on the game, limited. He also had a great tackle in the backfield and looks to be continuing to grow in this defense.

Drew: Maybe I should have said “Ferguson excluded” too, but outside of his lost fumble, which resulted in Illinois only points, Barry Alvarez’s grandson played an exquisite game. His seven catches were on seven targets and he was also useful in the run game. Garrett Groshek, outside of ruining Mertz’s attempt at the consecutive completions record, was also good, both running the ball and acting as a safety valve out of the backfield in the passing game. Benton and Wildgoose were the top two performers on defense, but I’d like to also shoutout Jack Saborn, who hassled Brandon Peters all night, and true freshman Nick Herbig, who had a sack and a near interception in his first career game.

Outside of Wisconsin, which Big Ten team impressed you the most on opening weekend?

Belz: I was really impressed with Indiana. The Hoosiers did just enough to get the win over Penn State and it was a really fun game to watch. Penn State dominated them in many facets of the game statistically, but winning on a two-point conversion like they did was uber exciting.

Bob: I’m just so proud of Rutgers. Is forcing seven turnovers in a game reliable? Well, no. But Rutgers winning isn’t reliable either. Nonetheless, the Scarlet Knights made this old soul happy by setting up the Michigan State / Penn State losses in one day. I can’t stand those two programs. I can’t wait for Minnesota vs. Rutgers in the plus 1.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Indiana Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

Ryan: For me it’s a toss up between Indiana and Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights got their first conference win since 2017, on the road in Lansing, which is not an easy feat. Indiana did just enough at home to beat a top-10 team in Penn State. Indiana showed a lot of moxy scoring in the closing minute to tie the game and sent it into OT and the effort by Penix on the two-point conversion was impressive.

Drew: The best moment of the weekend was undoubtedly Indiana’s OT win over Penn State, ending decades of frustration for the shockingly loyal contingent of Hoosiers fans that live and die with their football team. However, the team I was most impressed with was Michigan. They walked into Minnesota’s home stadium and put a whupping on the Gophers. Joe Milton looked good in his first start at QB and their rushing offense gashed the Gophers for four quarters. Their defense forced two turnovers and harangued Tanner Morgan into multiple mistakes. In a game where Minnesota was favored, mostly due to their impressive bowl win last year, the Wolverines came out and made a statement to the rest of the conference.