You know the sense of impending doom you get when Steph Curry lines up a three pointer or Aaron Rodgers gets the ball down six points with 90 seconds left and you are cheering for the other team? That was the feeling I got whenever the Badgers called a pass play earlier this season. I knew, in the abstract, that technically a good outcome could happen...but I also knew that it wouldn’t.
Graham Mertz started this season about as poorly as possible. He didn’t throw a touchdown until the third game of the season and by the end of that game he had a 1:6 touchdown to interception ratio and the Badgers were 1-2. Mertz also struggled with fumbles (he has lost three this season) and, you could credibly argue, Wisconsin would’ve beaten Penn State in the season opener if Mertz just didn’t drop the ball on the ground.
After the Badgers lost to Notre Dame in Chicago, Paul Chryst, the offensive line, Mertz, the coaching staff, the play-calling...basically anyone and anything involved with the Badgers offense was being questioned, and rightfully so! This team could’ve packed it in and just played out the rest of the season with zero adjustments or pride, but they didn’t.
Graham Mertz is, like, a plus now?— Louis "PTBNL Issue 1 OUT NOW" Bien (@louisbien) November 20, 2021
It's one thing to not be a liability for several games in a row. (That was still good!) It's another to actually spark the offense when it needs it.
Instead, they turned inward and made positive changes basically everywhere on offense! The funny, yet obvious, thing is that as each part of the offense started to improve all of the other aspects improved along with it. The offensive line became a more cohesive unit so the running game improved so the play-calling could be opened up and then there was less pressure on Mertz therefore Mertz was completing more passes and the offense was scoring more points and winning more games.
Crazy how that works!
Graham Mertz, yet again, is playing tremendous football.— Ben Kenney (@benzkenney) November 20, 2021
Mertz’s improvement wasn’t instantaneous, but instead a gradual climb. The first four games of Wisconsin’s seven-game winning streak did not see Mertz have impressive stats, although he only threw one interception during those games. It was pretty much the classic Wisconsin Game Manager Quarterback Doesn’t Turn The Ball Over And They Win formula. That’s all well and good against your Illinois and Armys and Purdues of the world, but if the Badgers wanted to win the Big Ten West Mertz needed to be more.
These past three weeks he has shown the promise that he displayed in his decorated prep career and in that mythical first appearance against Illinois last year. In wins against Rutgers, Northwestern and Nebraska, Mertz is 41-of-57 (71.9%) for 601 yards and six touchdowns with only two interceptions. That’s pretty dang good!
Its actually insane how many close one score games Nebraska has been in under Scott Frost. Still aren't turning into wins unfortunately. But ANOTHER Good Graham Mertz game!!! #CFB #Wisconsin pic.twitter.com/R8tG9qZnbf— CFBNumbers (@CFBNumbers) November 20, 2021
If you look at his advanced stats they are good too. In those same three games he is averaging 0.43 EPA/play (expected points added per play). That’s in the 85th percentile of all college quarterbacks! For a good explainer on EPA and quarterbacks head here.
From a purely anecdotal point of view, Mertz is an easy guy to root for. He is confident without being cocky, he is charming in interviews without being a saccharine try-hard and he gives his teammates credit while also shielding them from criticism. His teammates clearly like him and want to see him succeed which is not something you can say about every quarterback.
Collin Wilder on Graham Mertz:— Raul Vazquez (@RaulV45) October 14, 2020
"sometimes we'll watch on film and ask was that a good throw, and yeah that was a great throw." Called him a great person to have in the locker room. #Badgers
While Mertz hasn’t lived up to his lofty recruiting ranking yet, he has turned this season around completely and when he drops back to pass now I, for one, am excited about the possibilities of how they play will end. Mertz is a player that opposing defenses have to worry about again and that is excellent news for the Badgers.