Graham Mertz walked into the McClain Center roughly 45 minutes after his second interception of the game had sealed a season-opening defeat for the University of Wisconsin football team, a scowl plastered on the sophomore quarterback’s face as he made his way to a table surrounded by reporters.
Mertz answered questions for about 7 minutes and was never rude, but his mood never improved. It was unlike anything we’d seen during his first season as a starter, when Mertz always seemed to be Mr. Brightside while making his way through a 2020 campaign filled with adversity.
Not Saturday afternoon, not after his mistake-filled performance was a big reason the No. 12 Badgers opened the season with a 16-10 loss to No. 19 Penn State at Camp Randall Stadium.
Mertz looked angry afterward, though he disagreed with that assessment.
“Hungry,’” Mertz said. “I know I can play a lot better football. I know we’re a lot better team than that.”
Knowing it is one thing, proving is quite another. What a statement it would have been for UW to open the season with an impressive win over a ranked opponent, for Mertz to put an uneven 2020 behind him and offer proof that all the hype that surrounded him when he arrived in Madison as a blue-chip recruit was deserved.
Instead, it’ll be another three weeks before Mertz gets a chance to redeem himself. A flashy performance next week against Eastern Michigan isn’t going to quiet critics, nor should it. He needs to do it against Notre Dame at Soldier Field in Chicago on Sept 25.
It’s impossible to mention that matchup and not bring up Fighting Irish quarterback Jack Coan, who transferred from UW after last season. While Coan was never spectacular with the Badgers, at least he made solid decisions and generally avoided the type of momentum-killing errors that plagued Mertz in the opener against the Nittany Lions.
Like when Mertz, on UW’s opening series, got flagged for intentional grounding. UW had a promising drive going near midfield after back-to-back nice runs by Chez Mellusi, but Mertz panicked under pressure in the pocket and threw the ball out of bounds, nowhere near a receiver. The result, an 18-yard loss, killed the drive.
Or on UW’s fourth series of the game, when Mertz and Mellusi had a bad exchange that led to a fumble inside the Penn State 10-yard line.
Or in the fourth quarter, when the Badgers answered the go-ahead score by Penn State with an impressive drive of their own. UW reached the 1 after Danny Davis made an excellent catch, but Mertz lost control of the ball as he was about to hand it off to Isaac Guerendo on the ensuing play. Guerendo recovered the fumble for a 6-yard loss and, two plays later, the drive ended when Penn State safety Jaquan Brisker could see Mertz locking in on tight end Jake Ferguson and stepped in front of the pass for an interception.
Mertz had one last chance to redeem himself and be the hero and the drive started well. He completed four consecutive passes — two apiece to Davis and Ferguson — and a Penn State penalty contributed to UW reaching the 25-yard line.
But Mertz had wide receiver Chimere Dike open for what would have been a touchdown and missed him on first down, then inexplicably got flagged for another intentional grounding on the next play. All that was left was a prayer that was intercepted as time expired.
“Obviously, not proud of how it ended,” Mertz said. “There are definitely a lot of things on my plate that I have to clean up, and I will. I’m going to do everything and anything I can to make sure I’m ready to go and this team’s ready to go. There’s a lot of stuff I need to clean up, but I’ll be ready.”
There were valid excuses for Mertz’s struggles last season: An abnormal offseason due to the pandemic. His lack of experience. A COVID-19 outbreak that included Mertz, UW coach Paul Chryst and other offensive assistants testing positive and missing time. Injuries to Davis and another veteran receiver, Kendric Pryor. No consistent running game to make life easier on him.
But Mertz had everything he needed to succeed on Saturday. He’d had a full offseason to prepare and was surrounded by a group of healthy, veteran receivers. Mellusi rushed for 121 yards and Guerendo added another 56 on the ground.
“We had a lot of guys across the board do enough to give us a chance,” Chryst said. “But we’ve got to find ways to finish.”
Finishing was an issue for the Badgers on Saturday — they got nothing on three of their four trips inside the red zone — and it’s become the sticking point for the program as a whole. Chryst is now a combined 0-7 against Ohio State and Penn State after falling to the Nittany Lions for a third time.
This may be the point where you’re longing for Coan or begging Chryst to replace Mertz with Chase Wolf. The first ship has sailed, so there’s no point in rehashing what might have been. And there’s no evidence to support the notion this offense would be in any better shape with Wolf leading it.
What the Badgers need is for Mertz to be better, and in a hurry. An average performance likely would have been enough to get the job done Saturday.
If Mertz thinks he’s hungry, he should sit at a dinner table with UW fans. They’re starving right now for a quarterback to reach his potential.
Badgers fans sound off on Twitter after Wisconsin drops season opener to Penn State
Too little, too late
Badgers needed to score in the first half when the defense had Penn State on the ropes. Once they adjusted in the locker room, every deep route Penn State called was a wide open and Mertz didn’t play well enough for us to keep up. The multiple red zone turnovers were frustrating!— Bode (@NickBode41) September 4, 2021
Show your work
Opening practices to the public (not just media) would provide some level of accountability that handoff exchanges were part of the camp preparation before Saturday. And that was just the tip of the rusty iceberg.— Rob Hernandez (@RobHernandezGLF) September 4, 2021
He has to get a legit offensive coordinator in here and let him do his job— Jason Falkinham (@GoBucky1) September 4, 2021
So ... not all bad?
Outside of Scott Nelson, Graham Mertz and offensive play calling, it was okay.— Mark Tomaszewski (@MarkIsOld) September 4, 2021
There for the taking
Too many Mertz missteps and Penn State may beat OSU this season. But frustrating because that game was there to be won and Badgers could not cash in. Disappointing loss.— Tom Leix (@TomLeix) September 4, 2021
Looking a little lost
As a QB, gotta know the coverages and the reads off of those coverages. Looks like he doesn’t know that. If pressured, need to know outlets for quick throws and/or throwing away in direction of receiver to avoid those intentional grounding throws. Missed open throws too.— DRich (@drich318318) September 4, 2021
Literally one of the worst executed and coached games I've ever seen. Be it losing the ball, decision making, mental breakdowns with opposing teams best player running free in secondary....plenty to go around.— Jeremy Wojtecki (@jwojPAC) September 4, 2021
Graham Mertz looked lost out there and for a highly regarded recruit, it’s disappointing for the fans and program. Something tells me a more experienced Jack Coan would have handled the game better. I guess that’s why he’s Notre Dames starting quarterback.— Jeff Ostach (@jeff_ostach) September 4, 2021
Ready for a change
Graham Mertz needs to be benched. And why not kick the FG with 2:30 left? Getting the ball back needing 3 is much easier. Hard to watch that those red zone debacles.— Mark Larson (@MLarsonSports) September 4, 2021
An inside job
This fantastic roster is being tanked by Mertz and Nelson— Nathan Lewandowski (@Lewie_15) September 4, 2021
Mertz out of sorts
That stat line, without the red zone, is a winning stat line. Two fumbles and a blocked kick inside the 20 will kill anyone. Graham showed some good, but it almost feels like he’s got the yips— John (@JohnIECedu) September 4, 2021
Off the deep end
Great defense continuing to get torched on deep plays and an offense that shoots itself in the foot.— jko23 (@joeorlofski) September 4, 2021
I don’t think I’ve ever seen us win a game with Gus Johnson on the call in the past 5 years— äđrįąń 💫 (@dazedbadger) September 4, 2021
Ready to launch
Throw the damn ball. When the other team stacks the line it doesn't work to run it play after play. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure this out!— Gracie Carlson (@GracieCarlson11) September 4, 2021
Seen this all before
It’s like Groundhog Day. I could have written the script for the rest of the game after the false start on first and goal from the 1 and then the blocked field goal attempt. Is anyone surprised by what happened the rest of the game?!— Mark (@badgerfanaz) September 4, 2021
Trust in the rush
I thought PC was over conservative in the play calling, can tell he doesn’t trust the offense yet.— Tim Koplin (@tkoplin30) September 4, 2021
Playing with blinders on
Mertz doesn't seem to see the whole field. He throws too hard, too low, and inaccurately. Makes too many mistakes.— Mary Korn Erickson (@sixtiesfan) September 4, 2021
He and Chryst lost us the game 100%.
Too late to get Coan back??
Not this again
Not sure Mertz can play, and Chryst offense feels like Mike McCarthy’s last year in GB. Unimaginative and stale.— Pat Richards (@pgrichards0407) September 4, 2021
Bad taste lingers
We should have seen this coming when Mertz dropped the Mayo Bowl trophy.— Mark A. Johnson (@markjohnson0208) September 4, 2021
Giving it away
Many squandered opportunities, didn’t deserve to win. Mertz is becoming a big disappointment.— Kurt Sagendorph (@ksagendo) September 4, 2021
A leg up on the NFL
Beat ourselves and PSU has an NFL punter on their team.— T Shea (@luvipas) September 4, 2021
More of the same
Seems to be a pickup of where they left off last year. Although Mellusi showed some flashes and burst.— OnAByeWeekBTW (@OnAByeWeekBTW) September 4, 2021
Wolf— Carlos P. Sava (@cpsava) September 4, 2021
Total team failure— Fred Ehle (@FredEhle) September 4, 2021
Did Chryst take over play calling? I couldn’t tell
Contact Jim Polzin at firstname.lastname@example.org.