Jake Ferguson was angry at himself after losing a fumble that led to Illinois’ only score of the game Friday night.
But it didn’t take long for the junior tight end redeem himself in a big way and give the University of Wisconsin football team a boost as well.
Ferguson bounced back from his mistake with two key plays on the ensuing series. It was part of a productive night for Ferguson, who finished with seven catches for 72 yards and three touchdowns to help the No. 14 Badgers open the 2020 campaign with a 45-7 victory over the Fighting Illini at Camp Randall Stadium.
“I’m just grateful I got an opportunity after that to make some plays,” Ferguson said.
UW was leading 14-0 when Ferguson caught a pass and was fighting for extra yards when Illinois linebacker Tarique Barnes forced a fumble. During a scramble on the ground, the ball somehow ended up in Barnes’ hands and the sophomore raced 39 yards for a score with 3 minutes, 22 seconds remaining until halftime.
But Ferguson made up for the mistake by hauling in a gorgeous pass from Graham Mertz for a 34-yard gain to the Illinois 16 on UW’s ensuing possession. Two plays later, Ferguson rose high in the end zone to bring down a 14-yard touchdown pass that gave the Badgers a two-score cushion.
One of the players who approached Ferguson on the sidelines after the fumble to offer a pick-me-up was Mertz, who told the tight end he had his back.
“We talked about it all week, just playing with swag,” Mertz said. “I knew he’d bounce back.”
Earlier in the second quarter, Mertz found a wide-open Ferguson in the end zone for a 5-yard score. Those two touchdowns in the first half matched Ferguson’s season total from 2019.
But Ferguson, a former Madison Memorial High School standout, wasn’t finished. He was on the receiving end of Mertz’s fifth touchdown pass, which tied Darrell Bevell and Jim Sorgi for the program’s single-game record, in the fourth quarter.
On third-and-2 from the 3, Illinois bit on Mertz’s play-action fake and left Ferguson alone in the end zone once again.
“I think we kind of knew that those were going to be there,” Ferguson said of the play-action passes in the red zone. “They know we like to pound it, especially on the goal line, so you just try to sell that and get out of there.”
UW cornerback Rachad Wildgoose did a terrific job shadowing Josh Imatorbhebhe, Illinois’ top receiving threat.
Wildgoose was often lined up in one-on-one coverage against Imatorbhebhe, who averaged 19.2 yard per catch last season. UW defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard had said during the week that the Badgers would have to win 50/50 battles downfield against Imatorbhebhe, and Wildgoose more than held his own against one of the Big Ten’s top returning receivers.
Imatorbhebhe was targeted 10 times but finished with only three catches for 26 yards. Wildgoose was assigned to Imatorbhebhe during the first half, when eight of those targets occurred, while Faion Hicks and Donte Burton saw time on the Illinois standout after halftime.
“Last year, I feel like he had a big game against us, so this was a big coming-out statement for me and my guys at corner,” Wildgoose said of Imatorbhebhe, who had a 29-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter of Illinois’ 24-23 upset of UW last season in Champaign. “We definitely (were) thinking about him a bunch this camp, making sure we were on our tip-top shape.”
Boom, then more booms
Andy Vujnovich was so excited by his first career punt with the Badgers that he knocked over some teammates with chest bumps once he got to the sidelines.
The reaction was appropriate. The Columbus native sent his first punt 60 yards and pinned Illinois at its 7-yard line.
Vujnovich, who transferred from Division III Dubuque and wasn’t declared eligible by the NCAA until late in camp, finished with four attempts for an average of 46.0 yards. His final attempt was a 48-yarder that forced Illinois to start at its own 8.
From the infirmary
UW announced before the game that four players listed in the two-deep or projected to be significant contributors were unavailable for unspecified reasons. They were: quarterback Jack Coan, wide receiver Adam Krumholz, outside linebacker Spencer Lytle and offensive lineman Joe Tippmann.
Coan sustained a broken foot during camp and was replaced in the starting lineup by redshirt freshman Graham Mertz.
Stunning start: Twitter reacts to Graham Mertz's strong play
Take it from an expert
No dodging his talent
Wide awake now
Its 3:40 AM and i was going to go to sleep at hafltime but Badger football and Graham Mertz have reminded me thats not possible— Brevin Pritzl (@BrevinPritzl) October 24, 2020
Graham Mertz is winning minimum three Heismans.— Brandon Walker (@BWalkerSEC) October 24, 2020
Among the best
Graham Mertz is already the best QB Wisconsin has had since Russell Wilson.— Adam Hoge (@AdamHoge) October 24, 2020
The highest honor
If Graham Mertz wins a Heisman or National Championship, we have to get a special edition Merkts cheese spread with his name on it.— Peter Bukowski (@Peter_Bukowski) October 24, 2020
Signs pointed to success
Fan club growing
I have a crush .... on Graham Mertz ...— Ally Melby (@AllyyMelbyy) October 24, 2020
That is all.
Graham Mertz is the 1st overall pick in a few years. He’s a freak— Stu (@StuYeWest1) October 24, 2020
Making his case
Damn graham mertz like y’all should have been playin me lol— Jordan Taylor (@JMTaylor11) October 24, 2020
Bummer for Buckeyes
Can we all just give a collective sigh of relief that Graham Mertz will not be Justin Fields’ replacement— Parker (@ParkerChurchil1) October 24, 2020
A little too quick
Don't lose perspective
Ok, so Graham Mertz has been compared to Patrick Mahomes and Baker Mayfield so far tonight. Let’s all take a breath and remember he’s playing Illinois.— Adam Gorney (@adamgorney) October 24, 2020
Etched in the record books
Graham Mertz finished with 17 straight completions. That is tied for the most consecutive completions in a game in Wisconsin history. (Tanner McEvoy vs Western Illinois in 2014)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) October 24, 2020
His 17 straight completions are also the 3rd-longest streak in a conference game in Big Ten history. pic.twitter.com/ASXT7APXr0
Just the beginning
It could happen
Is Graham Mertz the best quarterback to ever play football?— Pat McAfee (@PatMcAfeeShow) October 24, 2020
In this Series
Relive Badgers' opening-night victory with State Journal's in-depth coverage of UW's rout of Illinois
- 9 updates