Breathe easy, Badgers fans — Graham Mertz is in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with the University of Wisconsin football team.
Mertz was on the field and looks to be available to be under center for No. 13 UW (1-0) as it takes on the Wolverines (1-2) in a highly anticipated Big Ten Conference matchup.
Mertz, a redshirt freshman, was one of the 30 people within the program to contract COVID-19 since Oct. 21. Per Big Ten Conference protocols, Mertz wasn’t able to practice until Thursday as he progressed through a mandated 21-day absence from game action. He was able to show enough in those two sessions and during meetings during the team’s hiatus that he was ready to play and make the travel roster.
In the season opener against Illinois, his first college start, Mertz was nearly perfect. He tied a program record with five touchdown passes and by completing his first 17 passes, and set the school record for completion percentage after completing 20 of 21 attempts (95.24%).
UW coach Paul Chryst said on his 1310 WIBA radio show on Thursday that he was hopeful that Mertz would be able to play, but also said throughout the week that it would depend how much practice time Mertz got and how he looked in those practices.
Redshirt junior Danny Vanden Boom was ready to play as well. Senior Jack Coan was also on the field pregame warming up. He is recovering from a preseason foot surgery. Walk-on freshman Daniel Wright was also with the group warming up.
Michigan has struggled mightily against the pass this season, allowing more than 320 yards and three touchdowns through the air each of the past two games.
Who has the edge when the Badgers take on Michigan?
WHEN THE BADGERS HAVE THE BALL
After a star-making performance in his starting debut, redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz (above) may be eligible to play this week after sitting out of game action for 21 days after a positive COVID-19 test. Mertz had to clear physical tests this week before he could practice and coach Paul Chryst said Mertz’s status will be determined by how he looks in practice.
If Mertz can play, expecting another near-perfect showing from him is a bit ridiculous, but after seeing what Michigan has allowed opposing quarterbacks the past two weeks, nothing is out of the question. Michigan allowed over 300 yards and three touchdowns apiece to Michigan State’s Rocky Lombardi and Indiana’s Michael Penix Jr. If Mertz can get back in a rhythm with his receivers after a hiatus, the passing attack could be in line for a big game.
UW’s rushing attack was a bit slow out of the gate, averaging 3.4 yards per carry against Illinois, but Badgers coaches and players believed they had chances for big plays that they missed. Garrett Groshek had the most productive day on the ground in the opener, gaining 72 yards. The ground game needs to get back to form against Michigan, which has allowed over 100 yards rushing in each of its three games, but is only surrendering 3.2 yards per carry.
The Wolverines are anchored by a stout defensive line that features standouts Kwity Paye and Carlo Kemp, but they’re struggling to put pressure on passers. Michigan hasn’t recorded a sack in the past two weeks. Aidan Hutchinson, another stud defensive lineman, is out indefinitely after breaking his leg last week against Indiana.
EDGE | UW
WHEN THE WOLVERINES HAVE THE BALL
The Michigan offense in its second year with coordinator Josh Gattis has been subject to quarterback Joe Milton’s (above) performance — as he goes, the Wolverines go. Milton — a 6-foot-5, 243-pounder out of Pahokee, Fla. — has been inconsistent at best. He’ll flash tremendous arm strength and touch one possession, then miss an open target on another.
He’s averaging 289.7 yards per game and his average completion goes for 13.4 yards, but he’s completing just 60.8% of his throws in an offense designed for efficient QB play.
Milton adds another threat to Michigan’s rushing attack, which is led by junior Hassan Haskins, but a number of backs get touches for the Wolverines. Six players have rushing touchdowns this year and the team averages 5.1 yards per carry.
UW’s defense pitched a shutout against Illinois — the Illini’s only points came on fumble returned for a touchdown — and showed strong secondary play, particularly from cornerback Rachad Wildgoose. If the Badgers have a majority of their defensive starters available, they should be able to corral the Wolverines’ offense.
EDGE | UW
UW’s special teams were a major question mark heading into the opener, but the unit was up to the task. Punter Andy Vujnovich had an up-and-down day, highlighted by a 60-yard punt in his first attempt. He finished with an average punt of 46 yards. Kicker Collin Larsh (above) made all six of his PAT attempts and added a short field goal late in the game. The coverage teams, revamped after some roster turnover, allowed one kickoff return of 20 yards, but stymied everything else short.
However, if the kicking spots are affected by the virus outbreak among the team, the reserves are true freshmen Gavin Meyers and Jack Van Dyke.
Wolverines punter Brad Robbins is averaging 49.4 yards per punt, best in the Big Ten, and has pinned seven of his 11 tries inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Placekicking has been an issue for Michigan — Jake Moody is 0-for-3 on field-goal attempts this year.
Return man Giles Jackson ranks third in the conference with 11.3 yards per punt return and fourth with 18.4 yards per kick return.
EDGE | PUSH
UW had seemingly a perfect game plan for the Illini on both sides of the ball. Mertz picked apart Illinois’ Cover 2 defense and exploited the defense’s aggressiveness in the red zone to get Jake Ferguson wide open for two touchdowns. UW’s defense didn’t allow a point, and let up a total of 218 yards. The Badgers were again stingy on third downs, allowing Illinois to convert just 2 of 10 chances.
Paul Chryst and his assistants will need to scheme players open against Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown’s man-coverage-heavy approach.
Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh is coaching in the final year of his contract with the program, an exceedingly rare act in college football. Frustration is mounting in Ann Arbor regarding the football program’s inability to contend with Ohio State and other top teams in the conference.
EDGE | UW
This game will be defined by how the Badgers respond to their COVID-19 situation. If Mertz is available, he’ll need to apply the same focus and attention to detail that he showed in throttling Illinois. If it’s anyone else under center, the offensive line and rushing threats will need to take a step forward from Week 1 to get the offense moving.
This could be a pull-out-all-the-stops game for Michigan, because their schedule the rest of the way is tougher than it once appeared. Rutgers, Penn State, Maryland and Ohio State follow the Badgers on Michigan’s slate. Rutgers and Maryland are proving to be tough outs already this season, Penn State is in dire straits and Ohio State is still Ohio State.
The Big Ten is reportedly considering allowing limited fans into stadiums in the second half of the year, but “The Big House” will be void of fans this week.
EDGE | MICHIGAN
STATE JOURNAL PICK
It’s difficult to make a prediction not knowing who the Badgers will put on the field Saturday. However, the Wolverines haven’t shown much to inspire optimism against top-tier opponents in the Big Ten this season. UW is one of those top-tier teams with a healthy roster, so we’ll see what kind of patchwork the Badgers have to do on their starting lineup due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
If Mertz can play, UW has seen the blueprint in the past two weeks to attack Michigan’s secondary and takes advantage. If Mertz is out, the Badgers’ defense may need to win a slugfest.
BADGERS 31, MICHIGAN 24
THE NUMBER (UW)
X: How many players are out for UW due to the COVID-19 outbreak and contact tracing.
THE NUMBER (MICHIGAN)
2: Giveaways this season for the Wolverines, tied for the fewest in the Big Ten.
KEY STAT (OFFENSE)
Yards per carry: UW’s 3.4 yards per carry in the opener against Illinois were the team’s lowest since a midseason loss at Ohio State last year, and the fourth-lowest in the past three seasons
KEY STAT (DEFENSE)
Third-down conversions: UW allowed the Illini to convert 2 of 10 third-down chances in the opener and Michigan comes in ranked eighth in the conference on third down, converting at a 38.9% clip.