Tom Oates grades the No. 14 Wisconsin Badgers' performance in their 45-7 victory over the Illinois Fighting Illini in their season opener Friday night at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz did it all in his starting debut. His fumble aside, Jake Ferguson had a huge game with seven catches for 72 yards and three touchdowns. Danny Davis could be the deep threat UW is seeking. Nakia Watson and Garrett Groshek ran hard but the running game fell short of its usual standards.
UW's rangy, quick and physical line dominated the line of scrimmage, making plays between the tackles and setting up linebackers Jack Sanborn and Leo Chenal for many more. Almost all of Illinois' rushing yards came around the ends. Rachad Wildgoose held Josh Imatorbhebhe, Illinois' top wide receiver, to three catches and 26 yards.
Special teams: C
Andy Vujnovich's first UW punt went 60 yards and was downed at the 7. Thank you, NCAA. Stephan Bracey negated a 37-yard kickoff return when his knee touched down as he made the catch. Instead, UW started on the 4. Using Jack Dunn and Davis in tandem deep was a smart move against Blake Hayes, the Big Ten's best punter.
Paul Chryst made a statement by going for it on fourth-and-1 near midfield in a 7-0 game. UW receivers often found themselves wide open. That's coaching. UW played the end of the half perfectly, getting 14 points in the final 2 minutes. The dominant line is going to give Jim Leonhard a million options when calling defenses.
UW got revenge against Illinois for last season's upset with a dominating — and eye-opening — victory. It was eye-opening because Mertz threw the ball so effectively against Lovie Smith's defense. Mertz's performance overshadowed a stellar defensive effort. Illinois' offense failed to score a point and threw for only 87 yards.
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
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