MADISON, Wis. — Graham Mertz threw five touchdown passes to match the Wisconsin record in a commanding first career start and the No. 14 Badgers beat Illinois 45-7 on Friday night to open the pandemic-delayed Big Ten football season.
Mertz set a school record for completion percentage on 20-of-21 passing, finishing with 248 yards. The lone incompletion was a pass that running back Garrett Groshek dropped midway through the third quarter.
The redshirt freshman quarterback delivered a buzzworthy performance during the Big Ten’s long-awaited opening night. The Big Ten announced Aug. 11 that it would postpone all fall sports until the spring due to the coronavirus pandemic, then reversed itself Sept. 16 by saying it would begin the season in mid-October.
While most other conferences began playing last month in front of partially filled stadiums, Wisconsin had cutouts in the stands and piped-in crowd noise Friday as it began its nine-game schedule.
“No doubt it was different, but nonetheless it was fun,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said.
The unusual circumstances meant there were no fans jumping around when Wisconsin continued its tradition of playing House of Pain’s “Jump Around” before the fourth quarter, and there were no spectators cheering as Mertz delivered his star-making performance.
But his prime-time outburst still earned raves on social media from a wide range of players including Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and former Wisconsin star J.J. Watt.
Mertz became the first-team quarterback after returning starter Jack Coan underwent foot surgery on Oct. 7, leaving him out indefinitely.
He wasted no time making the most of his opportunity. The only previous Wisconsin quarterbacks to throw five touchdown passes in a game are Darrell Bevell against Nevada in 1993 and Jim Sorgi against Michigan State in 2003.
“I thought he had good poise,” Chryst said. “I thought he saw the field well. You never now quite how someone’s going to react in their first start, but I thought he was himself.”
Mertz was 14 of 14 for 190 yards and four touchdowns in the first half alone as Wisconsin built a 28-7 halftime lead. Three of his five touchdown passes went to tight end Jake Ferguson, who had seven catches for 72 yards.
After Illinois fumbled the ball away on the game’s second play from scrimmage, Mertz hit fullback Jason Stokke for a 10-yard touchdown pass. He found Ferguson wide-open in the back of the end zone for a 5-yard score to make it 14-0.
Illinois briefly got back into it late in the second quarter when Ferguson fumbled at the end of a 9-yard completion. Illinois linebacker Tarique Barnes picked up the loose ball and ran 39 yards into the end zone to cut Wisconsin’s lead to 14-7.
Mertz responded to Illinois’ touchdown by throwing a 34-yard completion to Ferguson and then hitting the senior tight end again for a 14-yard score with 1:06 left in the half. After Illinois went three-and-out on its next series, Mertz threw deep and found Danny Davis for a 53-yard touchdown pass with 28 seconds left until halftime.
“I thought I had the team more ready, more prepared to play than we showed out there tonight,” Illinois coach Lovie Smith said. “We will play better than that. We’re a better football team than that.”