ANALYSIS: The Chess Match of Wisconsin QB Graham Mertz vs. Lovie Smith's Cover-2 Defense

Illini Now/Sports Illustrated takes a deeper look at what Mertz, a first-time starting quarterback is up against when he looks at Lovie's Smith defense.
Author:
Updated:
Original:

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Graham Mertz, one of the most decorated and highly touted quarterback signees in the history of the Wisconsin football program, will be making his first career start tonight.

In doing so, the redshirt freshman will be facing an Illinois defense led by head coach and play-caller Lovie Smith, who has 14 years of experience preparing NFL defenses for action and earned the ‘defensive guru’ moniker for his experience in turning offensive mistakes into takeaways.

“I wouldn’t say the quarterback is irrelevant in any system and definitely this one but I just think with Wisconsin’s system, I don’t think Paul goes into any game thinking hey, we got to throw the ball for 400 yards or we’re not going to have success,” Smith said. “I think the system that is based on the run first is easier for a young quarterback to come into without putting it all on him. They’re not going to be in an all-gun set, throwing the ball all over the place.”

Smith has attempted to downplay the matchup with a super talented but inexperienced quarterback such as Mertz, who was an Elite 11 selection out of high school two years ago along with being the 2018 Kansas Gatorade Player of the Year selection and a U.S. Army All-American Bowl selection as a senior who completed 61.1% of his passes for 3,886 yards and a state-record 51 touchdowns.

“As far as me making calls, no, (Mertz) is a good football player and every good player you see was once young and most of them who are really good, they play well right away so it’ll be a big challenge for us,” Smith said.

One of the things that Smith said is a disadvantage for his program is the inability to study and evaluate much game film on Mertz and his tendencies as a quarterback. In limited mop-up duty against Central Michigan and Kent State last season for starter Jack Coan, Mertz went 9 of 10 for 73 yards (4-for-5 for 35 yards in his college debut vs. Central Michigan on Sept. 7, 5-for-5 for 38 yards and a 10-yard run vs. Kent State on Oct. 5). When Coan suffered a severe right foot injury in a practice earlier this month, Mertz immediately began to get first-team reps and was the candidate to lead this Badgers offense.

Wisconsin freshman quarterback Graham Mertz scans over the Kent State defense before taking a snap during the fourth quarter of a 2019 game.

Wisconsin freshman quarterback Graham Mertz scans over the Kent State defense before taking a snap during the fourth quarter of a 2019 game.

Illinois linebacker Jake Hansen said this week he’s reviewed Mertz’s high school highlights to pick up any tendencies for use Friday night in the Big Ten Conference opener (7 p.m., BTN). Mertz already knows what the Illinois defense depends on in order to have success and its the item he’ll have in his hands on every single play - the football.

“It’s all about the ball. You put the ball on the ground, you lose games. You put the ball in the end zone, you win games. I think the biggest thing the past couple of weeks that we’ve had an emphasis on is just knowing that ball is everything,” Mertz said this week. “When we have miscommunications, when we throw an interception, when you put the ball on the ground, nothing good comes out of that stuff. The ball is everything. You want to win games? Score touchdowns, don’t fumble it.”

A more experienced Illinois group finally was able to translate Smith’s defensive takeaway tendencies into what they now call ‘Lovie Ball’ and in 2019, the Illini led the Big Ten Conference in turnover margin.

“I think there’s a stat where if you win the turnover margin by three or more, you’re at something like 95 percent to win the game,” Hansen said. “We want as many as we can get but we know the numbers and odds favor a team that gets takeaways at a higher rate.”

-----------------------

I thought I’d take you inside tonight’s possible X’s and O’s matchup of Graham Mertz’s arm talent against a veteran play-caller, veteran back seven Illini defense.

One of the biggest misconceptions about Smith’s Cover-2 scheme is that it is simply a zone scheme that allows quarterbacks to pick it apart without constant pressure. When in reality, Smith’s scheme is normally predicated on never getting beat with the opposition’s dominant hand (or thing they do best).

Smith’s defenses will blitz and anybody who saw how he adapted his defenses with the Chicago Bears knows he can get aggressive in the hopes of forcing mistakes out of the quarterback.

“We did things in blitz packages that really changed the defense, unique things from how they were done,” former Chicago linebacker Lance Briggs told NBC Sports Chicago when describing changes Smith made to the Bears defense. “We’d practice everything, sharpening that iron, and we weren’t going to out-trick you; we were going to out-play you.”

In evaluating Mertz’s tape (the limited action last season and his Hudl highlight tapes from his senior season at Blue Valley North High School in Orland Park, Kan., the obvious thing Smith will want to likely do to “out-play” the inexperienced Badgers quarterback tonight is take away Mertz’s first option. In a lot of these throws made last season at Wisconsin or high school highlights are these completions are they are made to the primary target on the play.

Almost all of his 10 attempts last season in a backup role were made to a primary receiver, who happened to be open. This is not to say Mertz was making one-read throws (meaning the play had one read and then he’s designed to take off running if it isn’t open) but he wasn’t forced by Central Michigan or Kent State to go through the route tree progression for a secondary target.

If Illinois, which returns all but two primary starters of its linebacker and secondary units, can take away the primary throw target when Mertz’s back foot hits the deepest part of his drop, it can cause the redshirt freshman to make decisions for the first time at the college level and possible promote a footwork problem (although Mertz’s film does so he can and will most of the time do a solid job in resetting his feet before making a throw). The final thing forcing secondary option targets can do is give an inexperienced Illini pass rush, something that is the major question mark of Smith’s 2020 defense, more time, against a rebuilding Wisconsin offensive line, to create havoc in the backfield.

One final tendency that was noticeable from how Mertz was used last season was in the rare red zone action. Wisconsin offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph liked to use traditional play-action rollouts to get Mertz on the perimeter and provide an instant clean look to find throwing lanes. This action is typical by coaches with an inexperienced quarterback because whatever direction the quarterback rolls, instantly cuts off half of the field and makes decision-making quicker and more obvious to the younger signal caller. Mertz, while listed correctly in his recruiting profiles as a pocket passer, does have superior athleticism (dad played football at Minnesota and two older sisters play Division I college basketball) to make this action work nicely but it also may play right into the hands of what Smith will want because again, it limits Mertz’s targets and allows his defenders, on the side Mertz’s rolls, to read the quarterbacks’ eyes to know where the football is headed.

This chess match of Mertz versus Lovie Smith’s defense will be the highlighted aspect of this Big Ten opener tonight and the key will be seeing which side has to adjust first and most often throughout the game. If Mertz finds comfort early on, Smith might be forced to dial up some things to treat the quarterback differently and more like a veteran. If Mertz struggles early on, Wisconsin may have to intentionally find easy throws for him to get settled down before trouble and specifically turnovers happen.