MADISON, Wis. -- As we all should’ve likely expected, the oddsmakers generally know what they’re doing.
Several Illinois veteran players complained and were insulted about what they saw as a gigantic 20-point gambling line leading into this Big Ten Conference opener at No. 14 Wisconsin. The Badgers took care of that spread before halftime with a 21-point lead after 30 minutes and made sure the blowout of an overmatched Illini program continued in a 42-7 domination Friday night.
After a 298-day absence of Illinois football, fans of the program likely would’ve been happy to wait a little longer if they knew this was the performance they were waiting for. One game into the 2020 season, Illinois was still waiting for its first offensive touchdown and any semblance of cohesion or preparation.
The Illini had just 51 yards rushing on carries not made by pocket passer Brandon Peters. Peters, who spent much of the evening dodging Wisconsin blitzes, had a nightmare 2020 opener as well. Peters finished with just 87 yards on 8 of 19 through the air and was sacked two times. Illinois even used redshirt freshman Isaiah Williams in spot duty in the hope to jumpstart a stalling Illini offense but the former four-star prospect had just five total yards and an interception.
In his first career college start, Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz couldn’t have felt more comfortable and less intimidated with Lovie Smith’s defense. The redshirt freshman completed his first 17 passes, tying a school record, and consistent coverage busts in the Illini secondary resulted in four first-half touchdowns with all of those scores on throws to a wide open receiver. Mertz, who had 248 yards passing, would finish with five touchdown passes and was the first college quarterback to post that number against a Lovie Smith defense. He was the first quarterback since 2011 when Green Bay Packers signal caller Aaron Rodgers accomplished that against Smith's Chicago Bears unit.
Wisconsin (1-0), which is traditionally led by its power rushing attack, used the play-action pass attack in the first 30 minutes of play to allow Mertz, the third-ranked pocket passer in the 2019 recruiting class, to introduce himself to the college football world. Mertz, the 2018 Kansas Gatorade Player of the Year selection and a U.S. Army All-American Bowl selection, finished with 245 yards through the air and constantly found tight end Jake Ferguson. The All-Big Ten target, who is on the 2020 John Mackey Award watch list and the grandson of Wisconsin athletics director Barry Alvarez, easily found open space in the middle of the field between Illinois safeties Sydney Brown and Derrick Smith for 72 yards on six catches including three scores.
The only score for Illinois (0-1) in the first half was on a 33-yard fumble recovery by the defense as sophomore linebacker Tarique Barnes trotted into the end zone to cut the deficit in half at 14-7 with 3:22 left in the first half. All Mertz did was toss a 14-yard and 53-yard touchdown strike to culminate the Badgers dominating first-half performance.
Barnes, who took over for an injured middle linebacker Jake Hansen, finished with 11 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and a sack in his first significant college action. Hansen appeared to be concussed after being kicked in the head on a fourth-down run where the Wisconsin running back went over the top for a short-yardage carry. Big Ten Network confirmed cognitive tests were being given to the senior linebacker as he entered the injury tent on the sidelines and Smith confirmed to BTN after halftime that Hansen wouldn’t return to action for the final 30 minutes.
The 2020 campaign was the season Illinois coaches were pointing toward as a turnaround year for a program that hasn’t had a winning season in a decade and has more seniors on its roster (25) than the previous two years combined (21). Illinois still hasn’t defeated a ranked team on the road since 2007 when the Illini knocked off then-No. 1 Ohio State on the way to a Rose Bowl bid.
Illinois will return home next weekend to play a Purdue team for a Halloween afternoon kickoff. Purdue will open the 2020 campaign tomorrow vs. Iowa without its head coach (Jeff Brohm, COVID-19 positive diagnosis) and star wide receiver Rondale Moore (no official reason given).