MADISON, Wis. -- Illini Now/Sports Illustrated publisher/editor Matthew Stevens breaks down all the elements of the Illinois season-opening blowout loss at No. 14 Wisconsin.
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 is still waiting for its first offensive touchdown and any semblance of cohesion or preparation.
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.
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.