Graham Mertz Dazzles in Wisconsin Debut

Herb Gould

Maybe the world is making too much of Graham Mertz’s dazzling debut. Or. . . maybe not.

Mertz threw for five touchdowns, four of them in the first half, and 248 yards, and completed 20 of 21, including his first 17 throws, as Wisconsin routed Illinois 45-7.

The redshirt freshman, who was thrust into a starting role when Jack Coan went down with a foot injury two weeks ago, also lit up the Twitter universe.

“That man @GrahamMertz5 going crazy tonight!’’ tweeted Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the 2018 NFL most valuable player and 2019 Super Bowl MVP.

Mertz, it should be noted is a fellow Kansas Citian. And no stranger to Mahomes. But still. . .

“Graham Mertz is the 3rd FBS player over the last 25 seasons with 5 pass TD and a 95% completion pct in a game over the last 25 seasons. He joins Gunner Kiel and Matt Barkley,’’ ESPN Stats & Info tweeted. “Mertz finished 20-21 (95.2%), breaking the Wisconsin comp pct record (min. 10 attempts).’’

Space does not permit a listing of all the Wisconsin records Mertz set.

Yes, it was only Illinois, which is expected to bring up the rear in the Big Ten West. Then again, the Illini beat the sixth-ranked Badgers 24-23 a year ago, spoiling what was expected to be a top-10 showdown of unbeatens against Ohio State the next week.

And Illini coach Lovie Smith, who coached the Bears to a Super Bowl and serves as his own defensive coordinator, knows a few things about messing with quarterbacks.

Smith was more concerned about breakdowns in Illinois’ coverage than heaping praise on Mertz, who did throw to a lot of wide-open receivers. Especially on the TDs.

“The quarterback played outstanding ball,’’ the Illini coach said, “but we have to give him a lot more competition. We have to be able to play better coverage than that. They just executed their system tonight a lot better than we did.’’

“I thought [Mertz] had good poise,” said Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst. “I thought he saw the field well. You never know quite how someone’s going to react in their first start. I thought he was himself. And that you appreciate. I thought there was a good plan for him by the offensive coaches. He was able to execute it.”

If that was a mouthful of understatement, Chryst couldn’t be blamed for not wanting to fan the flames of Mertz excitement. And the truth is, Mertz basically made good throws to open receivers, as opposed to razzle-dazzle stuff.

“The kid's definitely smooth,’’ tight end Jake Ferguson told reporters after catching three touchdown passes. “He was smiling cheek-to-cheek after the first touchdown. It's just awesome to see that out of him the first game. I mean, golly, the kid can play.’’

He didn’t come completely out of nowhere. Mertz is the most highly rated quarterback recruit in Wisconsin history. In training camp in 2019, there was speculation that he might push Coan, who had not dazzled in emergency spot duty the year before. Coan put that to rest by securing and holding the QB job with strong play last fall that complemented star running back Jonathan Taylor.

This Mertz performance opens an even larger question, though: Is Wisconsin going to have a vertical game this fall that will enable it to challenge Ohio State, which handled the Badgers twice last season?

That’s an especially timely question because the Wisconsin defense also looked awfully good while pitching a shutout. Illinois’ lone TD came on a 39-yard fumble return. The Illini managed only eight first downs and 218 total yards, including 75 yards on seven runs by quarterback Brandon Peters.

Obviously, it’s way too early to draw too many conclusions.

On the other hand, when a talented young quarterback makes a record-setting debut, that raises expectations for a program that has had a lot of success with its defense and its running game.

We have seen revolutionary changes in the passing game in recent years, notably in the Big 12 and the SEC.

Although Chryst is a creative offensive guy, it’s way too soon to say Wisconsin is going to do that in the Big Ten. It’s still not clear the Badgers have the interest or the personnel.

But after what Graham Mertz did on Friday night, it’s not too soon to wonder.