Wisconsin roars past Illini, 45-7

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 redshirt freshman quarterback delivered a buzzworthy performance during the Big Ten’s long-awaited opening night as the Badgers brought their own juice to a quiet stadium.

Playing without fans in the stands due to COVID-19 safety precautions, Wisconsin featured cutouts in the stands and piped-in crowd noise Friday as it began its nine-game schedule. That 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.

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.

Wisconsin gained 182 yards on 54 carries in the running game, led by Garrett Groshek with 70 yards on 13 carries. Fellow Badgers Nakia Watson (19 carries, 62 yards) and Isaac Guerendo (11-36) aided the cause.

Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters had seven carries for 75 yards, but was 8 of 19 through the air for only 87 yards. Hampering the visiting team’s efforts, Illinois linebacker Jake Hansen left with an injury in the first half.

On defense, Wisconsin stifled Illinois throughout the game and capitalized after forcing the two turnovers. Early on, sophomore nose tackle Keeanu Benton forced a fumble that was collected by linebacker Noah Burks. The gift set up Stokke’s TD from deep in Illinois’ territory.

The Badgers held the Illini scoreless in the second half. Safety Collin Wilder led the Badgers with four solo tackles, while cornerback Rachad Wildgoose stymied Illinois’ top receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe, allowing him only three receptions for 28 yards (eight targets) in the first half and shutting him down completely in the second half.

Redshirt freshman safety Titus Toler picked off Peters for his first career interception.