The winning formula for the University of Wisconsin football team has long been known.
Run the ball at a level few programs can match, play elite defense, do enough in the passing game to make teams pay for loading up against the run.
Friday night’s season opener against Illinois showed that with Graham Mertz at quarterback, that formula may change. In the Badgers’ dominant, 45-7 win against visiting Illinois, Mertz tied a program record with five touchdown passes and lived up to all the hype that’s built around him since he committed to UW in 2017.
“This week of preparation was great for everybody. I thought the O-line played great, the playmakers just kept making plays,” Mertz said. “My expectations were to win the game. It exceeded my expectations, but I’m happy we won that.”
Camp Randall Stadium — which would’ve been rocking with Mertz’s performance — was empty due to the pandemic. COVID-19 caused the Big Ten Conference to shorten and delay its season, but the Badgers showed they hadn’t developed much rust in the layoff.
After UW had built a 14-0 lead in the second quarter, the Fighting Illini forced, recovered and returned a fumble for a touchdown to halve their deficit and give their sideline some life after a pedestrian start.
UW junior tight end Jake Ferguson coughed up that fumble, and after the ball was loose among a sea of bodies, Illinois linebacker Tarique Barnes returned it 39 yards for the Illini’s only score.
Ferguson responded quickly to the miscue, catching a 34-yard pass on the ensuing drive to set the Badgers up in the red zone, and then hauling in a 14-yard touchdown, his second score of the half. Then, after the defense secured a three-and-out, Mertz hit a 53-yard pass deep down the middle of the field to Danny Davis to give UW a 28-7 halftime lead. That three-minute sequence was the start of what became 31 unanswered points for the Badgers.
“The fumble by Ferg and the return by them, (we) got a chance to answer, and it’s how you respond,” UW coach Paul Chryst said. “I thought the response, a number of different ways … if we can build on that and grow from those things … adversity’s going to come your way, but it’s how you respond.”
UW’s run game wasn’t nearly as effective in the debut as fans have come to expect. UW gained 182 yards on 54 carries, an average of 3.4 yards per attempt.
Some of the Badgers’ best chances on the ground were stifled by self-inflicted errors. Early in the second half, Kendric Pryor took a jet-sweep handoff and had blockers in front of him for what could’ve been a big play. But he slipped after gaining 2 yards, and was visibly frustrated after getting up.
Senior Garrett Groshek was the most effective option in the backfield, gaining 70 yards on 13 carries (5.4 yards per rush). His patience in the backfield, a product of being the most experienced tailback on the roster, helped allow blocks to come together in front of him.
After averaging upwards of 5 yards per carry the last four seasons, the Badgers know that they’ll have to increase their efficiency on the ground to help Mertz in the future.
“We knew it was going to be a tough defense to run the ball against,” Chryst said. “Few times it felt like we were off on a couple things. I thought we had some of the jet sweeps that could’ve been big plays for us.
“Certainly knew they weren’t just going to give you those yards, but I don’t know that we did everything in our power to … you’ve got to execute, right? I think that one guy here, one guy there, there’ll be a lot of good learning from it.”
UW’s pass game — 248 yards in total, with Mertz going 20-for-21 passing — was able to make up for the slower ground attack.
“I think we rallied and changed (the game) so we could make plays in the air. I think Graham did a really good job, I thought the O-line did a really good job protecting him,” said Ferguson, who finished with seven catches, 72 yards and three touchdowns. “Even though they weren’t making big running plays, (the running backs) were picking up blocks in the pass game. ‘Grosh’ was catching the check-downs. When we couldn’t run the ball, we made a lot of ground up in the pass game.”
The defense lived up to its end of the bargain, allowing Illinois 218 total yards and just 87 through the air. Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters was the only real threat posed by the Illini, and his biggest plays came on option plays on which he kept the ball. He finished with 75 of his team’s 131 rushing yards.
Illinois finished 2 of 10 on third down and 0 of 3 on fourth down.
Junior linebacker Jack Sanborn said the Badgers were more than ready to get an opponent across from them after the long layoff.
“I think we were ready to go,” he said. “It’s been a while. This whole game week, our team and our defense have had a good week, and were really prepared and really focused. Just all great, excited to get out there and just play a football game again.”
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