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QB Primer: After one game Graham Mertz already looks like a stud

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Unfortunately, Covid-19 has kept the Badgers off the field since their Week 1 win. 

NCAA Football: Central Michigan at Wisconsin Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

The most unique season in Big Ten history kicked off on a Friday night in October as the Wisconsin Badgers took it to Illinois despite missing quarterback Jack Coan. Last season’s starter was not spectacular, but seemed like a solid option to lead the team once again. Instead, a foot injury to Coan thrust redshirt freshman Graham Mertz into action, and he showed up in a big way against the Illini.

That was the last time we saw the Badgers play a game, however. Literally the next day, Mertz tested positive for Covid-19, and soon enough players and coaches tested positive to sideline the team for two weeks. Luckily for Wisconsin, playing the opening game on a Friday means that their new quarterback is technically eligible for this Saturday’s contest against Michigan. While he has yet to be officially confirmed, all signs are pointing to him making his second career start.

Penn State Quarterback Stats

Player Completion % Passing Yards Passing TDs Interceptions Rushing TDs
Player Completion % Passing Yards Passing TDs Interceptions Rushing TDs
Sean Clifford 57.2 1,070 11 8 1
Will Levis 57.4 325 0 0 0

Bursting onto the scene

It is hard to have a better debut that Mertz did against Illinois. The Badgers quarterback was 20-for-21 with five touchdowns and zero interceptions; he could do no wrong that night in Madison. Talks of September (or October in this case) Heismans are always a little ridiculous, but Mertz truly looked like one of the best passers in the conference in his lone appearance.

It should be noted that the Illini are not great defensively — they have given up an average of 39 points a game in their 0-3 start. Still, Mertz was basically perfect in his first start. He consistently put the ball exactly where it needed to go, showing great accuracy and touch on his passes. He did not do anything on the ground, but he looked competent moving around the pocket when needed and had a great connection with tight end Jake Ferguson.

Mertz was a top-70 recruit and the No. 3 pro-style quarterback in his class, so it should not be too surprising to see him finding early success. Wisconsin has been known for its talented running backs, but maybe this is the dawn of something new. Metrz is easily the highest ranked quarterback recruit to come to Madison this century, and if he continues to excel it will demonstrate the possibilities of the Badgers passing game for future recruits.

What to watch against Michigan

Everyone who was (rightly) worried about facing Michael Penix should be terrified of seeing Mertz this weekend. When the Wolverines were not jumping offsides on the defensive line against Indiana, they were being slaughtered in the secondary yet again. Mertz looks even better than Penix and certainly is more talented than Rocky Lombardi, so this could be the worst game yet for the Michigan defense.

If Mertz is out, the other quarterback options are redshirt sophomore Chase Wolf and redshirt junior Danny Vanden Boom; both players have one career pass attempt each (although both have 100 percent completion rates, so apparently accuracy runs high in this quarterback room!). Were Mertz to be unavailable, it is anyone’s guess how Wolf or Vanden Boom would perform.

With Aidan Hutchinson out, the front seven is likely to struggle even more at getting pressure on the quarterback. Giving Mertz time to make the right pass could be devastating, and he seems smart enough to avoid targeting Daxton Hill, the lone defensive back who is above-average in coverage. Last year in Madison was a beatdown; this weekend in Ann Arbor could be a bloodbath.