Is it fair to ask if Graham Mertz is already at a crossroads in his young Wisconsin Badgers career?
The Wisconsin Badgers had one final chance to secure a big victory in the season opener against Penn State last Saturday. UW gained 57 yards on four plays to set them up with a 1st-and-10 from the Penn State 25-yard line. Down six points in the game’s final minute, Graham Mertz took the shotgun snap and found a wide open Chimere Dike in the middle of the field for a touchdown. But Mertz’s throw sailed past Dike, who had literally no chance of making a play on the ball.
I feel like more than any other sport, the perception of a college football team can change so quickly, on a single play, especially in a big game.
Had Mertz delivered an on target throw to Dike, the discussion about Wisconsin would be completely different heading into its second game. Fans would have forgiven the unforced errors and red zone failures earlier in the game, and there would be articles being written saying that this is exactly why Wisconsin brought in the prized-recruit quarterback.
Mertz, supposedly, was made for this moment, more so than any quarterback who went directly from high school to Madison in the last couple of decades.
But the throw went nowhere near Dike. Mertz was then flagged for intentional grounding on the next play (his second of the game), then threw the game-ending interception.
So now the questions arise. The Wisconsin Badgers managed just 10 points on 95 offensive plays and Mertz was responsible for all three of UW’s turnovers.
Is he still the guy to get the Badgers to the next level?
It doesn’t help that the guy he replaced, Jack Coan, had a record setting night for Notre Dame on Sunday night against Florida State.
Saturday marked Graham Mertz’s eighth game as Wisconsin’s starting quarterback. In those eight starts, dating back to his amazing season opening debut against Illinois last year, he has completed 60.9 percent of his passes with nine touchdowns and seven interceptions.
In 2020’s 4-3 season, there were a lot of circumstances and excuses that went into it, injured receivers and covid issues among them. It was a lot to put on a first-year starting quarterback.
But those excuses are all gone. Mertz, who’s in his third year with the program, had a full offseason knowing he would be the guy and all the top receivers are healthy.
Mertz failed to come through on several occasions in Saturday’s disappointing 16-10 loss to Penn State, who gave UW every opportunity to start the season 1-0. Mertz fumbled twice inside the 10-yard line, one of which was recovered by the Nittany Lions and the other turned a 1st-and-goal from the 1-yard line into a 2nd-and-goal from the 7-yard line. A few plays later, Mertz lofted a pass for Jake Ferguson that was intercepted, his first of the two late game interceptions.
The perfect way to describe the role of a Wisconsin quarterback over the last couple decades is a game manager, one that has typically been able to hand the ball off to an incredibly talented running back, avoid mistakes and make some easy throws to extend drives. Jack Coan executed that role extremely well in 2019, which is why Coan is the best quarterback UW has had since Russell Wilson’s 1-year cameo in 2011.
Mertz was projected to be a Russell Wilson type quarterback for the Badgers. Wisconsin has never landed a quarterback of Mertz’s caliber in the online recruiting rankings era (high 4-star recruit, No. 3 pro style QB in the country in 2019). But something is missing from this UW passing game.
Mertz completed 22-of-37 passes on Saturday for 185 yards with no touchdowns and three turnovers. He was more than comfortable throwing the ball to Jake Ferguson, but none of them went for more than 10 yards. Ferguson led UW with nine receptions for 52-yards.
Wisconsin has a deep group of wide receivers with game experience, while it potentially could be lacking a difference making No. 1 option, but Mertz didn’t complete a pass to a wide receiver until midway through the second quarter when he found Danny Davis. Davis is the likely candidate to be that difference making No. 1 option and his ability to consistently win the one-on-one matchups is huge for helping Mertz. But Wisconsin will need to get Davis involved much earlier in games. Davis finished Saturday with eight receptions for 99-yards.
The fact of the matter is that in year three with the program, Mertz will get scrutinized after every game this season, and he’ll get a couple weeks off before the next “big test.” We likely won’t learn a ton when UW hosts Eastern Michigan this Saturday, but after a bye week, UW will head to Chicago to play Notre Dame at Soldier Field, which will start the whole Coan vs. Mertz deal.
The Badgers will find itself in plenty of close games (like I said in my team preview last week) with plenty of tough matchups left on the schedule and Graham Mertz has the talent to change the discussion on himself and UW’s passing game.
Sometimes, just sometimes, all it takes is one big throw.