Wisconsin football started the season off right with a win over Illinois.
We can finally stop talking about Wisconsin football’s loss to Illinois last season. The Badgers took the field Friday night and reminded Illinois that they have not caught up with Wisconsin in the Big Ten West. I think this game should be a reminder to all the Big Ten that Wisconsin is a contender to win the conference.
I understand that yes, it was only Illinois. But I don’t think Illinois is the same old Illinois. They are an improved team from what they were in the past. But Wisconsin football dominated the Illini in every phase of the game Friday night.
On offense, freshman quarterback Graham Mertz, the Kansas Kannon, was making his first collegiate start. He came to Wisconsin as a highly touted recruit and he did not disappoint. Mertz looked extremely comfortable, smooth, and in complete control of the offense. Even without the benefit of an effective running game, Mertz was able to dissect the Illini defense. He completed his first 17 pass attempts, tying the Wisconsin football record. He ended up completing 20-of-21 passes for 248 yards and a school-record five touchdowns. That’s a hell of a debut.
The running game couldn’t get it going until later on in the game, but I think that will come with time. Once the Badgers establish who their best runners are, I think it will take off. Garrett Groshek was the Badgers’ best running back, running the ball 13 times for 70 yards. He was also a popular target for Mertz. He caught four passes for 29 yards.
After just one game, it was easy to tell tight end Jake Ferguson is going to be Mertz’s favorite target this season. Ferguson caught seven passes for 72 yards and three touchdowns. He’s going to be a big red zone target this season for the Badgers. Danny Davis also brought in a huge 53-yard touchdown before the end of the first half. Pryor struggled to get going last night, but I’d expect to see him more as the season goes on.
On the defensive side of the ball, Jim Leonhard and his defense pitched another shutout. The Illini’s only touchdown came on a fumble by Jake Ferguson. The Wisconsin defense was stingy all night. The Illini marched into Wisconsin territory multiple times last night, but they were turned back on fourth down three different times.
There were a few players on defense that caught my eye. Rachad Wildgoose was tabbed with defending Illinois wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe, which is not easy to do. He held Imatorbhebhe to just three catches for 26 yards. He absolutely shut him down.
Freshman linebacker Nick Herbig also caught my eye. He made some big plays, but also got in trouble occasionally on some option plays where he bit on the handoff, and Brandon Peters ran free off the edge and picked up some big yards. That’s something he’ll clean up over time. I think he has a very bright future in Madison.
There are still some things to clean up with this Wisconsin football team. But once they clean those things up, this team could very well head to the Big Ten Championship Game and give themselves a shot at the College Football Playoff.
The Graham Mertz era has started on a positive note and there were a lot of freshmen making contributions last night. There is a lot to be excited about in the present and the future of this Wisconsin football program.