Wisconsin Badgers quarterback Graham Mertz broke the program record for completion percentage in a game on Friday, completing 20 of 21 passes for 248 yards and five touchdowns in the Badgers’ 45-7 win over visiting Illinois in Madison.
“It was definitely fun,” Mertz said afterward. “I owe it to Coach [Jon] Budmayr and Coach [Paul] Chryst, we took a ton of time, one-on-one meetings and really just sorted the game plan out and we knew what we were doing and I felt confident in my ability to go execute and I think there’s definitely some stuff we need to clean up. A lot more stuff we can clean up.”
Mertz, a redshirt freshman, was moved up to the starting role after Jack Coan suffered a non-contact injury to his foot in practice and underwent surgery. This was the first career start for Mertz, and his five touchdown passes tied the program record for most in a game along with Jim Sorgi in 2003 and Darrell Bevell in 1993.
“I thought he had good poise, thought he saw the field well. You never know quite how someone’s going to react in their first start,” Chryst said. “I thought he was himself and that you appreciate. I thought there was a good plan by the offensive coaches and he was able to execute it.”
Wisconsin didn’t get its usual dominant performance from its run game, with Garrett Groshek as the leading rusher for the Badgers with 70 yards but no touchdown runs. But Mertz picked up that slack, opening the game by completing his first 17 passes.
His one incompletion was a dropped pass by Groshek in the third quarter on third-and-19. Mertz said the failed pass was his fault, that he needed to get the ball to his running back faster and the two joked about it after the game.
Tight end Jake Ferguson was his favorite target on the night with seven receptions for 72 yards and three of the five touchdowns. Ferguson was second in receiving yards last season with 407, behind Quintez Cephus, who is now in the NFL.
Those three receiving touchdowns are also tied for the most in a game by a Wisconsin tight end, matching Owen Daniels in 2005 and Garrett Graham in 2009.
“The kid’s smooth, the kid’s definitely smooth,” Ferguson said. “He was smiling cheek to cheek after that first touchdown. He knew, and everyone in that huddle knew, that we were rolling. It’s just awesome to see that out of him.”
Ferguson said at one point in the game Wisconsin ran the same four plays with success against Illinois, and Mertz showed some of that confidence on the sideline, making jokes and keeping his teammates focused.
Despite that national attention and a breakout game, Mertz isn’t celebrating just yet, knowing it’s only one game and there’s still a lot of football left.
“I haven’t checked my phone yet, but it’s great to hear from those guys and it means a ton,” Mertz said. “But I’m just happy the guys in the locker room are pumped right now and we gotta keep building on that.”