Wisconsin trounces Illinois in Big Ten opener

Dylan Leasure, Courier Staff

On the eve of one of the most exciting days of college football this year, there was a single game on Friday night to open up the fourth of the five Power 5 conferences this year. And it all started at Camp Randall Stadium in  Madison, Wisconsin as the No. 14 Wisconsin Badgers took on the Illinois Fighting  Illini to open up an unusual season.

Wisconsin was looking for redemption from last year as the Fighting Illini stunned the No. 6 Badgers in Champaign last year on a game-winning field goal from James McCourt to win them the game 24-23. This sparked a successful season for the Illini as they went on to go to their first bowl game in six years. 

Wisconsin is coming off of a year that found them in the Rose Bowl. They finished last season with a record of 10-4, with their losses being to Illinois, Ohio State twice, once in the regular season then in the Big Ten title game, and then finally the one-point loss to Oregon in the Rose Bowl. But there are a lot of high hopes in Madison this year, with a favorable schedule and a great recruiting class coming in.

Wisconsin has a very different look on the offensive side this year, with starting running back Jonathan Taylor going to the draft, and starting QB from last year Jack Coan being sidelined with an injury. It was time for redshirt freshman Graham Mertz to step up and fill some big shoes, and he filled those shoes and then some with his performance in the win over the Illini. 

Illinois’ offense looked rough from the start, as running back Mike Epstein fumbled on the second play of the game in Wisconsin territory. This led to a Wisconsin touchdown on a pass from Mertz to FB Mason Stokke to give the Badgers a 7-0 lead, and that was the score after one quarter. Illinois QB Brandon Peters also looked like he was not seeing the field very well, as he was 8 for 19 passing with 87 yards. But he did finish as the game’s leading rusher surprisingly with 75 yards on seven attempts.

In the second quarter is when a lot of the scoring came out. Mertz threw his second touchdown of the game to TE Jake Ferguson, the first of three for the hometown kid. The next drive resulted in an Illinois punt, but Ferguson fumbled the ball and Illinois got a scoop-and-score from LB Tarique Barnes to cut the score to 14-7. This ended up being the only touchdown the Illini would score all game.

The next drive led to Ferguson’s second touchdown from Mertz to make the score 21-7. Once again, the Illini looked lost on offense on the next drive, as they went three and out to give the Badgers one last possession with 36 seconds left in the half. On the first play of the drive, Mertz threw it to a wide open Danny Davis down the field for a 53-yard touchdown to give the Badgers a 28-7 lead at the half. Mertz finished the first half a perfect 14 of 14, passing for 190 yards and four touchdowns.

The third quarter went by rather fast and was very quiet, with no scoring as the score held true to 28-7 heading into the fourth quarter. Three minutes into the fourth, however, FB John Chenal punched it in from two yards out to push the lead to 35-7. And the Badgers just kept on rolling and never missed their stride in the fourth as Ferguson went on to catch his third touchdown of the night and kicker Colin Larsh hit a 19-yard field goal to nail in a 45-7 win to start the year.

Mertz finished the game going 20-for-21 passing with 248 yards and five touchdowns. He broke the school record for completion percentage in one game with 95.2 percent. He also tied two records with consecutive completed passes in a game (17) and also the single game touchdown passes (5).

Illinois (0-1) looks to bounce back from the loss when they travel back home to play Purdue at 11 a.m. on Halloween. As for Wisconsin (1-0), they hope to see Mertz replicate his performance as they travel to Nebraska to take on Scott Frost and the Huskers at 2:30 p.m.