A year after squandering a 13-point second-half lead to Illinois in a stunning loss last season, No. 14 Wisconsin secured revenge in convincing fashion with a 45-7 victory over the Fighting Illini on Friday night in the first Big Ten football game of the season. Led by a nearly perfect effort from redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz, the Badgers dominated the game in all facets.
Mertz tied a school record by completing 17 straight passes as he became the first Wisconsin freshman to start at quarterback in a season-opener since 1978. In the end, he finished 20-of-21 passing for 248 yards and five touchdowns while filling in for injured incumbent starter Jack Coan. Mertz tossed four of his touchdowns during a 14-for-14 first half as he offered a clear illustration of why he was considered the No. 3 pro-style quarterback in the 2019 recruiting class by the 247Sports Composite rankings.
The Badgers defense also looked like one of the best in the country again as it held Illinois to just 218 yards. Illinois’ only score of the game came on defense, when Tarique Barnes ran a Wisconsin fumble back 39 yards for a touchdown with 3:22 left in the first half. It was a fitting score for Illinois, which tied for first in the nation last season in defensive touchdowns, and it cut the Illini’s deficit to 14-7 at the time.
But it was merely one of few bright spots for Illinois on Friday. Things started poorly for the Illini when running back Mike Epstein fumbled on Illinois’ second offensive play of the game, setting up Wisconsin with a short field. The Badgers took advantage, as Mertz hit fullback Mason Stokke for a 10-yard touchdown pass to cap a six-play, 33-yard drive.
The Illinois defense played with a shorthanded linebacker group in the first half. Star senior Jake Hansen left the game late in the first quarter after appearing woozy following a tackle. His injury left the Illini down two starters at the position as fellow Milo Eifler sat out the first half as punishment for a targeting penalty from Illinois’ bowl game.
Mertz took advantage. He closed the first half with a pair of touchdown strikes to give Wisconsin a 28-7 lead entering the break. Unlike last season when it lost to Illinois as a 31-point favorite, the Badgers put on more steam in the second half this time. Wisconsin dominated time of possession by controlling the ball for more than 43 minutes. The Badgers gave three players double-digit carries, showing that replacing All-American running back Jonathan Taylor will be a group effort and a work-in-progress.
Wisconsin will travel to Nebraska next week, while Illinois returns home to Champaign where it’ll host Purdue.