MADISON, Wis. – Graham Mertz threw five touchdown passes to match the Wisconsin record in a commanding first career start and the No.14 Badgers beat Illinois 45-7 on Friday night to open the pandemic-delayed Big Ten football season.
Mertz set a school record for completion percentage on 20-for-21 passing, finishing with 248 yards. The lone incompletion was a pass that running back Garrett Groshek dropped midway through the third quarter.
"The kid's definitely smooth," said tight end Jake Ferguson, who caught three touchdown passes. "He was smiling cheek to cheek after the first touchdown. He knew, and everybody in that huddle knew, we were rolling."
"It was definitely fun," Mertz said.
The redshirt freshman quarterback delivered a buzzworthy performance during the Big Ten's long-awaited opening night. The conference announced Aug. 11 that it would postpone all fall sports until the spring because of the coronavirus pandemic, then reversed itself Sept. 16 by saying it would begin the season in mid-October.
While most other conferences began playing last month in front of partly filled stadiums, Wisconsin had cutouts in the stands and piped-in crowd noise Friday as it began its nine-game schedule.
"No doubt it was different, but nonetheless it was fun," Badgers coach Paul Chryst said.
The unusual circumstances meant there were no fans jumping around when Wisconsin continued its tradition of playing House of Pain's "Jump Around" before the fourth quarter, and there were no spectators cheering as Mertz starred.
Mertz became the first-team quarterback after returning starter Jack Coan underwent foot surgery on Oct. 7, leaving him out indefinitely.