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Freshman QB Leads Badgers To Big Win At Empty Camp Randall

Mertz Threw 4 TDs, Completed 20-21 Passes In First Start

Graham Mertz
Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz throws a pass during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Illinois Friday, Oct. 23, 2020, in Madison, Wis. Morry Gash/AP Photo

Wisconsin got its revenge Friday night.

Last year, the Illinois Fighting Illini beat the Badgers in one of the biggest upsets of the college football season. But Wisconsin dominated the rematch on Friday. In the Big Ten’s first football game amid the pandemic, Wisconsin beat Illinois, 45-7.

The Illini fumbled on their second play from scrimmage, and the No. 14 Badgers recovered.

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Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz throws a pass during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Illinois Friday, Oct. 23, 2020, in Madison, Wis. Morry Gash/AP Photo

From the start, head coach Paul Chryst showed faith in redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz, turning to him on third-and-7 in the red zone. Mertz completed a touchdown pass to senior fullback Mason Stokke to give the Badgers a 7-0 lead.

Late in the first quarter, Badgers running back Nakia Watson converted on fourth-and-1 near midfield. After six consecutive runs, Mertz connected with tight end Jake Ferguson to put the Badgers up, 14-0.

Illinois got on the board with just 3 minutes left in the first half when defensive back Sydney Brown recovered a Ferguson fumble and returned it 38 yards for a touchdown.

But then Wisconsin broke away. On the ensuing drive, Mertz completed two long passes to Ferguson, including a 14-yard touchdown, putting the Badgers ahead, 21-7. The freshman quarterback closed the first half with another touchdown pass — this time for 54 yards — to wide receiver Danny Davis.

Isaac Guerendo
Wisconsin running back Isaac Guerendo tries to get away from Illinois defensive back Tony Adams during the second half of an NCAA college football game Friday, Oct. 23, 2020, in Madison, Wis. Wisconsin won, 45-7. Morry Gash/AP Photo

After a scoreless third quarter, Wisconsin got its run game going. Fullback John Chenal closed out a 10-play, 66-yard drive with a 2-yard touchdown run. On the next drive, Mertz and Ferguson connected for another touchdown, and the Badgers weren’t done yet. Freshman Titus Toler had the only interception of the game deep in Illini territory, and the Badgers tacked on a field goal.

Mertz was stellar Friday, but it wasn’t always certain he’d start. Last year, the Badgers were led by senior Jack Coan, who recently injured his foot in practice. Coan is out indefinitely, but his replacement comes hotly recruited. Mertz received offers to play at Alabama and Clemson.

Wisconsin will face stronger defenses as the season continues, but Mertz played Friday with the confidence of an elite college quarterback. He completed 20-21 passes.

Wisconsin’s defense gave up no points.

The Badgers looked strong Friday, but for a while it seemed like Wisconsin fans might have nothing to celebrate. The Big Ten canceled fall football over coronavirus concerns in August but reversed the decision weeks later. Member schools are playing a conference-only schedule, though they’re eligible for postseason play.

Fans Couldn’t Attend Camp Randall Game

It was an opening day like no other at Camp Randall Stadium.

five students play a drinking game in a yard while wearing badgers gear
UW-Madison students play a game in the front lawn of a house on Lathrop Street on Friday, Oct. 23, 2020, before the Badgers’ first football game of the season. Angela Major/WPR
girls stand in front of a sign at Camp Randall in badgers gear and sunglasses
Olivia Smrz, left, and Teresa Hartman, right, laugh while taking photos near Camp Randall Stadium before the Badgers’ first football game of the season Friday, Oct. 23, 2020, in Madison. Angela Major/WPR

Attendance was limited to essential personnel, who receive almost daily antigen testing for COVID-19. Although there were no fans in the stands, things sounded pretty normal on the television broadcast thanks to piped-in sound.

Parking lots on campus were closed Friday night to prevent tailgating.

A few fans in Badgers gear took photos near the stadium, including Teresa Hartman and Olivia Smrz. The freshmen agreed it isn’t exactly how they pictured their first game as students. Smrz had been looking forward to joining in on “Jump Around” at Camp Randall, she said.

“We’ll have to do it in our apartment,” she said.

two students throw bags outdoors on a lawn
UW-Madison students Connor Link, right, and Prasoon Sinha, left, play cornhole outside of a house on Lathrop Street near Camp Randall Stadium on Friday, Oct. 23, 2020, before the Badgers’ game against Illinois. No fans were allowed in the stadium. Angela Major/WPR

Closer to game time, there were police in the area to discourage people from gathering. An officer stopped to check on a group outside a house on Lathrop Street. It was junior engineering student Connor Link playing cornhole with his five roommates. Normally, they’d be at the stadium, he said.

“We understand we all have to be flexible during this time,” Link said.