CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The Wisconsin quarterback displayed toughness, perseverance and heart throughout a grueling week of practice, and it paid off.
Graham Mertz injured his ribs and was sent to the hospital during the loss to Michigan. It was doubtful if he would even suit up against Illinois. However, Mertz didn’t let those setbacks keep him out of the starting lineup, and he led the Badgers to a 24-0 road win over the Fighting Illini.
It was the first time this season that the Kansas native looked comfortable in the pocket against a Big Ten opponent. He was proud of the Badgers effort on offense and the way they executed plays.
“Those guys just battled the entire day, the offensive line was blocking out of their minds, running backs were running hard and finishing,” Mertz said. “I’m just proud of them because one thing we really emphasized this week was finishing every single play in practice.”
Wisconsin’s offense finished with 491 total yards, which was the most the unit has produced in Big Ten play this fall. It helped Mertz that the Badgers had two rushers eclipse the century mark in rushing. Besides an interception he threw in the second quarter, Graham had a solid performance, with 100 yards through the air.
The former four-star prospect was glad the offense was finally able to help the defense out. Everyone was on the same page and was able to feed off each other. And by working together with a complete team effort, the Badgers earned their first shutout victory since October of 2019.
Mertz looked poised and had complete command of the offense, but a lot went into his preparation for the matchup.
“I had to do a lot of stuff to my ribs, just treatment everyday, numbing patches, heating packs, having extra protection on,” he said. “I had a lot of stuff to do throughout the week just to be ready to go, but it was good and I feel good.”
During pregame he was out on the field working up a sweat. It’s something new the six-foot-three, 227-pounder been doing this season, and he loves getting the adrenaline going once he’s in his game mode. Mertz truly believes a light bulb came on with the team after the clash with the Wolverines.
He’s encouraged by how the Badgers responded to adversity. Now the team has a breath of fresh air, considering there’s still a lot of football left to be played. Wisconsin (2-3) will play its’ last non-conference game against Army (4-1) this Saturday at Camp Randall.
Mertz is trying to keep the momentum going. His toughness has made his teammates rally behind him. And in his eyes, the best is yet to come. The schedule softens up down the stretch, which should benefit the Badgers. Mertz just wants to continue to improve, and most importantly, stay healthy.
There appears to be some light down the end of the tunnel for the embattled signal-caller, and he’s doesn’t want to disappoint his teammates, coaches or the fans.
“I just got to keep building, keep giving guys a chance to go make a play and putting the ball in their hands.”