Graham Mertz and No. 14 Wisconsin rout Illinois, 45-7, in the Big Ten season opener

·3 min read

MADISON, Wis. — The cheers at Camp Randall Stadium were phony, piped in through the sound system from a track the Big Ten provided.

The empty stands didn’t shake when Wisconsin played “Jump Around.”

No brats were on the tailgate grills before the game and no beer cans cheered in the campus parking lots.

Nothing looked the same in this pandemic-era of Big Ten football.

But No. 14 Wisconsin looked as authentic as ever in the long-awaited return to Midwest college football while Illinois looked as if it needed even more time to prepare.

Illinois didn’t help provide a banner night for the conference in its season opener Friday night — delayed by nearly two months after the conference waffled about how to handle COVID-19 — with a 45-7 loss.

The Illini had chaffed earlier this week about a betting line that pegged the team as 20-point underdogs. It turned out it wasn’t enough.

Just a year ago, the Illini staged one of last season’s most surprising upsets with a one-point win as time expired against the then-No. 6 Badgers at Memorial Stadium.

In the longing for normalcy across a pandemic-plagued nation, the Badgers produced Friday night.

They beat Illinois for an eighth straight time at Camp Randall, even as the notoriously raucous stadium stands were empty. Wisconsin forbade even family members from attending as the state’s COVID-19 positivity rate and hospitalizations rose to dangerous levels.

Badgers and Illini fans watching from bars, dorms and homes — everywhere but the stadium — were left talking about Wisconsin’s lauded redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz. Wisconsin’s highest-rated quarterback recruit exceeded expectations.

In his collegiate debut, he finished 20-of-21 passing for 248 yards and five touchdowns, three to tight end Jake Ferguson.

By halftime, Mertz had completed all 14 of his passes for 190 yards and four touchdowns. By the third quarter, he tied a school record with 17 consecutive completions.

Illinois senior quarterback Brandon Peters was in a shell. He went 8 for 19 for 87 yards.

His two 30-yard runs in the first half were the only positives as Illinois fell behind 28-7. Peters looked almost exclusively at receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe and completed only 5 of 12 passes for 30 yards before the half.

The Illinois offense stalled from start to finish. An experienced veteran line offered little protection.

Wisconsin outgained the Illini 430 yards to 221.

Illinois’ only score came on a recovered fumble and 39-yard dash to the end zone from Tarique Barnes.

Wisconsin answered quickly with two touchdown passes from Mertz in the final 1 minute, 6 before halftime, hitting Ferguson for a 14-yard strike and zipping it 53-yards to Danny Davis.

Illinois showed signs it was in for a shaky start when running back Mike Epstein fumbled on the second play of the game, helping set up a 10-yard touchdown catch by Mason Stokke for a 7-0 lead. The Badgers went ahead 14-0 with a 5-yard Ferguson TD catch.

Illinois was without Jake Hansen for the second half. He left the game following a hit to the head and appeared woozy on the field.

Wisconsin added two more touchdowns in the fourth quarter: a 2-yard John Chenal touchdown run and a 3-yard touchdown throw from Mertz to Ferguson for a 42-7 lead. A late Collin Larsh 21-yard field goal capped the scoring.

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