Graham Mertz set the Wisconsin football world on fire in October of 2020. Completing all but one pass, and throwing five touchdowns in your debut performance will do just that. The Wisconsin Badgers had their quarterback.
Then chaos hit. Covid-19, in the midst of another spike, struck the Badgers football program. Mertz and dozens of other players and staff were forced to quarantine for multiple weeks. As a result, the Badger’s promising start was put on an immediate hiatus.
However, that didn’t stop Paul Chryst’s group from pummeling the Michigan Wolverines 49-11 upon their return, in Ann Arbor. The Badgers continued to fly high, though attrition from a depleted group became noticeable quite quickly. Injuries piled up. A young team became even more inexperienced. And it showed.
Missing many offensive starters and key contributors, the Badgers mustered just 20 points in the next three games combined. 20 points. In three games. Key skill players like Kendric Pryor, Danny Davis III, and Jalen Berger were unavailable, and the offense had no answer. Mertz was left with no help other than tight end Jake Ferguson. With that, the young quarterback lost confidence quickly. A nonexistent running game coupled with unproven receivers who can’t get open is just asking for a disaster with an inexperienced quarterback at the helm. Even with it being as talented as Mertz is.
He struggled. Following the victory at Michigan, he would throw more interceptions (5) than touchdowns (2). Albeit, a depleted offense facing some of the best defenses in the Big Ten in Northwestern, Indiana, and Iowa. Even to a neutral observer, they could see the talented Mertz was dealt as unlucky a hand as any young quarterback could be given.
When given some time to regroup for the bowl game, Mertz made it count. In a 42-28 shootout with Wake Forest in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, he accounted for three touchdowns, no turnovers, and rediscovered confidence.
That confidence has led him into a leadership role in a crucial offseason for the program. Looking for a resurgent season after the rollercoaster that was 2020, Mertz has taken the mantle. The next step is to put it out onto the field. Top receivers Davis and Pryor return alongside the aforementioned Ferguson. Couple that with rising sophomore receiver Chimere Dike, and the Badgers could be potent in the air. Add in the return of the ultra-talented sophomore running back that is Jalen Berger, along with an experienced and deep offensive line unit, and this offense could take off under Mertz. That’s without even mentioning Clemson transfer Chez Mellusi who announced last month his commitment to the Badgers.
This confidence will be key at not only growing but maintaining throughout the grueling Big Ten season.
What This Means for 2021
Mertz and company return to the field in September with a strong test. The Penn State Nittany Lions, who are coming off their own lackluster season is in Madison week one to kickstart the campaign. Add in Michigan, as well as Notre Dame in weeks three and four, and that is a very difficult start to the season. We’ll know quickly if this offense, and Graham Mertz, are capable of making the jump from last season.
With that being said.
He has the talent. The confidence. The leadership. This combination mixed in with his work ethic is worthy of creating a star quarterback in Madison. Add that in with the return of key playmakers like Davis III, Pryor, Ferguson, and Berger, most of whom missed significant time last season, coupled with an experienced offensive line and a growing array of weapons, the second-year starter will have all the tools around him to make 2021 the year of Graham Mertz.