Wisconsin vs Illinois score: Graham Mertz has breakout performance as No.14 Badgers roll in Big Ten game opener

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A year after wasting a 13-point second-half lead against Illinois in a stunning loss, the No.14 Wisconsin got a convincing revenge with a 45-7 win over the Fighting Illini on Friday evening during the first Big Ten football game of the season. Led by a near perfect effort from red-shirted first-year quarterback Graham Mertz, the Badgers dominated the game in every facet.Mertz tied a school record by completing 17 consecutive assists as he became the first Wisconsin freshman to start as a quarterback in a season opener since 1978. In the end, he finished 20 out of 21 passes for 248 yards and five touchdowns while filling in for injured outgoing starter Jack Coan. Mertz threw four of his touchdowns in a 14-for-14 first half as he offered a clear illustration of why he was considered the No.3 pro-style quarterback in the class. recruitment 2019 by the 247Sports Composite ranking.

The Badgers’ defense looked like one of the best in the country again, as it kept Illinois at just 218 yards. Illinois’ lone score in the game came on defense, when Tarique Barnes netted a Wisconsin 39-yard fumble for a touchdown with 3:22 left in the first half. It was an appropriate score for Illinois, which tied for first in the nation last season in defensive touchdowns, and he reduced Illini’s deficit to 14-7 at the time.

But that was just one of the few bright spots for Illinois on Friday. Things got off to a bad start for the Illini when running back Mike Epstein groped Illinois’ second offensive play, setting up Wisconsin with short ground. The Badgers took advantage, as Mertz hit back Mason Stokke for a 10-yard touchdown pass to cap a six-game, 33-yard practice.

The Illinois defense played with a shorthanded linebacker in the first period. Senior star Jake Hansen left the game at the end of the first quarter after looking giddy after a tackle. His injury left the Illini losing two starters at the post as compatriot Milo Eifler was out of the first half as punishment for a targeting penalty from the Illinois bowling game.

Mertz took advantage of it. He closed the first half with a pair of touchdowns to give Wisconsin a 28-7 lead entering the break. Unlike last season when they lost to Illinois as a 31-point favorite, the Badgers put on more vigor in the second half this time around. Wisconsin dominated possession time controlling the ball for over 43 minutes. The Badgers have given three players double-digit ranges, showing that replacing All-American running back Jonathan Taylor will be a group effort and a work in progress.

Wisconsin will travel to Nebraska next week, while Illinois will return home to Champaign where they will host Purdue.

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