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Graham Mertz Makes Wisconsin Legitimate Threat In Big Ten

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Jonathan Taylor rushed for over 6,000 yards and 50 touchdowns during his career at Wisconsin. His 926 career rushing attempts in three seasons meant he was the clear focal-point of the offense. With Taylor now in the NFL, this is not the same Wisconsin team.

In fact, it is the exact opposite offensively. The trio of Garrett Groshek, Nikia Watson and Isaac Guerendo still combined for 30-plus carries in Wisconsin’s first game, but this is an offense that is now built around its quarterback.

His name is Graham Mertz, and people around college football need to get familiar with him.

On Friday night, the redshirt freshman helped lead his team to a 45-7 victory over the Illinois Fighting Illini to open the Big Ten’s season. Mertz was near-perfect through his first four quarters as the starter with only one incomplete pass.

He completed 20 of his 21 pass attempts (95.2 percent) for 248 yards and five touchdowns while producing zero turnovers. He tied a school record for most consecutive completed pass attempts with 17 (Tanner McEvoy in 2014), and in the process, he proved that Wisconsin is a legitimate contender in the Big Ten.

Yes, the Illinois defense is terrible. And yes, receivers and tight ends were wide open on a majority of the throws. But Mertz was efficient and effective during his first ever start. He threw with confidence and accuracy, regardless of the opponent.

Jake Ferguson was Mertz’s favorite target on the night. The junior tight end hauled in seven of the 20 completed passes for 72 yards and three of the five touchdowns, including this 14-yard score before halftime:

Mertz almost has a cocky nature about him, and he has good reason to. This is as good of a debut performance as Mertz or anyone surrounding the Wisconsin football program could’ve asked for — and yes, we are still acknowledging the opponent.

The Badgers came into the game as the No. 14 ranked team in the country. And it wouldn’t be a shock to see them move up. In order to win in today’s college football, you have to field a top-notch quarterback who can threaten defenses anytime he steps on the field.

Mertz is that guy.

According to the 247Sports composite rankings, he was a four-star prospect from Mission, Kan. He was also rated as the No. 65 overall prospect, No. 3 pro-style quarterback and No. 1 player from the state of Kansas.

Storied programs such as Alabama, Clemson and Georgia were hard after the gun-slinger, and now we know why. It makes one wonder why Mertz wasn’t already the guy. It took a foot injury to starter Jack Coan, who is now out indefinitely, for the team to turn to Mertz.

Coan isn’t a terrible option either. He completed close to 70 percent of his passes last season while throwing for 2,727 yards and 18 touchdowns to only five interceptions. But at no point did he command attention from opposing defenses like we saw with Mertz tonight.

There are always overreactions to performances like the one Mertz had on Friday. And that will continue to hold true here. If the new starter continues to play at this level — or even close to it — Wisconsin will be in a position to compete for a Big Ten West title — and maybe even the Big Ten.

It’s certainly fortunate for the Badgers to avoid Ohio State and Penn State from the East during the regular season. Do we have an epic Big Ten game brewing for December? We’re certainly off to a good start.

Follow Clint Lamb on Twitter @ClintRLamb.

Written by Clint Lamb

Clint Lamb is a College Football Writer for OutKick. Managing Editor for Roll Tide Wire. Sports radio host for The Bullpen on 730/103.9 The UMP. Co-host for The 'Bama Beat podcast through The Tuscaloosa News and TideSports.com.

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