PISCATAWAY, N.J. — There still were 6 minutes, 44 seconds remaining in the third quarter when Graham Mertz took the headset from backup Chase Wolf, an indication that the starting quarterback's day was finished and it was time for the backup to get some snaps.
This was a handoff made out of convenience, not necessity. It seems like an eternity ago that my inbox and Twitter feed were filling with fans begging for an ineffective Mertz to be replaced by Wolf, but it really was only about a month ago.
That seemed like it'd be a panic move at the time and University of Wisconsin football coach Paul Chryst apparently agreed. He stuck with Mertz and never publicly let on that he'd even considered making a switch.
After putting on the headset early Saturday, Nov. 6, at SHI Stadium, Mertz walked over to Chryst and the two exchanged a fist bump. Mertz had thrown for 240 yards by that point, matching his season high, and the Badgers were well on their way to a 52-3 victory over Rutgers that moved them into a tie for first place in the Big Ten West and made UW bowl eligible for a 20th consecutive season.
Neither of those things seemed plausible back in early October when the Badgers sat at 1-3 overall and 0-2 in Big Ten play, but now they've won five games in a row and seem to be gaining steam as they enter the stretch run. This victory wasn't UW's most impressive of the season because of the yeah-but-it's-only-Rutgers tag that needs to be attached to it, but it was the most complete because of what it got from Mertz and the passing game.
Mertz completed 11 of 16 passes and finished with three touchdowns through the air, matching his season total entering the game. He averaged 21.8 yards per completion, with eight passes of 15 yards or longer in that mix. His pass efficiency rating: a robust 244.1.
Mertz has talked for weeks about getting 1% better every day, and he used that line again Saturday inside a cramped interview room. But this felt like more than a tiny improvement to me, and Mertz agreed.
"Oh yeah," he said. "You take jumps. Sometimes you get a little bigger than 1%."
It wasn't a perfect performance from Mertz — we'll get to that in a bit — but it was as good as he's been since that sparkling starting debut in the 2020 season opener against Illinois. It was particularly encouraging because UW lost starting tailback Chez Mellusi to a left leg injury during the game and may need more out of its passing game going forward.
There have been hints of this coming, with a 10-for-12 start against Iowa last week being the the most recent example, but Mertz never has been able to put it together for a full game.
This one wasn't quite a complete performance either because of the way it started. Mertz threw into double coverage on UW's opening possession and it resulted in his eighth interception of the season. An argument could be made that Rutgers should have been flagged for interfering with intended target Jake Ferguson, but that doesn't excuse a bad decision by Mertz. Had Mertz not been locked in on Ferguson, he would have seen that Chimere Dike had beaten his man over the middle.
There was another missed opportunity in the second quarter when a throw to Braelon Allen in the flat was off the mark on third-and-2 from the Rutgers 11. Had the pass been thrown crisper and hit Allen in stride, the freshman tailback could have gotten a first down to extend the drive; UW instead had to settle for a field goal.
To Mertz's credit, he didn't dwell on mistakes. He learned from them, flushed them out of his system and moved on to the next play or series. His next throw after the incompletion to Allen was a 24-yard strike to Kendric Pryor off a play-action fake to open a series that ended with Mertz finding John Chenal for a 1-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-goal.
"He never wavered," UW senior wide receiver Danny Davis said. "He stayed true to himself, stayed true to the team and that's great. I applaud him for that. I know it's not easy, especially being a quarterback and being blamed for a lot of different things."
Oh, there's been plenty of blame. Some of it has been deserved — sharp criticism for his turnovers and overall uneven play — but there's also been a nastiness on social media that's immature and unnecessary. Mertz is the quarterback of a big-time college football team, so he understands there's going to be scrutiny. It's also important to remember he's also only 20 years old, a third-year sophomore not even halfway through his college eligibility timeline.
Mertz said some people got hold of his phone number last season, so he switched to a different number. It happened again this season and he called another audible, adding another phone and keeping that number private for now. It's made avoiding negativity easier for him.
Through all the difficulties over the past two seasons, one impressive part about Mertz is that he continued to show up to face the questions after every game and the Monday weekly media availability that follows. As bad as it got, he was never a no-show. He stuck it out through every question.
It also was noticeable Saturday when he quickly turned the focus to his teammates after his best performance of the season.
"Guys are truly putting it out there during the week," he said. "We see the work that everybody puts in and it's getting to a special place, so we've got to keep building on it."
What Mertz and the Badgers were Saturday was what Pryor said afterward was "the dangerous team that I've been talking about (since) camp." Indeed, it was all clicking as UW finished with at least 250 yards passing and 250 yards rushing for the first time in Big Ten play since doing it against Indiana in 2010.
There was balance within the passing game as well, with Mertz's top four targets finishing with at least 40 yards receiving. Best of all, there were explosive plays: Pryor winning a one-on-one battle for a 25-yard touchdown was one, Davis turning a short pass into a 72-yard score was another. There was solid pass protection, which hasn't been the case for a good chunk of the season.
And there was a quarterback, saying once again that he's "trusting my journey." It's been quite a trip so far, mostly bumpy. But it was mostly smooth sailing Saturday, and Mertz could take in the sights and sounds for the final 1 1/2 quarters knowing the ship was headed in the right direction.
Contact Jim Polzin at email@example.com.
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