Graham Mertz and No. 14 Wisconsin rout Illinois, 45-7, in the Big Ten season opener
MADISON, Wisconsin - The cheering at Camp Randall Stadium was bogus and was blasted through the sound system by a track the Big Ten provided.
The empty booths didn't tremble as Wisconsin played Jump Around.
Before the game, there were no brats on the tailgate grills and no beer cans cheering in the campus parking lots.
In this Big Ten football pandemic, nothing looked like it did before.
But No. 14 Wisconsin looked as authentic as ever on the long-awaited return to college football in the Midwest, while Illinois looked like it needed more preparation time.
Illinois didn't help provide a banner evening for the conference at the season opener on Friday evening - delayed by nearly two months after the conference waved about how to deal with COVID-19 - with a 45-7 loss.
The Illinois trooped a betting line earlier this week that the team described as a 20-point underdog. It turned out that it wasn't enough.
A year ago, the Illinois club had one of the most surprising surprises of the last season with a 1-point win when the time against the number at the time was up. 6 Badger at Memorial Stadium.
Longing for normalcy in a pandemic-ridden nation, the Badgers produced Friday evenings.
They defeated Illinois for the eighth time in a row at Camp Randall, despite the notoriously noisy stadium booths being empty. Wisconsin even banned family members from attending as the state's COVID-19 positivity rate and hospital admissions rose to dangerous levels.
Badger and Illinois fans watching from bars, dormitories, and homes - everywhere but the stadium - talked about Wisconsin's lauded Redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz. Wisconsin's top-rated quarterback recruit exceeded expectations.
On his college debut, he finished the 20-of-21 game for 248 yards and five touchdowns, three for Jake Ferguson.
At halftime, Mertz had completed all 14 of his passes for 190 yards and four touchdowns. By the third quarter he set a school record with 17 consecutive degrees.
Illinois senior quarterback Brandon Peters was in a clam. He went 8 for 19 for 87 yards.
His two 30-yard runs in the first half were the only positive results as Illinois fell 28-7. Peters looked almost exclusively at receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe and only completed 5 of 12 passes for 30 yards before halfway.
The Illinois crime stayed from start to finish. An experienced veteran line offered little protection.
Wisconsin outperformed the Illinois 430 yards to 221.
The only score in Illinois was scored by Tarique Barnes with a relaxed fumble and a shot from 39 yards to the end zone.
Wisconsin responded quickly with two touchdown passes from Mertz in the final 1 minute, 6 before halftime, hitting Ferguson for a 14 yard hit and zipping it 53 yards at Danny Davis.
Illinois showed signs of a shaky start when Mike Epstein fumbled back on game two and helped set up a 10-yard touchdown catch from Mason Stokke for a 7-0 lead. The Badgers took a 14-0 lead with a 5-yard Ferguson TD catch.
Illinois was without Jake Hansen in the second half. He left the game after being hit to the head and looking dazed on the field.
Wisconsin added two more touchdowns in the fourth quarter: a 2-yard touchdown run from John Chenal and a 3-yard touchdown throw from Mertz to Ferguson for a 42-7 lead. A late 21-yard field goal from Collin Larsh crowned the score.
© 2020 Chicago Tribune
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Click to receive the most important news as a notification!
Kristen Wiig Is a Mom of 2! Here’s What We Know About Her Family
Vikings OC Gary Kubiak says Dalvin Cook has been ‘beat up’ last couple of weeks
California Governor Offers New COVID-19 Relief Package for Small Businesses — What’s In It
Nico Mannion rejected a couple of teams to land with Warriors
Barr’s future in doubt after Giuliani and Trump campaign blast him for denying widespread election fraud
'A baby-selling enterprise': Former Arizona elected official sentenced to 6-plus years in adoption scheme