The Wisconsin Badgers suffered a tough loss in their 2021 season opener against Penn State at Camp Randall Stadium. The 12th ranked Badgers and 19th ranked Nittany Lions entered the contest knowing it would be a battle from beginning to end. That was certainly the case Saturday afternoon in Madison.
Blown coverage on defense, sloppy fumbles on offense, and poor quarterback play from Graham Mertz were all significant factors in UW falling to 0-1 to start the year.
While mistakes are part of the game and are to be expected, especially during the first contest of the season, QB Graham Mertz particularly struggled against the Nittany Lions — for the duration of the game.
Mertz, a redshirt sophomore, came to Madison as the highest ranked QB in program history. One of UW’s most hyped recruits, Mertz had high expectations placed on him before he even stepped foot on campus, and they’ve only continued to grow.
Mertz certainly did not live up to expectations in Saturday’s season opener. He completed 22 of 37 passes for 185 yards with no touchdowns and two fourth quarter interceptions. He and his running backs muffed multiple handoffs that resulted in fumbles and lost yards. Mertz’s mistakes came while UW was threatening to score. He looked sloppy, rattled, and imprecise throughout the game.
Mertz’s poor play against the Nittany Lions had a lot of people sounding off. Some said his 20/21 completion and 5 touchdown performance in his first career start against Illinois last season was an anomaly. Others said they wished Wisconsin had stuck with Jack Coan over Mertz.
Did COVID-19 Have a Lingering Effect on Mertz Against Penn State?
Whatever your views, I think it’s important to remember one thing in particular about Mertz: Saturday’s game was his first TRUE home game.
While Mertz played at Camp Randall during his true freshman season in 2019, he was only under center at the end of some games when Wisconsin had huge leads. In 2020 as the starter, Mertz played in games with little to no fans due to COVID-19 precautions and restrictions.
I understand Mertz is in the same position as every other player in the country. He had a normal offseason to prepare for this season, and still played poorly today. There are no excuses. Mertz acknowledged after the game that he has to play better going forward.
I do believe Mertz will be better down the road. The first one is always the hardest, and luckily for Mertz, his (real) first one is out of the way.
Remember, Badger fans: Playing in front of 80,000+ fans and having the game in your hands in that atmosphere is a lot different than playing in front of cardboard cutouts. Mertz was under a lot of pressure. As much as one can prepare, there’s always going to be nerves and butterflies that can affect your game, especially your first true home game.
Don’t panic yet. Let the nerves settle and be optimistic. There’s still a long way to go and a lot of time for Mertz to redeem himself!
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