Football: Mertz shines, while Northwestern quarterbacks struggle, in No. 18 Wisconsin’s 35-7 win


Carly Schulman/Daily Senior Staffer

Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz hands the ball off. He threw for 216 yards and two touchdowns in the Badgers’ 35-7 win over Northwestern.

Drew Schott, Gameday Editor


MADISON, Wis. — Last November, Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz came into Ryan Field as one of the Big Ten’s best signal callers.

Having thrown for a combined 375 yards and seven touchdowns in his previous two games, Mertz’s season, as well as the Badgers’, changed that night. Mertz threw for 230 yards and a touchdown, but tossed three interceptions and lost a fumble in then-No. 10 Wisconsin’s 17-7 upset loss to then-No. 19 Northwestern.

On Saturday, the Kansas native and former four-star recruit re-introduced himself to the Wildcats, tossing for 216 yards, two touchdowns and an interception on 18 of 23 passes in the No. 18 Badgers’ (7-3, 5-2 Big Ten) 35-7 win over NU (3-7, 1-6). While Wisconsin’s ground game led the way with 268 yards, Mertz’s consistency helped the Badgers win their sixth straight and stay in the driver’s seat for the Big Ten West title.

“I thought he took the matchups that he liked and they won,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “The ones that he took and he got, congratulations to him. He had a good game today.”

It was a different story for the Cats’ signal-callers. Making his third career start, Andrew Marty struggled, throwing for just 100 yards and three interceptions, including one in the end zone. Despite some success at tossing the deep ball and making plays with his feet, the senior struggled to find gaps in the Wisconsin defense and was sacked twice.

Marty was replaced by sophomore Ryan Hilinski— the quarterback Marty relieved in NU’s loss to Minnesota two weeks ago — near the end of the third quarter. The South Carolina transfer passed for just 25 yards and an interception after he entered the game with the Cats down by five touchdowns.

Fitzgerald credited Marty’s turnovers as part of the reason he decided to put Hilinski in the game. He added that preventing miscues is a key part of the quarterback position and that the Cats’ signal-callers need to improve on that aspect of their game.

“I felt like getting him some reps would be great and then also getting Andrew out and (settling) him down a little bit,” Fitzgerald said. “He and I, I thought, had a really good talk after we put Ryan back in.”

Together, the two combined for 125 yards and four interceptions, raising immediate questions about the future at quarterback for NU.

Since losing quarterback Peyton Ramsey — who threw for 203 yards and two touchdowns against the Badgers last season — to the NFL Draft, the Cats have yet to find consistency under center in the 2021 season.

NU has rotated through three quarterbacks — Hilinski, Marty and senior Hunter Johnson — since the start of the season. They have combined for 1,827 yards, 12 touchdowns and 12 interceptions across 10 games. For perspective, Ramsey threw for 1,733 yards, 12 scores and eight picks in nine contests.

Meanwhile, Mertz’s job was in jeopardy after he threw four interceptions in a loss to Notre Dame. Yet he has been on a tear recently, tossing 240 yards, three touchdowns and an interception in last week’s win against Rutgers before today’s performance.

While running back Braelon Allen — who finished with 173 yards and three touchdowns — led the way early on, Mertz continued the momentum by completing nine straight passes, including a 13-yard strike to wide receiver Danny Davis III to make it 21-0.

Despite throwing an interception to sophomore safety Brandon Joseph right before halftime, Mertz redeemed the turnover by finding tight end Jake Ferguson on an 11-yard score in the third quarter.

“The protection was good today,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. “Guys were running good routes. Graham, I thought he saw things well and for the most part, made good decisions. Bottom line is you gotta execute and they’ve been doing that.”

Meanwhile, Marty orchestrated a promising 82-yard opening drive that ended with an interception in the end zone by cornerback Caesar Williams. He made a few plays, including a 39-yard pass to graduate wide receiver Stephon Robinson Jr. and a 24-yard shot to junior wide receiver Malik Washington. Yet, he was constantly under pressure by Wisconsin’s blistering defense.

Hilinski didn’t fare much better, misfiring on five of his passes, including a pick by linebacker Jordan Turner. Meanwhile, Chase Wolf relieved Mertz late in the game and threw for 13 yards.

Following the game, Fitzgerald credited the Cats’ struggles on first and second down and Wisconsin’s third-and-long defense with stifling the passing attack, while Robinson Jr. commented on the success of the Badgers’ linebackers and blitzing safeties.

After today, uncertainty rather than answers defines the quarterback position. More questions will come in the offseason following Marty and Johnson’s graduation. Will NU stick with Hilinski or another quarterback on the roster or will it find a signal caller in the transfer portal for the third consecutive year?

Robinson Jr. isn’t focusing on this matter. Instead, the Cats’ leading receiver is hoping to help lift the Cats’ offense, no matter who is under center.

“Whoever’s in, that’s who’s in,” Robinson Jr, who finished with 80 receiving yards and 54 rushing yards, said. “I’m gonna try to make a play regardless.”

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