Graham Mertz stood behind a table Monday and fielded question after question about his predecessor.
It’s a natural storyline as the No. 18 University of Wisconsin football team (1-1) heads into Saturday’s marquee matchup against No. 12 Notre Dame (3-0) at Soldier Field in Chicago. Former UW quarterback Jack Coan leads the Irish against Mertz, a UW redshirt sophomore and the man who replaced Coan as the Badgers’ QB after Coan suffered a foot injury during training camp last season.
It’s a dramatic script fueled by fascination with the quarterback position and its importance to a team’s chances of winning games. It has roots in a quarterback controversy that never materialized in reality but never left fans’ minds when Coan was still on the UW roster.
Neither Mertz nor Coan asked for this, but Mertz had to deal with more of it this week after Notre Dame didn’t make Coan available to reporters during their weekly news conferences.
To his credit, Mertz didn’t complain — he was polite in answering questions about Coan, who started 18 games for UW over two seasons. Mertz complimented Coan’s work ethic and the example he set for him and the rest of the quarterback room. For all the comparisons between the two quarterbacks made and asked about this week, Mertz maintained his focus is on his play and where he needs to improve.
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Asked if the attention on the perceived Mertz versus Coan showdown bugged him, he told reporters it’s not as if he and Coan are playing a one-on-one basketball game.
Part of the Coan-Mertz intrigue is that without question Coan has had a better start to the season. Coan has thrown for 828 yards, eight touchdowns and is completing 62.6% of his passes in three games. Mertz has 326 yards, no touchdowns, two picks and is completing 66.7% of his passes, though his stat line would look better had one touchdown pass not been called back by a penalty and another dropped in the end zone against Eastern Michigan.
That slow start is something Mertz hopes to shake this week against the Irish’s solid defense.
“The big thing is just trusting the game plan, trusting the progression, trusting your film study,” Mertz said. “Truly trust in what you see and just keep working through stuff when you need to.”
Handling the noise
UW coach Paul Chryst and his players emphasized repeatedly that Saturday’s game is about two good teams facing one another, not the quarterback battle. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has shared similar thoughts this week.
But that doesn’t stop the hype machine. ESPN’s College GameDay and Fox’s Big Noon Kickoff will be broadcasting from areas around Soldier Field, and it’s all but assured that a good bit of the five combined hours of pregame television coverage will be devoted to Mertz and Coan.
To a man, Mertz’s teammates say he hasn’t allowed the circus around him and Coan to obscure his focus this week.
“I see it firsthand, but he’s a great leader,” said Joe Tippmann, UW’s sophomore center and Mertz’s roommate. “He’s always putting the team first. No matter what they’re saying about him, he’s putting his head down and he’s getting ready to play his best game for the team so that we can play our best game.”
Mertz said he’s exchanged a few text messages with Coan since the latter left for Notre Dame, but they haven’t talked much recently. They’re friendly, but maybe not as tight as some of the players Coan shared the UW locker room with for a longer period of time.
UW senior quarterback Danny Vanden Boom came into the Badgers’ program with Coan in the 2017 recruiting class and was one of the UW players who helped Coan move out of Madison this offseason. Vanden Boom hasn’t played much in his Badgers career, but he’s been a valued voice in the quarterback room, helping Mertz learn since his arrival in 2019.
Vanden Boom said he hasn’t seen any change in Mertz this week.
“Graham’s done a nice job of taking care of his business, studying his stuff,” Vanden Boom said. “He’s been in the limelight his whole life. He’s been a highly recruited guy and has had a lot of attention. He’s familiar with criticism, he’s familiar with praise because he’s been on both sides of it.”
Mertz has started every UW game since Coan’s foot injury last fall. Mertz is 5-4 as a starter, with all four losses coming against AP Top 25 teams.
UW’s defensive players — the ones who practice against Mertz each day and who actually will be facing Coan in Chicago — said Mertz has done well ignoring the hype around this game and the opposing quarterback.
“Graham’s handled it just like he has kind of everything — don’t let it get to you,” senior inside linebacker Jack Sanborn said.
“I think he understands the bigger picture and understands the goal of this week, and that’s to go out and play our best ball as a team and win the game. I think he has a good understanding of that, and I don’t think he’s going to have this cloud that.”
Mertz is dying to play better.
It’s evident in his voice as he talks about what he’s working on and what he needs to do on the field. He’s tired of not playing up to the standard he holds himself, which he knows he hasn’t done to start the season.
“I want to start dealin’, man,” Mertz said. “I want to play good football, consistent football. I know that I’m going to. It’s just taking those steps every day to make sure you get to that point.
“As a quarterback, you’re not going to walk out Day 1 and be Joe Montana, Drew Brees, all those guys. It’s truly a process. You’ve got to trust it.”
But the desire to make plays happen can’t overwhelm him. He has to stay patient. As much talk as there is outside the program about Mertz and the offense pushing the ball down the field more, trying to force deep shots that aren’t available only will make matters worse. Mertz knows that mistakes made trying to press the issue will become turnovers, especially this week against Notre Dame and star safety Kyle Hamilton.
Cleaning up the fundamentals in his throwing motion, timing and anticipation were some areas Mertz spent his bye week addressing. Another fix he needs to make is maintaining his poise in the pocket throughout a play.
Mertz hasn’t been disciplined with his feet as he goes through a play’s progression. His arm talent isn’t able to overcome the improper footwork and it’s led to some inaccurate throws. Mertz was pressured often and sacked twice early in UW’s season-opener against Penn State. His footwork when pressure comes hasn’t been sound since that point in the opener.
“I think he does a good job in practice, when those situations occur, trying to address it,” Chryst said about Mertz’s poise in the pocket. “That’s when you have to do it, right? It just has to kind of be how you play. And I think that it’s a work in progress, but I think he is progressing.”
There also are finer points Mertz wants to correct on the field — ball placement issues that can turn a completion for a first down into an explosive play by allowing a receiver to catch and run. Those are the plays UW’s offense have been missing. Mertz lamented one pass in particular, a dig route to senior receiver Kendric Pryor, as being too low and not allowing Pryor to gain yards after the catch. The play resulted in a 17-yard gain, but it could’ve been more, and those missed chances are what Mertz wants to begin capitalizing on.
Mertz, who is in his third year in the program, makes his 10th career start Saturday. Given that seven of those starts were during the pandemic-altered 2020 season, the sample size of Mertz with a full-strength roster isn’t large enough to make judgments on his ceiling. But Saturday’s game will play an outsized role in fans’ perception of who he is as a quarterback.
Like much of this week, Mertz knows all he can do about that is try to play his best.
“I’m out here just playing the game I love to play,” Mertz said. “For me, it’s just another opportunity to do what I love to do. And I can’t complain about that at all. But I’m excited.”
Wisconsin vs. Notre Dame football: 3 keys to victory, why the Badgers' running game matters so much and a prediction
WHO HAS THE EDGE
When the Badgers have the ball
The Badgers should have the ability to attack the Notre Dame defense where it is weakest — between the tackles. Notre Dame doesn’t feature a standout middle linebacker or defensive tackle and likely will have trouble keeping UW’s offensive line on the line of scrimmage. Big things could be in line for an emerging stable of Badgers running backs if the Badgers keep defensive end Myron Tagovaila-Amosa out of the backfield.
Chez Mellusi has gotten the lion’s share of the work thus far, but there seems to be enough carries to go around after Mellusi, Isaac Guerendo, Jalen Berger and Braelon Allen all scored touchdowns two weeks ago. How UW manages its backs’ workload will be interesting to see because keeping fresh legs attacking Notre Dame’s front will be important.
Quarterback Graham Mertz has yet to throw a touchdown pass this season after one was called back by a penalty and another was dropped against Eastern Michigan. Notre Dame’s secondary, led by safety Kyle Hamilton, is difficult to crack — their 232.7 yards per game allowed was inflated by pass-heavy Purdue. UW may need to use more motion in an effort to get the secondary out of position or rely on more play-action passing if the running game is working.
Senior receiver Danny Davis has been solid for the Badgers with 11 catches for 129 yards. Look for receivers Kendric Pryor and Chimere Dike to get more involved, especially in the flats, where they can catch the ball and create yards.
Edge: Slightly Wisconsin
When the Fighting Irish have the ball
UW fans know Notre Dame quarterback Jack Coan well after watching him start 16 games for the Badgers, but freshman Tyler Buchner has been earning snaps in part because he’s the better scrambler of the two and Notre Dame’s line has struggled thus far.
The Irish have had three left tackles start games this season after Blake Fisher and Michael Carmody were injured in the first two games. Tosh Baker started last week against Purdue and ND again had difficulty handling pass rushers, allowing four sacks and 16 pressures against the Boilermakers.
Tight end Michael Mayer is Coan's and Buchner’s top target, hauling in 17 catches for 206 yards and three touchdowns. Running back Kyren Williams is a tackle-breaking playmaker, but the O-line struggles have limited him so far this season (46 carries, 224 yards, 2 TDs). Senior receiver Kevin Austin Jr. will be a tough matchup for UW because the 6 foot 2, 215 pounder is adept at winning one-on-one battles on the sideline.
Williams is a difficult cover in the passing game, especially when he’s matched against a linebacker, so the Badgers will have to identify where Williams lines up in the formation and ensure they have the right personnel defending him.
A big challenge for UW’s defense will be to limit the big pass plays the Irish are capable of — cornerbacks Faion Hicks (listed as questionable) and Caesar Williams will need to be physical without committing penalties down the field.
Edge: Slightly Wisconsin
Collin Larsh has been solid for UW after winning the starting kicking job. Excluding the short kick that was blocked against Penn State, Larsh has made a 43-yarder and tries from 33 and 39 yards.
UW hasn’t had many chances in the return game thus far, and don’t expect them to come this week. Notre Dame only has allowed six punt returns for a total of 34 yards and it allows just 21.7 yards per kick return.
Don’t look now, but UW punter Andy Vujnovich has become one of the best in the Big Ten, ranking fourth at 48.9 yards per punt. He’ll have to direct his punts well to keep the ball away from Williams, who is returning punts for the Irish.
This will be the first time since 2001 that the Badgers play two ranked teams in their first three games. UW lost to No. 7 Oregon and No. 19 Fresno State that season. Paul Chryst never has started a season 1-2 since taking over at UW, but Chryst is 10-15 at UW against AP Top 25 teams.
Brian Kelly’s Notre Dame teams are 6-5 in their first game against a ranked opponent in a season. Kelly is 3-2 in his last five games against Big Ten Conference opponents, dating back to 2015. He notched his 105th official win at Notre Dame last week, tying Knute Rockne for most by an ND coach.
UW last played at Soldier Field in 2011, when it defeated Northern Illinois 49-7.
THREE KEYS FOR THE BADGERS
1. Bracket Mayer: Notre Dame tight end Michael Mayer is one of the best offensive weapons in the country, and quarterback Jack Coan is finding him often. UW should plan on using its outside linebackers to disrupt Mayer’s route off the line of scrimmage and ensure a safety is covering the 6-foot-4½, 251-pound target. The Irish have multiple weapons who can make plays, but taking away option A in Mayer is a good place to start.
2. Attack the offensive line: The Irish’s offensive line has been OK at its very best in its first three games this season. It allowed four sacks to Florida State, six sacks against Toledo and four sacks against Purdue. Pro Football Focus statistics count 38 pressures allowed by the line, and Notre Dame has rushed for just more than 100 yards per game. UW’s front — especially with the return of inside linebacker Leo Chenal — is one of the best in the country and should continue to expose an O-line that’s beaten up by injuries.
3. No turnovers: This one isn’t rocket science, but the Badgers can’t afford to give away the ball and put its defense in tough spots. After three turnovers in a loss to Penn State, UW’s offense gave up the only points Eastern Michigan scored with a pick-6. It’s likely the Badgers’ offense again relies on the ground game given Notre Dame’s difficulty stopping the run (145 yards rushing allowed per game) and the ball-hawking presence of safety Kyle Hamilton. Ball carries must protect the ball and quarterback Graham Mertz has to secure handoffs better than in the first two game this season. Mertz also has to be smart with his throws and not put too many attempts in danger of being picked off.
THREE KEYS FOR THE FIGHTING IRISH
1. Decide on run game quickly: The Badgers defense has allowed a total of 66 yards rushing on 36 carries, less than 2 yards per attempt. Both Penn State and Eastern Michigan ditched running between the tackles, and the former had success getting to the edge with quick passing then challenging UW downfield. Notre Dame should do the same if its banged-up offensive line can’t generate push. Wasting downs trying to establish a run game is exactly what UW wants Notre Dame to do.
2. Play Hamilton in the box: Mertz hasn’t been challenging teams downfield often thus far. Notre Dame usually has star safety Kyle Hamilton play deep or in the slot so he can be close to the ball, but the Irish likely will need him in the middle of the field to make a bigger impact. Mertz most often targets the middle of the field between 10-15 yards, so placing Hamilton there and allowing him to read Mertz’s eyes creates the most opportunities for turnovers or other disruptive plays.
3. Gives your tackles help: The Irish have to do a better job giving their tackles help against pass rushers, especially if they again are down to their third-string left tackle. While there are a multitude of reasons the Irish have been bad protecting the passer, many of which stem from the line losing matchups, relying on that group without help too often is another culprit. With UW outside linebackers Nick Herbig and Noah Burks both showing improved pass rushing skills this season, Notre Dame needs to keep a back, tight end or both in protection to keep Coan upright.
Series: UW trails 6-8-2
First meeting: UW won 54-0 at home in 1900
Last meeting: UW lost 31-7 at Camp Randall in 1964
UW's longest winning streak: Three games (1900, 1904, 1905)
UW's longest losing streak: Four games (1929, 1934, 1935, 1936)
UW has the advantage on both lines of scrimmage, something it’s used to and knows how to use to control a game. If the Badgers can avoid turnovers, score touchdowns when they get in the red zone and force Notre Dame’s offense to go for long drives instead of allowing big plays, they should be able to come away with the win. Fail in those areas, and Notre Dame ekes out another close one.
Badgers 21, Notre Dame 17
The Badgers and Notre Dame at Soldier Field ... Who do you like?— Badger Beat (@BadgerBeat) September 20, 2021