This time, Illinois can’t hold in with Wisconsin during an opening night loss

Big 10 Sports

Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz throws a pass during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Illinois Friday, Oct. 23, 2020, in Madison, Wis. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

MADISON – Last October, Illinois showed their program was ready to turn a corner when they upset Wisconsin.

This October, the Badgers showed that their program is once again going to be the team to beat in the Big Ten West.

Lovie Smith’s team had hoped to show that they might be ready to compete for that position to start the 2020 season after showing progress in 2019, including that stunning win over the sixth-ranked Badgers. But Wisconsin took care of that notion during a dominant 60 minutes of football on both sides of the ball.

Led by a near-perfect performance by quarterback Graham Mertz, who threw for five touchdowns in his debut, and a strong defense, the 14th-ranked Badgers blew out the Illini 45-7 in Friday’s Big Ten conference opener for the 2020 season.

Wisconsin’s defense held the Illini to just 213 total yards as Brandon Peters could never get anything going with the group. They had just eight first downs the entire game, with the quarterback’s own rushes (75 on seven carries) accounting for nearly as many yards as he passed for (83).

It didn’t help that Mike Epstein fumbled on the second play of the game, giving the Badgers a short march towards their first score.

Mertz threw that touchdown as part of an incredible start to the game, tying a Wisconsin record with 17-straight completions. He’d finish 20-of-21 with 248 yards passing with four of his five touchdowns coming in the first half as the Badgers built a 28-7 lead.

The hosts gained 430 total yards and held the ball for 43:28 on the evening as Illinois’ defense failed to get them off the field. It wasn’t the kind of performance that Illini fans saw in the second half of 2019, though they did get their only points on a second quarter 39-yard fumble return by sophomore linebacker Tarique Barnes.

He finished with 11 tackles with a sack filling in for Jake Hansen, who left in the first half after he was wobbly following a hit on fourth down.

But he was one of the few bright spots on a long night for Illinois, who couldn’t come close to finding the magic against the Badgers which they had a year earlier.

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