We asked Wisconsin State Journal beat writer Colten Bartholomew his thoughts on the Badgers going into Friday night’s game at Camp Randall Stadium between Illinois and No. 14 Wisconsin:
What’s the feeling among the Wisconsin fan base and media about new starting quarterback Graham Mertz?
From what we’re told by other players, Mertz has all the physical tools to be a very successful quarterback. In talking to him, Mertz has a lot of confidence in himself and in his ability to liven up the Badgers’ passing game. I think everyone in the media is eager to see how Mertz performs and how Paul Chryst and his staff adjust the offense to match his skill set. His deep passing could give Wisconsin a dimension it’s been missing in recent years.
Fans have been clamoring to see Mertz under center since he joined the roster, and have been enamored by his potential since he committed in 2017. The excitement for Mertz by himself is probably higher than any returner on the roster.
How much will the Badgers miss running back Jonathan Taylor?
I would say significantly. There’s belief that the top trio of running backs — Garrett Groshek, Nakia Watson and Isaac Guerendo — might be able to match Taylor’s production in aggregate, but only Guerendo has the top-end speed of Taylor and he’s still new to the position. The Badgers’ backfield will take on a by-committee approach unless one of the three truly ascends above the others. None of the backs will attract the defensive attention that Taylor did, but Badgers players have seemed confident that instead of one or two stars like Taylor and Quintez Cephus last year, there are a handful of players across multiple positions that can carry the load.
How big of a deal is last year’s loss against Illinois to the current players?
The upset in Champaign set the stage for the rest of the season, and motivated the Badgers for the rest of the 2019 season. It also exposed some issues — like the interior offensive line — that the Badgers had been getting by without fixing to that point. I also think there’s an acknowledgement that Illinois made more crucial plays down the stretch and took the game. Many players have been asked about using revenge as a motivator and it’s been routinely dismissed. They say they are just appreciative of having a season. But Watson did say that the Illini deserved “a butt-whuppin’” for what happened last year.
Who is going to win?
I’ve got the Badgers 27-17 in a close game. With all of the changes offensively, the Badgers might be a little slow out of the gates, but the defense should be up to the task to keep them in the game. Illinois and all the Big Ten road teams are catching a tough break having to be the first to test out COVID-19 travel.