MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin has a new offensive coordinator and a mostly new group of receivers this season.
It turns out the Badgers also might have a new version of quarterback Graham Mertz.
Mertz has increased his efficiency and decreased his mistakes in his third season as a starter after throwing more interceptions than touchdown passes last year. Mertz is ranked fifth among all Bowl Subdivision quarterbacks in passer rating after finishing 92nd in that category a year ago.
“I think (I’ve been) solid,” Mertz said. “That doesn’t mean anything unless we build on it. That’s what I’m excited for.”
That brings him to arguably the biggest test of his career Saturday when Wisconsin (2-1) opens its Big Ten schedule at No. 3 Ohio State (3-0). Wisconsin has lost its last eight meetings with Ohio State and is a 17 ½-point underdog this time, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.
Mertz will likely need to have the best game of his career for Wisconsin to have any chance. His teammates and coaches like what they’ve seen from him so far.
“He’s trusting in himself,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. “He’s trusting what he’s seeing. He’s trusting those around him.”
Measuring Mertz’s progress remains difficult because of the way Wisconsin’s season has gone thus far.
Wisconsin has two lopsided victories over Championship Subdivision program Illinois State and winless New Mexico State, one of the nation’s worst FBS teams. Mertz played well against Washington State, but the Badgers still lost 17-14 despite being favored by about 17 points.
The Ohio State game will provide a better indication of how far Mertz has come.
Even so, it’s hard to ignore Mertz’s improved numbers.
Mertz has completed 71% of his passes with six touchdowns and two interceptions. Last year, Mertz completed 56.8% of his passes with six interceptions and one touchdown through the first three games of the season.
“The only (stat) that really matters is the winning percentage,” Mertz said. “If you’re winning, you’re playing good football. That kind of goes hand in hand. For me, that’s all I’m really focused on.”
Mertz is making those strides while playing for his third offensive coordinator in as many years, former Baltimore Ravens assistant Bobby Engram. Chryst served as his own coordinator last season. Joe Rudolph, now the Virginia Tech offensive line coach, filled that role in 2020.
Wisconsin remains a run-oriented team under Engram, but the Badgers also are showing a willingness to air it out on occasion. Mertz is averaging 11.2 yards per pass attempt to rank third among all FBS players.
“I would say he’s getting the opportunity to throw the ball down the field a little bit more than we were last year,” running back Braelon Allen said before adding one more factor in Mertz’s improvement. “Just his approach the entire offseason, he kind of transformed himself, I feel like. It’s showing now.”
Wisconsin’s changes on offense weren’t limited to the staff.
The only wideout on Wisconsin’s 2022 roster who caught more than three passes last season is Chimere Dike, who had 19 receptions for 272 yards and a touchdown. The Badgers added UCLA transfer Keontez Lewis and hoped for breakthrough seasons from some returning players who didn't have major roles last season.
Mertz believed getting to know them off the field would pay off on Saturdays.
“You can run routes here all winter, all spring, all summer, but you’re never going to really know your guys unless you go golf with them, go out to eat, just hang out, grill out,” Mertz said. “You can’t force it. You’ve got to truly love the guys you’re spending time with. That carries over to the field.”
Dike had 106 yards receiving and a touchdown against Illinois State. Skyler Bell, who redshirted last year, had 108 yards and two touchdowns in the New Mexico State game. Lewis also reached the end zone against New Mexico State. Clay Cundiff, the Badgers’ new starting tight end, scored twice against Washington State.
They’ve been responding to Mertz’s leadership.
“He’s always been a guy who goes about his business the right way, but I think he’s a little more vocal,” Dike said. “He has conviction with everything he does. He’s super-confident. I think guys feed off that.”