Wisconsin’s Graham Mertz confident he can improve his consistency

Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports
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MADISON, Wis. – Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz‘s production thus far hasn’t lived up to the standards set by his lofty recruiting ranking and sparkling debut as a starter.

He’s ready to stabilize what has been an erratic career by helping the Badgers earn the Big Ten championship game appearance that has eluded them each of his first two seasons as a starter.

“My word’s been `consistency’ the whole year,” Mertz said Tuesday on the eve of Wisconsin’s first preseason practice as the Badgers prepare for their Sept. 3 opener with Illinois State.

Mertz was the nation’s No. 65 overall prospect in the 2019 class, according to composite rankings of recruiting sites compiled by 247Sports, when he signed with Wisconsin. That made him the Badgers’ first top-100 247Sports Composite signee who didn’t play on the offensive line since 2007, when they landed running back John Clay.

He left an early impression that only raised hopes he might lead Wisconsin to Big Ten titles. In his first college start, Mertz went 20 of 21 and threw five touchdown passes in a 45-7 blowout of Illinois. He set a school single-game record for completion percentage and matched the record for touchdown passes.

But, he’s been inconsistent since.

“We really want him to trust himself and go play,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. “Play with consistency and understanding that we have a lot of trust him and faith in him. With that, there’s responsibility.”

Mertz’s 2021 season exemplified his rollercoaster career thus far.

He threw a combined six interceptions and no touchdown passes in losses to Penn State and Notre Dame during Wisconsin’s 1-3 start. He bounced back and played relatively well when the emergence of running back Braelon Allen and Wisconsin’s top-ranked defense spurred the Badgers to a seven-game winning streak.

When Wisconsin couldn’t run effectively and needed Mertz to step up in the regular-season finale at Minnesota, he threw no touchdown passes as the Badgers fell 23-13 and lost their shot at a Big Ten championship game berth. He then regrouped to help Wisconsin beat Arizona State in the Las Vegas Bowl.

“That’s how you learn from the process and grow as a man,” Mertz said. “When adversity hits, how do I respond? When good things happen, how do I respond? You go through all of that and you learn a lot about yourself.”

One thing Mertz has learned is that his teammates still have plenty of faith in him.

Allen says Mertz accepted even more of a leadership role this offseason. Center Joe Tippmann, who rooms with Mertz, marvels over the quarterback’s work ethic.

“We’re definitely confident in him,” Tippmann said. “The way the guy works in the offseason, it’s unmatched. He’s constantly working his (butt) off. I know that’s going to pay dividends for the team and for him.”

Mertz is facing more obstacles as he heads into his third season as a starter.

Wisconsin must replace top two wideouts (Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor) and starting tight end Jake Ferguson from last season’s team, leaving Chimere Dike as the only returning player who had at least 100 yards receiving last season. Mertz is adjusting to new offensive coordinator Bobby Engram.

Mertz and his new coordinator wasted no time developing a mutual respect.

“He’s a great man,” Mertz said. “For me, it’s more than just football with him. It’s life lessons and stuff like that. It’s been amazing.”

Mertz believes he also will have no trouble helping some of these unproven receivers step forward. He considers that part of his responsibility.

“It just comes down to doing your job,” Mertz said. “For me, how can I do my job better, to free those guys up to go play free? We’ve got young guys, but they’re hungry. They’re ready to rock.”

NOTES: Running back Chez Mellusi said he should be ready to practice fully when the Badgers open workouts Wednesday. Mellusi tore his left ACL last November. . Allen has honored former Wisconsin running backs coach Gary Brown by getting the initials “GB” tattooed on his left arm. Brown died in April at the age of 52. “I’m dedicating this season to him,” Allen said. . Wisconsin will hold an open practice on Aug. 21.

No. 2 Michigan beats Purdue 43-22 for Big Ten crown

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports
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INDIANAPOLIS – Donovan Edwards ran for 185 yards and a score, J.J. McCarthy threw three touchdown passes and No. 2 Michigan beat Purdue 43-22 on Saturday night for its second straight Big Ten title and a likely No. 2 playoff seed.

College football’s winningest program has the first 13-win season in school history. Two more victories would give the Wolverines (13-0, No. 2 CFP) their first national championship since 1997.

And with injured star Blake Corum sidelined by a season-ending left knee injury, Edwards stole the show for the second straight week.

After shredding rival Ohio State for 216 yards and two scores last week, Edwards broke open this game with a 60-yard on the first play of the second half to set up one score. He added a 27-yard TD sprint on Michigan’s next series to make it 28-13.

Purdue (8-5) never recovered from Michigan’s quick, seven-play onslaught after it trailed 14-13 at halftime.

But quarterback Aidan O'Connell and receiver Charlie Jones helped the Boilermakers make it interesting for a while.

O’Connell was 32 of 47 with 366 yards and two interceptions after missing some practice time early this week to mourn the death of his oldest brother. Jones, who lost to Michigan in last year’s game while playing for Iowa, had 13 receptions for 162 yards.

It just wasn’t enough.

Michigan showed no signs of a hangover after last week’s rout over the Buckeyes, taking a 7-0 lead on its opening possession with a 25-yard TD pass from J.J. McCarthy to Colston Loveland.

Purdue answered with Devin Mockobee’s 1-yard scoring run to tie the score then took the lead on Mitchell Fineran’s 33-yard field goal.

Michigan answered by taking advantage of an offside call on fourth-and-6 by going for the first down, picking it up and eventually converting the drive into a 7-yard TD pass from McCarthy to Luke Schoonmaker. They never trailed again.

Edwards big run set up Kalel Mullings‘ 1-yard TD plunge before Edwards celebrated his own scoring run.

All Purdue could muster was three more field goals.

McCarthy was 11 of 17 with 161 yards and one interception.

Corum posted a message on Twitter on Saturday morning to say his knee surgery went well.

THE TAKEAWAY

Purdue: The Boilermakers’ magical season ended with a solid showing in the championship game where they played better than most expected. Still, they won the Big Ten’s wild, wild West, both trophy games and should be bound for a warm-weather bowl game.

Michigan: Yes, the Wolverines may have already locked up a top-two seed thanks to losses by Southern Cal and TCU. Michigan now has back-to-back conference crowns for the first time since 2003-04 though the hard part remains – ending its national title drought.

DIALING UP TRICKERY

Brohm played one season in the now defunct XFL and has acknowledged that experience helped him understand how to inject personality and creativity into play calling. It was on full display Saturday.

A surprise end around set up Purdue’s first score, a fake punt helped keep its second scoring drive alive and then Mockobee sprinted 25 yards on a fake flea-flicker in the third quarter.

UP NEXT

Purdue: Will find out its bowl game, destination and opponent Sunday.

Michigan: Waiting to see where its headed and who it will face in the national semifinals.

Klubnik, No. 10 Clemson rout No. 24 UNC 39-10 for ACC title

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Backup quarterback Cade Klubnik completed 20 of 24 passes for 279 yards and a touchdown and ran for another score and No. 10 Clemson reclaimed the Atlantic Coast Conference championship with a 39-10 victory over No. 24 North Carolina on Saturday night.

Cornerback Nate Wiggins broke up two passes in the end zone, blocked a field goal and returned an interception 98 yards for a touchdown to help the Tigers win their seventh ACC title in eight seasons.

Clemson (11-2, No. 9 CFP) won six straight ACC championships from 2015 to 2020 before failing to reach the title game last season. But coach Dabo Swinney‘s Tigers rebounded in a big way, going 9-0 against ACC foes this season to reach the Orange Bowl.

They have Klubnik to thank for that.

With Clemson down 7-0, Swinney benched two-year starter D.J. Uiagalelei after the Tigers failed to pick up a first down on their first two possessions, Swinney turned to Klubnik, a 5-star recruit from Austin, Texas. He responded by leading the Tigers to four straight scores and a 24-10 lead at halftime.

Clemson stretched it to 39-10 heading into the fourth quarter.

It wasn’t the first time Swinney has turned to Klubnik.

He benched Uiagalelei in the second half against Syracuse and Klubnik responded by leading the Tigers to a come-from-behind 27-21 victory. Swinney also turned to Klubnik against Notre Dame, although the results were the opposite with the freshman throwing a Pick 6 in a 35-14 loss.

Swinney has never been shy about replacing veteran QBs with less experienced players. He did it in 2014, sitting Cole Stoudt for Deshaun Watson, and again in 2018 replacing Kelly Bryant with Trevor Lawrence.

ACC player of the year Drake Maye was limited to 268 yards passing and turned the ball over three times for North Carolina (9-4, No. 23 CFP), which was seeking its first ACC championship since 1980 when Lawrence Taylor was wreaking havoc on quarterbacks.

Maye got things started on the right foot for the Tar Heels, capping an 11-play, 78-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown run for a 7-0 lead on UNC’s first possession.

But the Tar Heels repeatedly sputtered on offense inside the red zone after that, the biggest blow coming when Maye misfired near the goal line and Wiggins – who had struggled in Clemson’s 51-45 win over Wake Forest – returned his pass for a touchdown to give Clemson a 32-10 lead with 5:05 left in the third quarter.

Klubnik provided an immediate spark for Clemson.

He led the Tigers on a nine-play, 71-yard drive, culminating in a 1-yard TD pass to Davis Allen. After Maye’s fumble, Klubnik caught a 19-yard pass from Phil Mafah to set up Mafah’s 4-yard touchdown run – Clemson’s second TD in a span of 40 seconds.

Klubnik then showed off his arm strength with a 68-yard pass to fellow freshman Cole Turner to set up his own 1-yard TD run for a 21-7 lead.

END OF AN ERA

This is the final year the ACC will feature its two division winners playing for a championship. In future years, all ACC teams will be lumped together and the two teams with the best records will advance to the title game.

THE TAKEAWAY

North Carolina: Maye garnered plenty of Heisman Trophy talk during the season, but the Tar Heels offense has stalled resulting in a three-game losing streak. But as long as Maye doesn’t transfer – and there are no indications he will given his family history at North Carolina – the Tar Heels have a good chance to get back to the ACC title game next season.

Clemson: The Tigers have set a high bar by winning national championships, so as much as they will enjoy getting back atop the ACC mountain there will be plenty of talk over whether Swinney cost his team a chance at a spot in the College Football Playoff by not turning to Klubnik at quarterback earlier in the season. It seems Uiagalelei might be a logical transfer portal candidate.

UP NEXT

Clemson will play in the Orange Bowl, while North Carolina awaits a bowl bid.