5 takeaways from Big Ten football’s chaotic opening weekend, including a possible downer to Graham Mertz’s dazzling debut and that Indiana-Penn State finish

What the Big Ten lacked in game-day atmosphere, it made up for with on-field action.

In the long-awaited delayed kickoff to the season, Saturday’s games without fans due to COVID-19 restrictions didn’t disappoint.


(We’ll skip over Wisconsin’s Friday night domination of Illinois for now.)

Saturday’s slate was stacked with the unexpected as some teams appeared to have taken advantage of their preparation time and others wished they had one more week to get ready.


Yes, Ohio State remains king. That might be the only consistency between 2019 and 2020.

Suddenly Rutgers looks like a threat — or at least not the worst team in the conference. Indiana outwitted Penn State to win by less than inches. Purdue made Iowa look vulnerable.

Michigan, a 25-point victor at Minnesota, and Northwestern, which throttled Maryland, are back, baby.

COVID-19 still threatens to disrupt this experiment of playing through a pandemic. But teams trying to squeeze in eight more games in eight weeks will make this an exhilarating race to the championship.

Here are five takeaways from Week 1.

1. Graham Mertz’s status is in question after an impressive starting debut.

Did the Big Ten make it through zero games without facing a COVID-19 consequence?

After a standout debut in Friday night’s 45-7 victory against Illinois, Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz’s next game might already be in question.

Mertz, a redshirt freshman, tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Wisconsin State Journal and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which cited sources in reports Sunday evening.

A daily antigen test returned the positive result, so the school will confirm his status with a more reliable polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, per Big Ten rules. A confirmed positive test would mean Mertz must sit out at least 21 days.

The reports said Mertz tested positive Saturday.

Big Ten athletes are tested daily — which the conference has cited repeatedly as a safety measure that would ensure players can compete without a high risk of contracting the virus.

Friday marked the highest number of new positive tests in the United States since the pandemic began. Wisconsin had a positivity rate last week above 20%, and many regions were at the brink of an intensive care unit bed shortage due to the surge.


The Badgers would take a severe hit without Mertz, a highly rated recruit who lived up to expectations in his first start, displaying a veteran’s poise, demeanor and efficiency. Mertz’s performance made his upperclassman teammates sound like proud grandparents.

“The kid’s definitely smooth,” said tight end Jake Ferguson, who caught three of Mertz’s five touchdown passes. “He was smiling cheek to cheek after the first touchdown. He knew and everybody in that huddle knew that we were rolling. It’s just awesome to see that out of him. First game. Golly, the kid can play.”

Mertz completed 20 of 21 passes for 248 yards with no interceptions while setting a single-game team record with a 95.2% completion percentage and tying team records for consecutive completions (17) and touchdown passes.

It earned him additional high praise from NFL players.

The Badgers lost projected starting quarterback Jack Coan to a right foot injury Oct. 3. If Mertz is sidelined, Wisconsin would turn to backups Chase Wolf or Danny Vanden Boom.

2. Quarterbacks crushed it.

While Graham Mertz met the hype, Ohio State’s Justin Fields was as skillful as ever.

Fields was also nearly perfect in his debut, completing 20 of 21 passes for 271 yards with two touchdowns and rushing for 54 yards and a score in a 52-17 victory against Nebraska. The 2019 Heisman Trophy finalist’s only incompletion should have been a touchdown pass if his receiver had handled it in the end zone.

Fields and Mertz were among the four highest-graded Power Five quarterbacks this weekend, according to Pro Football Focus.

Michigan and Northwestern looked like they could be heading in better directions this season with capable new quarterbacks.

The Wolverines’ Joe Milton completed 15 of 22 passes for 225 yards and a touchdown in a 49-24 victory at Minnesota, connecting with nine teammates. He added 52 rushing yards and another score. If Milton continues to execute offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’ game plan as efficiently, he might revive some faith in the Jim Harbaugh regime among Michigan fans.

Northwestern’s Peyton Ramsey, a graduate transfer from Indiana, and new coordinator Mike Bajakian helped resurrect the Wildcats’ DOA offense during a 43-3 victory against Maryland. Ramsey led three long touchdown drives in the first half, and the Wildcats amassed 537 total yards.

Speaking of a revived offense, Rutgers scored more points in its 38-27 victory against Michigan State than it scored in any Big Ten game last season to snap a 21-game conference losing streak dating to 2017.

3. It’s a game of ... millimeters?

Football is supposedly a game of inches. And perspective.

Did the ball really break the plane? Indiana’s 36-35 overtime victory against Penn State will be debated for ages in State College, Pa.

The most chaotic game of the weekend inspired the football masses Saturday night, who turned Michael Penix Jr.’s game-winning two-point conversion into Twitter art.

Probably not in the mood for jovial memes? Happy Valley. The Nittany Lions are dissecting how they got wrong so many opportunities to get it right.

Up 21-20 with 1 minute, 46 seconds left, Devyn Ford didn’t realize until a smidge too late that Indiana allowed him to score a touchdown in order to get a crack at a comeback. The Nittany Lions could have taken a knee and essentially ended the game.

Penn State coach James Franklin said he told the team not to score, but clearly it didn’t register.

Indiana marched down the field to tie the score at 28 with a touchdown and two-point conversion and force overtime, where Penix’s two-point conversion stretch was upheld upon review as the game-winning score.

Penn State outgained Indiana 488-211, making the Nittany Lions the second team since 2000 to lose after gaining more than 475 yards and holding its opponent to 225 or fewer. The other? Oregon in a 2004 loss ... to Indiana.

The Hoosiers’ win put a bit of a damper on Saturday’s Penn State-Ohio State game in State College. The Nittany Lions can spin a redemption tale if they can pull off the upset with smarter play.


4. Rustiness showed up as sloppiness.

Slip-ups were expected after such a long layoff before competition, and indeed turnovers and penalties abounded.


Despite a “take care of the ball” mantra from new coach Mel Tucker, Michigan State had seven turnovers, including five lost fumbles, in its loss to Rutgers.

Penn State had three turnovers and got hit with 100 yards in penalties. Iowa was uncharacteristically sloppy, too, with 100 penalty yards and two lost fumbles.

And Maryland coughed up four turnovers against Northwestern, including three interceptions of Taulia Tagovailoa.

It all added to a must-watch day of games, but the Big Ten doesn’t want to become a blooper reel. Clean it up quickly, guys.

5. Illinois’ lack of offense left many feeling offended.

Illinois quarterback Brandon Peters sounded dissatisfied about the playing time backup Isaiah Williams received in Friday’s blowout loss at Wisconsin.

“They do what they feel like they have to do,” Peters said of the coaches. “Personally, it’s tough sometimes to get into a rhythm when you get thrown in there on fourth-and-2 and you haven’t been in there the whole drive. That’s tough. You’ve got to do what the coaches expect and do what they want. I was just going with the flow.”

Peters, who rushed for 75 yards, completed only 8 of 19 passes for 87 yards, and the offense failed to score a touchdown. He looked far less effective than he did during a solid 2019 season, in which he threw for 1,884 yards and 18 touchdowns after transferring from Michigan.

Williams threw only one pass, which was intercepted, and produced 5 yards on one rush.

There were also questions about how Peters distributed the ball. Leading receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe was targeted 10 times and tight end Daniel Barker three times. Nobody else had more than one target.

Luke Ford’s dad expressed displeasure on social media about the lack of tight end involvement — something coach Lovie Smith acknowledged after the game — and mentioned a need to talk to his son about advice he received from texters noting the transfer portal. Ford was targeted only once against Wisconsin.

Peters said he doesn’t have one go-to target.

“I was just throwing to where my reads took me,” he said. “I don’t drop back and just look for one guy. The guys that I found in the second half were the guys that got open.”

Recommended on Baltimore Sun