Wisconsin taking on Notre Dame in Chicago was always going to be a marquee event. Two perennial top-20 programs facing off for the first time since 1964 and doing so at an iconic venue like Soldier Field was guaranteed to put butts in the seats and draw strong TV ratings. But then a nine-word tweet on Jan.4 sent the hype and anticipation around the game soaring to new levels. It was on that day that former Badgers quarterback Jack Coan announced he would be transferring to play his senior year for the Irish, putting his former team on a collision course with his new team. After months of waiting, the end result of that decision will finally play out near the shores of Lake Michigan late Saturday morning.
“It’s a little bit strange, nothing too crazy,” defensive lineman Matt Henningsen said Monday when asked about facing his former teammate. “We knew this was going to happen when we found out he was going there. We’re all friends with him. We understand and we’re looking forward to the challenge. It’s going to be fun.”
Saturday will mark roughly 22 months since Coan took a snap for Wisconsin. It was the final offensive play of the 2019 season, an incomplete pass intended for Quintez Cephus in a Rose Bowl they would eventually lose to Oregon 28-27. It was not the ideal way to end the season, but no one could have predicted, especially Coan, it would also mark the end of his game action at Wisconsin.
After throwing for 19 touchdowns and being a team leader in the run to another Big Ten West title, Coan was poised to be under center last season. But a broken foot during fall camp threw a wrench into those plans and led to the highly touted Graham Mertz getting his chance to start. He took full advantage, throwing five touchdowns in his first start against Illinois.
Coan eventually recovered from the injury in time to dress for the final three games of the regular season, and even though Mertz had largely struggled after his remarkable debut, coach Paul Chryst never gave his former starting quarterback a chance to regain the job. Days after Wisconsin beat Minnesota in the regular season finale, Coan entered the transfer portal.
It has proven to be a wise decision for the New York native. He has thrown eight touchdowns and just two interceptions as the Irish have started the season 3-0 and are ranked No. 12 in the country. As you would expect, Wisconsin fans are keeping a watchful eye on his performance, especially after Mertz and the Badgers offense floundered in a season-opening loss against Penn State. For those in the stands, Saturday’s biggest storyline will be about the quarterback matchup. Those involved, though, say it is not a big deal.
“I’m not lining up across the ball from (Coan) every play,” Mertz said. “It’s like coach (Paul Chryst) said, it’s Wisconsin versus Notre Dame. I’m prepping for their defense. I’m not prepping the play him in a one-on-one basketball game, but obviously you know what it is. It’s out there. But, for me, it’s just Wisconsin versus Notre Dame, just another game.”
Coan has never spoken publicly about his reason for leaving Wisconsin, though it seems obvious. By not playing him when he got healthy — and even using backup Chase Wolf when Mertz went down against Minnesota in the regular season finale — it was clear the Badgers had handed the keys to Mertz, and they were going to roll with him through the ups and downs. That had to be a gut punch for a guy that was such a huge part of the team’s success and there is almost certainly a fire burning inside of him that wants to show Chryst and everyone else that it was a mistake to choose Mertz over him. Of course, you would never hear something like that from Coan.
“At the end of the day, it’s just another football game and I’d like to think I don’t get more excited for one game than the next,” Coan said. “A lot of people ask me if I’m taking this game personally. Not really. There’s no reason why I should take one game more personal than the next.”
But it is personal, even if you throw out the Mertz vs Coan drama. Coan spent four years in Madison developing relationships that will last a lifetime, including with safety Scott Nelson. He said Coan was among the reasons he came to Wisconsin, was his roommate for a few years and was one of many teammates that helped the quarterback move out this past spring as he left for South Bend.
“Anytime you’re with somebody for so long and you’re so close with somebody and they leave and you’re not going to see them as much, it’s definitely emotional,” Nelson said. “It was tough, but he had to make the best decision for him. We were just supportive of whatever he decided to do.”
As familiar as Nelson is with Coan off the field, the two also know each other quite well on the field. It is the same case for the likes Matt Henningsen, Jack Sanborn, and Caesar Williams. All of them faced Coan on a daily basis in practice for four years. But Coan also went against Wisconsin’s defense every day. So, does either side have an advantage?
“You could probably say both, I think,” Nelson said. “Jack knows us and we know Jack and were both in two very different positions now. He’s in a new offense, and we do a lot of different stuff on defense. So, I don’t think it’ll be as cookie cutter as it may have been when we were both going against each other in spring ball for 15 straight practices. But yeah, we’re familiar with him, and he’s familiar with us, so I wouldn’t say there’s a huge advantage either way.”
Mertz has said in recent weeks that he feels prepared for almost anything he sees in a game because of the looks defensive coordinator gives him in practice. That would seemingly be the same for Coan.
“I wouldn’t say he’s seen everything,” Henningsen said. “We’ve got a special type of defense that we throw different things out there every single play. Our defenses are complex enough so that it’s difficult for people to figure out and help to make others understand it. So we’re essentially taking that same approach. Just doing what we can to put their offense in uncomfortable situations. Throw things out that they’re not necessarily expecting. Give them different looks every play so that they’re always on their toes and not necessarily understanding what they’re going to see each and every play.”
Coan told reporters he will try to take his knowledge of Wisconsin’s defense and apply it to Saturday, though he admitted he rarely went against them when they were game planning for an actual opponent. In the end, all believe it will be what happens on the field Saturday as opposed to what they know from the past.
“I think it’s gonna come down to who makes the least amount of mistakes and who executes the best come Saturday,” Sanborn said. “That team will win.”
Wisconsin players and some of the coaches have enjoyed watching the success Coan has had this season. That includes Leonhard, who said he had a good relationship with the quarterback and the two routinely talked about football.
“He was a guy who could see it on tape, who could talk it and then apply it on the field. That’s what I see,” Leonhard said. “I’m excited for him. He’s got to just have one bad game this year. Outside of that, I wish him all the best.”