A year ago, around this time, Jack Coan wasn’t under center yet. He wasn’t taking snaps in front of a deflated Camp Randall crowd watching their Wisconsin Badgers fall to Minnesota for the first time in 15 seasons. Yet, from the sidelines, he and his teammates experienced the gravity of a loss that would hang on their backs for the next twelve months.
“It was terrible,” said center Tyler Biadasz of the loss a season ago. “We want to get that axe back...We understand what it takes and we’re going to do what it takes.”
Fast forward a year, and Coan’s stabilizing presence as quarterback of the No. 8 Wisconsin Badgers (7-2 Big Ten, 10-2 overall) has helped transform the offense into more of a dynamic threat than typical in Madison. Starting the biggest game of his college career to date—in the cold, rainy, and eventually snowy conditions of Minneapolis—Coan took on then-No. 8 Minnesota and put together his most impressive performance of 2019 to reclaim the axe and lead the Badgers back to their sixth Big Ten Championship appearance.
“The Long Island Lazer came to play today,” running back Garrett Groshek said postgame. “Jack was Jack—he was consistent, and put together a complete game.”
Trailing 7-3 late in the second quarter, Coan took hold of his first drive of the afternoon. A Minnesota punt had pinned Wisconsin down at their own 18-yard line, but back-to-back completions from Coan to fullback Mason Stokke had the Badgers moving. Facing a third-and-five play at their own 35, Coan found a wide open Jake Ferguson for 20 yards and a huge fist down—thanks to some really awful Minnesota tackling that allowed Ferguson to push for an extra ten yards into Minnesota territory. Two plays later, Coan hit a streaking Jonathan Taylor with a back-shoulder bullet that Taylor reeled in before stumbling into the endzone for a touchdown.
“He had a one on one with the linebacker,” Coan said of the coverage on Taylor. “I just put it in the area. He came down with it and made a big play like he always does.”
The seven-play, 82-yard scoring drive featured just one rushing attempt, a nod of confidence from head coach Paul Chryst to his quarterback in one of the season’s biggest moments.
“Coming in, we thought that for us to win we would have to throw it,” Chryst said of the gameplan to let Coan loose. “I thought Jack was really good. Saw the field well, and he didn’t let the wind or the conditions affect how he was going to approach it...He had that look right from the beginning that he was going to attack.”
As the snow began to come down heavy in the second quarter, Coan looked virtually unaffected by the conditions. After a Minnesota punt opened the second half, Coan and the Badgers offense got to work on their own nine-yard line, leading by a field goal. Coan took the first-down snap and dropped back to pass, throwing a beautiful ball to wide receiver Quintez Cephus on the sideline for a gain of 31.
“It was definitely big for us,” Coan said. “When you’re making an explosive play like that, it sets you up for more big plays.”
It was the type of play that ran contrary to Wisconsin’s offensive gameplan; the energy started to drain from TCF Bank Stadium in that moment. Now charging toward midfield, Coan had shown the Minnesota defense that he was capable of beating them downfield, opening up the field for Heisman contender Jonathan Taylor to work.
Two consecutive handoffs to Taylor (now that’s Wisconsin football!) went for 13 yards and a first down, putting Wisconsin across the 50-yard line and closing in on scoring range. With a new set of downs to work with, Coan exposed Minnesota’s linebackers again—this time connecting with a streaking Quintez Cephus who simply outran Gopher linebacker Thomas Barber toward the endzone. Cephus did a mini-leap to grab Coan’s deep ball at the fifteen-yard line, maintaining stride into the endzone to push Wisconsin ahead by two scores.
“It felt good coming out of my hand,” said Coan—whose touchdown pass to Cephus was thrown during the heaviest of Saturday’s snowfall. “Whenever you’re throwing the ball to [Cephus], he’s got a good chance to come down with it.”
The Coan-Cephus connection on that drive combined for 78 yards in what felt like the turning point of the afternoon for the Badgers offense. Minnesota, like so many other teams, had sold out to stopping the run, challenging Wisconsin to beat them through the air. But, time and time again, Coan was able to beat them. It led to a second half in which the Golden Gophers and head coach P.J. Fleck were woefully unprepared to slow down the Wisconsin offensive attack.
Following a Minnesota field goal to cut the lead to 17-10, Wisconsin kick returner Aron Cruickshank fielded a kick on the ensuing kickoff. Just six yards downfield, he turned and shuffled the ball off to special teams man Isaac Guarendo, who was sweeping toward the near sideline away from the Minnesota defense. The trickeration left Guarendo with nearly half the field in front of him, as he sprinted all the way down to the Minnesota 40-yard line for a 49-yard kick return to set up the Badgers in golden field position.
Two plays later, Coan faked a hand-off to Taylor before giving it to wide receiver Kendrick Pryor in his signature end-around carry, which Pryor proceeded to take 26-yards into the endzone untouched thanks to some great downfield blocking from the offensive line. Coan drew the Gophers in to stop the dangerous Taylor, but it left plenty of running room for Pryor on the near-side and into the endzone.
The Badgers pull out the Pryor end-around every few games, and it seems to work at an abnormally high rate: Saturday’s touchdown was Pryor’s fifth-career rushing touchdown, which now outnumbers his four career receiving touchdowns. The touchdown extended Wisconsin's lead to 14; a blow that Minnesota’s offense couldn’t recover from.
One final flash of offensive brilliance put the nail in the coffin for Minnesota late in the fourth quarter, following a Golden Gophers’ turnover-on-downs in the redzone. Facing a third-and-six at their own 19 yard line, the Wisconsin offense already knew they had Minnesota beaten scheme-wise from how the defense lined up.
“Once we came out, me and the O-line noticed it had a chance to go for a long gain,” Groshek said.
Minnesota blitzed Coan, who casually dumped the ball off to Groshek on a screen route toward the far side. Groshek—who had blockers in front of him by design—weaved his way through a mismatched Gopher secondary for 70 yards before finally being chased down inside the fifteen yard line.
“Yeah, they ran the wrong defense for that play,” Groshek said with a smirk while recalling his long reception.
A few plays later, Jonathan Taylor reached the endzone for the second of his three touchdowns on the night en-route to Wisconsin’s 21-point drubbing of the higher-ranked Golden Gophers. On a night where Wisconsin’s offensive line had the upper hand, Coan and Chryst took the Badgers’ offensive game plan to a new level of creativity--and it passed the test with flying colors.
Wisconsin will have their hands full against No. 1 Ohio State on Saturday in the conference championship game, but if the offense continues to look as explosive as it did in Minneapolis Saturday, the Badgers have at least a chance to make things interesting in their second go-around with the Buckeyes.
“We always feel confident that we’ll be able to move the ball,” Coan said postgame. “It’s just about executing plays and staying in the moment.”