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Saturday, June 15, 2024

Gameday VI: Badgers wrap up 2020 with growing uncertainty at the quarterback position

2020 has been a forgettable year for Wisconsin football, starting with the frustrating Rose Bowl loss to Oregon and leading into a season of COVID-19 cases, cancellations and offensive struggles. 

Seven weeks removed from his head-turning debut against Illinois, redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz’s name no longer prompts the same excitement and hope for Badger football as it once did. Against Michigan, the team’s second and most recent win, Mertz performed adequately, although his mediocrity would’ve been more maligned if not for Wisconsin’s 341 rushing yards and dominant defense. 

In Wisconsin’s two most recent games, losses to Northwestern and Indiana, the offense has produced a meager total of 13 points. No defense, even Wisconsin’s (which has been outstanding), can compensate for such offensive ineptitude and carry a team to victory. 

As Mertz continued to walk off the field after incomplete drives Saturday against Indiana, the ESPN broadcast periodically cut to a shot of Jack Coan waiting patiently on the sideline. Last year’s starter for all 14 games, Coan was injured before the season but is now healthy and active. 

In 2019, Coan started every game for the 10-4 Badgers, completing just under 70% of his passes for 2727 yards and 18 touchdowns, with only five interceptions. In quarterbacking the undeniably run-first offense, Coan’s main job was to protect the football and be an efficient passer, both of which he accomplished.

Granted, Coan benefited from offensive weapons like Jonathan Taylor, Quintez Cephus and A.J. Taylor that Mertz simply does not have at his disposal this year. Those skill players almost certainly bolstered Coan’s numbers to some extent. That being said, the Badgers are rushing for 199.8 yards a game in 2020 versus last year’s 233.1 average, so the loss of Taylor, albeit significant, is not entirely to blame for the struggles of Mertz and his offense. 

An absence of talent at wide receiver complicates things for any quarterback, no less a 20-year-old in his first year as a starter, but Mertz’s two most recent, turnover-riddled performances have been inexcusable. Much was made of Mertz, a highly-touted, 4-star recruit, committing to Wisconsin, but the Badgers are not known for stellar, or even above-average wide receiver corps. 

Irregularities with this college football season led the NCAA to grant Jack Coan an extra year of eligibility, meaning the senior will return to UW for one more season with the Badgers. 2021 will be Coan’s final year in the program, so he doesn’t boast Mertz’s future potential, although, having proven his ability to run an effective, Wisconsin-style offense, he may be worth consideration for next year’s starting job. 

Even if Coan does not return to the field Saturday against Iowa or next season, he remains valuable as a mentor for Mertz, communicating with the freshman quarterback throughout games and dedicating himself to Mertz’s improvement as a passer. 

"Just in the flow of the game, having that extra person to bounce ideas off of. We do a great job on the sidelines of communicating what we're seeing,” Mertz said of his relationship with Coan. “We always say it, we're just a close-knit group and I think we genuinely care about each other,” 

After the opening night rout of Illinois, suggestions of Coan returning to the field for a reason besides a Mertz injury would’ve been absurd. Mertz is an objectively talented quarterback, and will certainly improve as he matures and gains experience at the college level. However, if his struggles continue against Iowa, both Head Coach Paul Chryst and the Fox Sports broadcast booth will likely look Coan’s way. 

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