Fresh off a week of rest, the 18th-ranked Wisconsin Badgers (1-1) will take the field Saturday morning against the 12th-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish (3-0). Although this is officially a home game for Wisconsin, it will take place at Soldier Field, which happens to be 58 miles closer to South Bend than it is to Madison. Thus, both fan bases are likely to be well represented — and well hydrated — for the 11 a.m. kickoff.
Leading the Fighting Irish is a familiar face in quarterback Jack Coan, who has enjoyed an excellent start to his days in navy and gold. The senior quarterback has completed 63.3% of his passes for 828 yards and eight touchdowns thus far in 2021. He’s averaged a respectable 8.4 yards per attempt while throwing only two interceptions. Three games is a small sample size, but Coan’s numbers are strikingly similar to his 2019 campaign with Wisconsin when he completed 69.6% of his throws and averaged 8.0 yards per attempt with an 18:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Coan discussed his decision to transfer to Notre Dame in an April press conference, alluding to the starting role being available on the Fighting Irish. “It was really tough for me, but I just felt like it was time for me to move on and go to a place where I thought there would be a good opportunity for me,” said the New York native.
Of course, Coan was competing with Graham Mertz for the starting job last year before suffering a foot injury in early October, and remained in a backup role once healthy. Coan also applauded the less run-heavy approach employed by Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly.
“Here, it’s a little less huddling, a little faster paced,” Kelly said. “And yeah, probably a little more balanced as far as passing and running the ball.”
Coan’s 2019 unit was a run-heavy one, partially due to Wisconsin’s offensive philosophy, and partially due to the jaw-dropping excellence of running back Jonathan Taylor. Notre Dame’s offense is certainly more balanced in that regard, having attempted 81 runs and 98 passes to this point. Tailback Kyren Williams has led the way with 211 yards and a pair of touchdowns while averaging 4.6 yards per carry.
Still, Coan’s passing offense will undoubtedly be the main attraction this Saturday, especially against a Wisconsin defense that’s held opponents to 1.8 yards per carry and 66 total rushing yards. Coan’s wealth of receiving options includes tight end Michael Mayer (17 receptions, 206 yards), wideouts Kevin Austin Jr. (eight receptions, 154 yards) and Avery Davis (eight receptions, 149 yards), and the aforementioned Williams, who’s been a weapon out of the backfield with 155 yards on 11 grabs. The lack of an elite, high-volume pass catcher in Wisconsin’s 2019 offense forced Coan to spread the ball around to several targets, and he appears to have brought that same mentality to South Bend.
Defensively, Notre Dame has been unremarkable through three games, although a large chunk of the yardage they’ve allowed came in their season-opening, 41-38 overtime victory against Florida State. In total, the Fighting Irish have yielded 437 yards on the ground (4.2 per attempt) and 698 through the air. They’ve allowed nearly 27 points per game, and unranked Toledo managed 29 points in their Sept. 11 showdown. Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst figures to frequent the running game, specifically with junior Chez Mellusi, who totaled 265 yards on 51 attempts and should be well-rested after the two-week hiatus. Running backs Isaac Guerendo and Jalen Berger will get their share of carries as well, but if the first two games are any indication, the starting job is Mellusi’s to lose.
No player will be under more pressure in this early-season matchup than Mertz, whose every throw — good and bad — will prompt comparisons to Coan on the opposite sideline. Chryst committed to Mertz as Wisconsin’s quarterback before the abbreviated 2020 season, but the early returns have been uninspiring, if not concerning. Apart from his 20-for-21, five-touchdown debut against Illinois last October, the now-sophomore has failed to lead a consistent passing attack and has thrown for nine scores with seven interceptions. In a blowout victory over Michigan in September of 2019, the Badger student section pleaded for Mertz, then a true freshman, to get some snaps. A four-star recruit, Mertz had come to Madison with massive expectations and widespread anticipation. Two years later, he’s viewed with more skepticism than hope, and his 2020 performance against Illinois, impressive as it was, is a distant memory with fans now back in the stands and a full schedule on tap for the Badgers.
Whether it goes well or terribly for him, Saturday morning at Soldier Field will arguably be the most important game of Mertz’s young college career as he stares across at his former mentor.