University of Wisconsin football players and coaches knew a day like Monday was coming back in December.
Once former Badgers quarterback Jack Coan decided to graduate transfer to Notre Dame, a team UW had on its schedule, the players anticipated a flood of questions about playing against their former signal-caller.
Those questions came again and again, but a theme present in the answers from coach Paul Chryst on down was simple.
“Certainly there’s a story line, and yet I think it’s important that it’s Wisconsin versus Notre Dame,” Chryst said. “Obviously we have respect for Jack and appreciate who he is as a person and player here and teammate, but it’s Wisconsin versus Notre Dame.”
As the No. 18 Badgers (1-1) get set for the 11 a.m. kickoff against the No. 12 Irish (3-0) on Saturday at Soldier Field in Chicago, the oddity of playing against a quarterback UW knows well was discussed often.
“I think it will be kind of a little weird at times, but at the same time, I think we’re all competitors,” UW inside linebacker Jack Sanborn said. “Jack (Coan) is, we all are, so I don’t think that it’s going to be a weird thing come Saturday. I think both sides of the ball, we’re just going to go out there and try to win the game.”
Coan played in 25 games, including 18 starts, at UW. The Badgers went 12-6 in his starts, including 10-4 during the 2019 season. Coan passed for 3,278 yards, 23 touchdowns and eight interceptions at UW. He had 297 completions on 437 attempts (67.96%) and averaged 7.5 yards per pass over his three seasons. His 236 completions in 2019 set a program record. Coan also rushed for five touchdowns at UW.
Coan was replaced as UW’s starter by Graham Mertz after Coan broke his foot during training camp in 2020. Coan didn’t appear in a game last season and has not yet made public his reasoning for transferring from UW. Notre Dame did not make Coan available to reporters this week, but Chryst last year said Coan told coaches the week of the Iowa game of his intent to leave.
Coan has thrown for 828 yards on 62 of 99 passing (62.6%), eight touchdowns and two interceptions in three games as the Notre Dame starter. After Coan and the Irish defeated Purdue last week, he said he wasn’t adding more weight to a game against his former team.
“A lot of people asked me if I’m taking this game personally and things like that. Not really,” Coan said. “It’s definitely going to be weird, just because it’s going to be a lot of my friends that I’m playing against, a lot of guys that I still talk to today. But at the end of the day, it’s just another football game.
“I’ll definitely talk to my friends this week and wish them luck. I mean, at the end of the day, I hope for the best for them. Obviously I hope for the best for me and this team as well. We’ve definitely talked about it a little bit a while back. It’s crazy it’s come to this moment already, and it’ll be a lot of fun.”
Coan also complimented UW’s defense and coordinator Jim Leonhard, whose unit Coan saw in practice every day for four seasons. Leonhard said Coan’s ability to absorb information and schemes, describe what he saw to coaches when making adjustments and apply what was discussed on the field stood out during his time at UW.
“He’s just got to have one bad game this year,” Leonhard said. “Outside of that, I wish him all the best.”
Sanborn said he didn’t believe either side had much of an advantage going into the marquee nonconference matchup — yes, the Badgers know what Coan likes to do, but he also knows what the UW defense is going for too.
Perhaps equally important to who will be under center for the Irish is who might not be on the field for the Badgers’ defense.
Senior safety Collin Wilder and senior cornerback Faion Hicks — two starters in UW’s secondary — are listed as questionable on UW’s preliminary status report. Both players sat out UW’s game against Eastern Michigan, but both were on the sidelines. UW’s status reports have not listed the reasons players are out or might be unavailable since the beginning of last season.
Senior safety Tyler Mais — a vital special teams player — and junior Jack Eschenbach, the No. 2 tight end, also were listed as questionable on the status report. UW has used personnel packages with two tight ends on about one-third of its plays, tied with three-receiver sets for the most used personnel groupings this season.
On the other hand, junior inside linebacker Leo Chenal — who missed UW’s first two games this season due to COVID-19 — is available this week and began practicing with the team last week.