MADISON — Last weekend, sophomore quarterback Jack Coan prepared for the first start of his career in a rough road environment at Northwestern.
On Saturday, an injury to redshirt junior Alex Hornibrook again thrust Coan into game action, this time in relief.
Two games. Two different situations. Two different outcomes.
“Yeah it was definitely different,” Coan said, “but I always try to prepare the same way each week and prepare as if I’m the starter, so not much really changed.”
That mentality helped Coan lead three touchdown drives in the second half of Wisconsin’s 31–17 win over Rutgers on Saturday.
Against Northwestern, Coan completed 20 of 31 passes for 158 yards with a touchdown but also lost a fumble for an offense that struggled to generate points.
Now at home with a game of experience under his belt, the offense scored 21 points with Coan under center. The second-year quarterback finished the afternoon 5-of-7 for 64 yards with a touchdown.
“It was good for him to get back in,” head coach Paul Chryst said. “He took last week personal, and it was good for him to come back. Hate it at the expense certainly of Alex.”
Coan entered the game during Wisconsin’s first offensive series of the third quarter after Hornibrook was ruled out of the game with his second head injury of the season.
“We basically just told him, ‘We’ve got you. Don’t worry about anything. Don’t worry about last week. We’re here for you. We got you basically, we got your back,’” junior wide receiver A.J. Taylor said. “And he said, ‘Yeah, I got your back,’ so he was just joking around, but he seemed fine, seemed poised and there wasn’t too much needed to say to him.”
Wisconsin’s rushing attack stepped up to ease the task of replacing Hornibrook, the starting quarterback, with the first two drives of the second half consisting of 13 consecutive runs. They led to two touchdowns from running back Jonathan Taylor, who found the end zone on runs of 38 and 18 yards to put Wisconsin comfortably in the lead at 24–3 during the third quarter.
“It was just kind of implied that for starters, no matter who was playing quarterback, we wanted to come out in the second half and run the football. That’s what we want to do,” redshirt senior left guard Michael Deiter said. “Getting Jack in there, we knew that we could help him out if we could just get some runs going, get some first downs. Just kind of ease any tension that he may have.”
In the first half, the Badgers gained 100 yards on 22 carries. They finished the game with 317 on 46, good for 6.9 yards per carry. That meant 217 yards were gained on the ground on 24 attempts (9.04 yards per carry) with Coan in at quarterback in the second half.
Coan didn’t care how the first baker’s dozen of snaps were called so long as the offense was having success.
“I mean, I don't really care if we run the ball or pass the ball,” Coan said. “I’m just happy if we’re moving the ball and scoring touchdowns, so it was great to get JT and the line going, and it was awesome to see him go.”
Three of Wisconsin’s four drives in the second half resulted in touchdowns. Though the first series of the fourth quarter resulted in a turnover on downs, the Badgers came back to the pass on that possession’s first play. An easy pitch-and-catch from Coan to Taylor in the flat resulted in a 30-yard completion to the Rutgers 42-yard line.
After the Scarlet Knights scored to pull the game within two touchdowns at 24–10, Coan led the offense back on the field. Again, the rushing attack sparked the unit with runs by Taylor and Kendric Pryor of 17 and 20 yards, respectively.
Coan found some success through the air on the 10-play, 75-yard drive, including a pass to tight end Jake Ferguson on a 3rd-and-12 from the Rutgers 40-yard line to move the chains. Three plays later on yet another third down, he hit Davis on a 12-yard reception to gain another first down.
Wisconsin converted four of five third-down opportunities in the second half and eight of 12 overall for the game.
After a Garrett Groshek one-yard run, Coan delivered his second touchdown pass of the season, finding Danny Davis. The sophomore wide receiver, who finished the day with six receptions for 60 yards, eluded two defenders’ attempts at tackles and dove into the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown to cap Wisconsin’s scoring for the day.
“I just saw Danny come open, and I just gave him the ball and he did the rest,” Coan said. “He made an unbelievable move to get into the end zone.”
Looking at the difference between the last two games, Deiter believed Coan might have been a little more fluid and calm on Saturday, noting the benefit of having more playing experience and having the game in Madison instead of on the road.
Junior wide receiver A.J. Taylor also called out Coan’s poise.
“He seemed a lot more comfortable with the position. Everybody is saying, ‘Let’s just get him a win, let’s get him a win,’ so that’s what we did,” Taylor said. “But he did seem a lot more comfortable with playing out there and being out there.”
What did Coan take away from these first two weeks, with the possibility he may be needed next week at Penn State? The playing experience.
“I’ve played in a game. I know the speed of playing in an actual game, so I would say that’s the biggest thing,” Coan said.
How many games Coan will play this year remains up in the air. He has now seen action in two games, and the NCAA’s new rule allows players to participate in up to four without burning their redshirt year of eligibility. Hornibrook’s status will remain unclear until the preliminary injury report is released on Monday. An updated list will be released on Thursday.
Coan was asked if he had thought about using up the redshirt if pressed into game reps once again.
“I haven’t really thought about it too much yet, but I’m sure if that has to come up, I’ll talk to the coaches and I’ll trust whatever they think.”