NEW YORK CITY — This year nearly set up perfectly for quarterback Jack Coan to redshirt.
The University of Wisconsin opted for Danny Vanden Boom during garbage-time situations early in the year, and starter Alex Hornibrook returned from a head injury for the Badgers’ regular-season finale against Minnesota — just in time for Coan to remain under the four-game limit for maintaining a year of eligibility.
But when Coan learned Hornibrook’s head injury would keep him out of Thursday’s Pinstripe Bowl versus Miami at Yankee Stadium — and that he would be starting instead — it wasn’t difficult for him to feel excited for the opportunity.
“Obviously I thought about (the redshirt) once they told me I was going to be starting,” said Coan, who hails from Sayville, N.Y., about 55 miles east of New York City. “Honestly, I’m thankful that I’m starting this game. I think it’s important for the senior class to go out on top. They’ve been through a lot and they’ve done a lot for this program, and anything I can do to help them, I’m going to do, so just going to give everyone my all. … This is definitely not a meaningless game.”
UW’s plan entering the season was only to play Coan in meaningful situations, and despite both teams entering Thursday’s game with 7-5 records, the Badgers certainly believe this qualifies.
Coan’s first four games, three of which were road starts at Northwestern, Penn State and Purdue, were up-and-down experiences. He struggled in his first two starts but made noticeable improvements against the Boilermakers — even tossing two fourth-quarter touchdown passes to help force overtime in an eventual 47-44 victory.
On the year, the sophomore’s completed 61 percent of his passes for 442 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions.
“We kind of just threw him in the fire towards the middle of the season,” UW running back Jonathan Taylor said. “I feel like he’s starting to develop very well, and now we fully trust in him. We’re prepared to go into battle with him.”
Miami defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said the Badgers’ offense didn’t change much when Coan replaced Hornibrook during the regular season, and that as long as Taylor’s in the backfield, UW’s offense has a chance for success regardless of who’s under center.
“Their completion percentage is 100 percent every time they turn and hand it to him,” Diaz said.
Still, the Badgers’ passing game struggled for most of the year, and Coan must face the Hurricane’s top-ranked passing defense Thursday.
Coan didn’t have the opportunity to follow up his improved performance at Purdue since Hornibrook returned against Minnesota, but he’ll have that chance this week against better competition on the other side of the ball.
It helps that Coan knew well in advance that he’ll be the guy under center — unlike many of his recent starts where Hornibrook entered the week questionable to play.
“I think that’s a definite benefit,” UW offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said. “I think, one, it sets your mindset early. And I think it helps you embrace your role right off the bat. And then I think you can curtail some things for him and make it friendly for what he’s confident in.”
UW coach Paul Chryst said last week that it’s too early to discuss Hornibrook’s long-term future as he continues to struggle in overcoming his head injury. Even if he does return next season, the Badgers could be heading for a quarterback battle this offseason after Hornibrook’s play took a step back from 2017.
Coan could find himself directly in that competition, and winning the starting job in either 2019 or 2020 could lead media and fans to revisit UW’s decision to burn his redshirt for a lower-tier bowl game.
Coan has said multiple times this season that he tries to stay in the moment, though, and that won’t be any different when taking the field this week.
“I’m not really focused on (next year) right now,” he said. “I have a chance to start right now, so I’m just going to focus on that and try to play as well as I can.”
Key players miss practice
Left guard Michael Deiter, safety D’Cota Dixon and cornerbacks Deron Harrell and Madison Cone all sat out of Monday’s practice with undisclosed injuries.
UW right tackle David Edwards also said Monday that he’s still unsure if he’ll play in Thursday’s Pinstripe Bowl.
Edwards missed the final two games of the regular season due to a left shoulder injury that he suffered during fall camp in August. He played through the injury for 10 games before attempting to rest it.
“Still trying to work through everything and see come game time,” Edwards said. “Still trying to get as healthy as I can and get all that strength back.”
Jason Galloway is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.