Wisconsin football: Why the historically awful QB play in Madison better end in 2019
Two years ago, I was in Madison to cover undefeated Wisconsin against Michigan. I’ll be honest. I wrote a story that’s sort of baffling to look back on.
It was about how Wisconsin won yet again despite the fact that Alex Hornibrook didn’t play well. On the day, he completed less than half his passes for 143 yards, 1 touchdown and 1 interception. It was the eighth straight game in which Hornibrook threw an interception, yet Wisconsin clinched an 11-0 start that day.
I wrote about how interceptions had become the norm and how it didn’t faze the defense. Like, they were so used to seeing them that it didn’t throw them off to have a short field. I mean, the Badgers were coming off a game in which Hornibrook threw 3 interceptions and they still won 38-14.
But hey, the Michigan win marked the 17th straight victory for Wisconsin in Hornibrook’s starts. Maybe there was something to be said for a defense expecting a quarterback to make mistakes.
OR MAYBE THEY WERE SO USED TO AWFUL QUARTERBACK PLAY THAT THEY DIDN’T KNOW THEY DIDN’T HAVE TO LIVE LIKE THAT.
It’s no secret that for as much success as Wisconsin has had in the last 20 years — thanks to the running game and a knack for turning 2-star defensive players into NFL guys — poor quarterback play has been a common denominator. Well, except for that one year when Russell Wilson graced Wisconsin with his presence. That was basically the equivalent of Beyonce walking into a dive bar in the middle of nowhere Kansas, singing one song and walking out (Ciara was probably the more fitting example to use there but you get the picture).
Wisconsin as a program isn’t a dive bar, but the quarterback room has been. Regulars like Hornibrook, Joel Stave, Bart Houston, Dustin Sherer, Tyler Donovan and a few others frequent this little hole-in-the-wall establishment.
The hope is that following Hornibrook’s transfer to Florida State — which apparently included an awkward exit from his Wisconsin teammates — Jack Coan and Graham Mertz don’t become the next regulars at the bar. I know it’s been said before, but it’s about time that place stops getting more regulars.
I know, Wisconsin fans. I’m preaching to the choir.
If there was ever a situation for a Wisconsin quarterback to finally step up, I have to think this is it. Obviously Jonathan Taylor is a big part of that. Having 8- and 9-man fronts keying in on the Heisman Trophy candidate on a regular basis should, in theory, help whoever is under center.
All signs point to Coan being that guy when Wisconsin kicks off 2019 at South Florida, though Mertz is reportedly doing everything in his power to win the job as a true freshman. It’s Mertz who enters as the program’s first 4-star quarterback recruit. Lord knows expectations are already sky high.
But there should be expectations for Coan to have success in this offense in 2019. The bar for him to exceed is, not surprisingly, low. Like, real low. Check out some of these passing numbers in the post-Wilson era (2012-18):
- 3,000-yard passers: 0
- > 8.5 yards per attempt (min. 150): 0
- 20+ TD passes by a QB: 2
- Double-digit INTs by a QB: 5
- Top 50 passing offenses: 0
- Passing offenses worse than No. 90 in FBS: 6
You read that correctly. Six of the seven post-Wilson seasons, Wisconsin had a passing offense worse than No. 90 nationally. That’s been the case the last 3 years. Last year’s finish of No. 119 nationally wasn’t just because of Hornibrook’s head injuries or the reliance on Taylor, either. Hornibrook threw an interception once every 18.6 passes, which actually dipped to 15.2 in B1G play.
Alex Hornibrook??? pic.twitter.com/P6XNHw7maC
— ’04 Rabih Abdullah (@ftbeard_17) November 3, 2018
It won’t take much for Coan or Mertz to look better than Hornibrook, Stave or some of the other regulars. One would think that working with a quarterback-focused head coach in Paul Chryst would help, as would having arguably the best running back in America. Then again, it didn’t help Hornibrook.
Chryst recently said that handling Taylor’s workload is an “art form.” If by that he means feeding the only guy who can move the ball for your offense because you have a quarterback who can’t take advantage of favorable coverages, then yeah, call that process an “art form.”
I call it accepting reality and hoping for the best.
To a certain extent, I’m sure Wisconsin fans have accepted this reality. That is, that this will always be the program’s identity, and that quality quarterback play in a run-heavy, cold-weather place is virtually impossible. To me, though, that’s a dated approach.
Last year, we watched Minnesota come into Wisconsin and light up the scoreboard. If that doesn’t convince you that anything is possible these days, I don’t know what will.
(For what it’s worth, I’m not alone in saying I would’ve loved to have seen what Coan could’ve done in that game instead of Hornibrook, who threw 3 interceptions. Fitting that Hornibrook’s final 4 starts at Wisconsin all included multiple interceptions.)
The key with Coan is giving him confidence. If that means actually letting him throw the ball 25-30 times a game to get into a rhythm, so be it. Preserve Taylor a bit and let an inexperienced quarterback get some needed reps? I’m on board with that.
If they can stay healthy — something that hasn’t exactly been the case in fall camp — Coan has basically all of last year’s key pass-catchers back with with Danny Davis, Kendric Pryor, A.J. Taylor, Jake Ferguson and even versatile fullback Garrett Groshek. The plan is to even get Jonathan Taylor more involved as a pass-catcher out of the backfield.
In other words, there’s no excuse for this offense to be one-dimensional anymore. If this is another year with one of the worst passing offenses in the B1G, I think it’s fair to start wondering how Chryst is ever going to turn Wisconsin’s quarterback into anything more than an afterthought (I can be optimistic about Mertz’s future and still think that).
Maybe this is just wishful thinking. Perhaps expecting quality quarterback play from a Wisconsin starter in the post-Wilson era is like waiting on a sunny, 75-degree, mid-December day in Madison.
Or maybe, just maybe, now is the time for that pipe dream to become a reality.