It surprised no one when four University of Wisconsin offensive linemen paraded into the postgame interview area wearing T-shirts that endorsed a Heisman Trophy candidate Saturday.
The name on the front of the shirt, however, wasn't what anyone expected.
That's right, the offensive linemen who block for Badgers quarterback Jack Coan kicked off what — for now, anyway — is a tongue-in-cheek Heisman campaign for Coan following the eighth-ranked Badgers' stunningly complete 38-0 victory over Michigan State Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.
No, the linemen weren't showing any disrespect toward UW tailback Jonathan Taylor, the nation's second-leading rusher who really is Heisman candidate. Instead, it was meant as an inside joke between the linemen and their quarterback. Still, it showed how much they stand behind the unassuming Coan, who has led UW to a 6-0 record in this, his first full season as the starter.
"He's been playing great all year," guard David Moorman said. "We love him. Even if nationally he's not recognized, we recognize him as our leader and a great player. We think he should be deserving of being in the race."
Coan's statistics for the run-first Badgers aren't likely to land him in the Heisman race, but the junior quarterback showed against Michigan State's talented, athletic defense that he can be exactly what UW needs at the position.
Some college teams want a 400-yards-per-game gunslinger at quarterback, but not UW. With the nation's most respected running game year in and year out, the Badgers need someone at the position who can follow the game plan, make the right reads and move the chains when he is called upon.
The Spartans, who always possess one of the nation's top run defenses, figured to make life tough for Taylor, and they did. The junior tailback battled for 80 yards on 26 rushes, breaking his streak of 10 straight 100-yard games.
In some games, UW's offense has struggled when opponents sell out to stop Taylor, but not this time. Coan repeatedly kept drives alive with his efficiency, completing 18 of his 21 passes for 180 yards and a touchdown, which came on a 19-yard laser to wide receiver Quintez Cephus.
Indeed, it was Coan's performance on third and even fourth downs that kept UW's offense on the field for almost 40 minutes. En route to a 24-0 lead early in the fourth quarter, UW had scoring drives of 75, 75, 52 and 92 yards. Eight different receivers caught passes, a sign that Coan was reading the defense and working through his progressions while making the Spartans pay for the attention they were showering on Taylor.
"Jack is a great player and he's great for our team," Cephus said. "I don't know what the outside people say, but I know Jack's a great piece to our team."
On UW's first touchdown drive, Coan completed a 9-yard pass to Cephus on third-and-5. Then, when UW faced a fourth-and-2 at Michigan State's 28, he ran a play-action fake and found tight end Jake Ferguson alone behind the defense for a 27-yard gain to the 1.
On UW's third scoring drive, which ended with a field goal, Coan completed a 10-yard pass to wide receiver A.J. Taylor on fourth-and-5 and a 10-yard pass to wide receiver Danny Davis on third-and-9.
On UW's 15-play, 92-yard touchdown drive that put the game out of reach early in the fourth quarter, Coan faced a third-and-8 at the 22. Again he found Ferguson on a corner route and again Ferguson took it to the 1.
"When we got caught in second-and-8 or third-and-5 or even fourth down, he brought us back," center Tyler Biadasz said. "He made a play and connected with the wideouts. They did a great job catching the ball, too. All of our wideouts had a hell of a game. We got the running game churning a little bit. It wasn't the best way we can go, but that happens. People are going to have plans for us. We've just got to keep getting better every week and Coan's a great leader for us. We appreciate him."
Seldom does UW ask its quarterback to carry the offense, but its better quarterbacks have always been able to make a play here or there to keep the chains moving. That's what Coan did Saturday.
"I thought Jack was seeing things well, was in rhythm, and worked through (his progressions)," coach Paul Chryst said. "He had some where he had to work through it and I thought he was on. I thought the fourth down (to Ferguson) was a quick read and he saw what was happening and he had another big one hitting Ferg on a corner route. He worked through that one nicely. I thought he was good. He gave guys a chance to make plays and that was big."
Big enough to get him in the Heisman mix? Not likely.
But that didn't stop Coan's blockers, who saw some "Jacky Heisman" shirts on campus, had some made for themselves and broke them out Saturday.
"Those are funny shirts and those guys are all hilarious," Coan said. "It's funny how we have a guy that should win the Heisman on our team and they have shirts for me."
Coan is not the kind of guy to bring attention to himself, but the shirts could be a hot commodity this week.
"That's the first time I've seen that shirt," wide receiver Kendric Pryor said. "But I'm definitely on that bandwagon."
Slowly but surely, that bandwagon is getting more crowded.
Contact Tom Oates at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tom Oates has been a staff member of the Wisconsin State Journal sports department for 30 years and its editorial voice for more than 15, traversing the state and country to bring readers a Madison perspective on the biggest sports stories of the day — from UW athletics to the Green Bay Packers, Milwaukee Brewers and Bucks, as well as local teams such as the Mallards and Mustangs.
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Tom Oates has been part of the Wisconsin State Journal sports department since 1980 and became its editorial voice in 1996, traversing the state and country to bring readers a Madison perspective on the biggest sports stories of the day.