LAS VEGAS — Why is Jack Coan finishing his career as the starting quarterback for Notre Dame? It has a lot to do with the Illinois-Wisconsin game in 2020.
Coan was expected to start for the Badgers in that game, but a foot injury sidelined him and Graham Mertz, a former five-star recruit, stepped in to make his debut. Mertz completed 20 of 21 passes with five touchdowns in a blowout of the Fighting Illini and won the job for good. Coan left the Madison, Wis., campus as a graduate transfer and landed with the Fighting Irish.
Mertz and the Badgers meet Coan and the Irish today at Soldier Field in Chicago. Mertz has become a mystery man since his lights-out debut, passing for just four touchdowns in Wisconsin’s last eight games. Coan is consistent and has been the better player this season, passing for 828 yards with eight touchdowns and two interceptions in Notre Dame’s narrow victories over Florida State, Toledo and Purdue.
Quarterbacks aside, Wisconsin appears to have a few advantages, especially on the offensive line. The Badgers are typically big and physical up front, and junior Chez Mellusi has been a workhorse running back.
The offensive line is a weakness for Notre Dame. Coan has been sacked 14 times while star running back Kyren Williams has struggled to bust loose. If the line holds up, the Irish have more big-play potential. Wisconsin is the stronger defensive team, but the point spread seems inflated at more than a field goal. Look at the underdog in a low-scoring game.
The pick: Notre Dame +6.5
Western Kentucky (+8.5) over Indiana
After a deflating loss to Cincinnati and with their Big Ten opener at Penn State on deck, the Hoosiers are in a sandwich spot. Indiana is also in a pickle with quarterback Michael Penix Jr., who has completed just 48.3 percent of his passes, with six interceptions, in three games.
The Hilltoppers, who had a week off to prepare, might be outclassed, but do operate a dangerous wide-open offense. Bailey Zappe has completed 74.7 percent of his passes for 859 yards and 10 touchdowns in two games.
Arkansas (+5) over Texas A&M
The Razorbacks proved they are for real in a 40-21 rout of Texas on Sept. 11. Behind dual-threat quarterback KJ Jefferson, Arkansas finished with 333 rushing yards and had a 471-256 advantage in total yards against the Longhorns. This rising team might be ready to take down another heavyweight from the state of Texas.
The Aggies will be without their No. 1 quarterback, Haynes King, because of a leg injury and will hope for the best from inconsistent and inexperienced starter Zach Calzada. Texas A&M, getting its first true test after opening against three lightweight opponents, will rely on running back Isaiah Spiller and its defense to avoid the upset.
Last week: 2-1. BYU (W), Penn State (W), Boise State (L).