Despite their attempts, Paul Chryst and Brian Kelly were fighting a losing battle.
When Wisconsin and Notre Dame meet Saturday at Chicago's Soldier Field, Jack Coan, the Fighting Irish quarterback, will be starting against the team he led to a 10-4 record just two years ago.
"Certainly, there's a story line, but yet it's important that it's Wisconsin vs. Notre Dame,'' Chryst, the Badgers coach, said.
"We can do as much as we want and make it a story,'' Kelly, the Fighting Irish coach, said. "In [our] building, it's not that much of a story.''
Nice try, guys, but when a quarterback is starting against his former team in a game on this big of a stage people will flock to that angle. Both ESPN's "College GameDay'' and FOX's "Big Noon Kickoff'' will air their shows from Chicago, and FOX will broadcast the game at 11 a.m.
Coan has guided Notre Dame to a 3-0 start and No. 12 ranking in the Associated Press Top 25. Wisconsin, which is starting sophomore Graham Mertz at QB, is 1-1 and ranked No. 18 following a season-opening loss to Penn State and a win over Eastern Michigan.
How Coan, a graduate transfer, ended up at Notre Dame has roots in both an injury and the Badgers' recruiting.
After earning All-Big Ten honorable mention honors as Wisconsin's starting QB in 2019, Coan entered 2020 training camp as the starter for the Badgers. A broken foot forced Coan to miss the season, and Chryst and his staff turned to Mertz, a four-star recruit from Overland Park, Kan., who redshirted in 2019.
Mertz became the first freshman to start a season opener for the Badgers, and he impressed by completing 20 of 21 passes for 248 yards and five TDs in a 45-7 win over Illinois. However, Mertz was diagnosed with COVID-19 after the game, and he went 3-3 as the starter the rest of the season, throwing four more TD passes but five interceptions.
The Badgers decided Mertz was their future for 2021, and Coan landed at Notre Dame. The Sayville, N.Y., native acknowledged Saturday's game could bring out mixed emotions.
"It's definitely going to be weird because it's going to be a lot of my friends I'm playing against, guys who I still talk to today,'' Coan said.
Coan has been solid for Notre Dame, passing for 366 yards and four TDs in a 41-38 overtime win at Florida State, tossing the winning TD pass with 1:09 left in a 32-29 escape vs. Toledo, and throwing two TD passes in a 27-13 win over Purdue.
"I'm excited for him,'' Wisconsin defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. "He's just gotta have one bad game this year. Aside from that, I wish him all the best.''
As Chryst and Kelly said, there are other story lines. For Wisconsin and Mertz, Saturday offers a chance to get back on track after their 16-10 loss to Penn State, a game in which Mertz lost a first-half fumble and threw fourth-quarter interceptions from the Nittany Lions 8- and 32-yard lines.
For Kelly, it's a chance to break a tie with Knute Rockne for most victories by a Notre Dame coach. Both have 105, and Kelly knows his place in the record books.
"I can tell you exactly where I sit in Notre Dame history: the coach that won more games that hasn't won a national championship,'' he said. "That's where I'll sit.''
A victory over Wisconsin in this Shamrock Series game would boost Notre Dame's chances in that title pursuit. How Coan fares against his old team will speak volumes.
"At the end of the day, it's just another football game,'' Coan said.