With a brand new air raid offense, any given Badger quarterback now figures to throw the ball more than ever. While running backs have typically dominated in Madison, head coach Luke Fickell wants to modernize the offense and keep 8-man boxes away from the line of scrimmage.
Tanner Mordecai, Wisconsin’s current signal caller, put up over 7,000 yards at SMU in his last two seasons, and is on pace for 2,800 yards after two games in 2023.
So how do Badger quarterbacks of the past stack up in single season passing yards?
The top-20 past quarterback seasons
A note that this list includes bowl numbers, and more recent players have had the opportunity to play in more games thanks to the Big Ten Championship and bowl games.
- Russell Wilson, 2011, 3,175 yards
Wilson had a special year in Madison after transferring from North Carolina State. The senior completed over 72 percent of his 309 attempts, averaging over 10 yards per play each time he threw the ball. Combine that with 33 touchdowns and just 4 interceptions, and you have the best passer to ever grace Camp Randall.
- John Stocco, 2005, 2,920 yards
Stocco has the third-most passing yards ever in Wisconsin history, and his best year came as a junior. He threw for 21 touchdowns and 9 picks that year, plus rushed for a couple scores. While not quite as prolific as Wilson, Stocco put up huge numbers in an era just before rulebooks were rewritten to favor offenses.
- Jack Coan, 2019, 2,727 yards
A divisive figure throughout Badger fandom, Coan broke through in 2019 before getting injured and benched for Graham Mertz in 2020. In 2019, Coan had nearly a 70% completion rate to go with 18 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. After transferring to Notre Dame in 2021, Coan broke his personal best and threw for over 3,000 yards. Oh what could have been…
- Scott Tolzein, 2009, 2,705 yards
If you had told me Tolzein would end up starting a game for the Packers some day, I would have said you were crazy. But back in 2009, quarterback Tolzein impressed Badger Nation with gritty performances that just seemed to win games. Wisconsin ended 2009 outside the top 25, but had a more than respectable 10-3 record.
- Joel Stave, 2015, 2,687 yards
Probably my favorite Badger quarterback of all time, Stave just knew how to get it done. Stave is Wisconsin’s all-time passing leader with 7,635 yards over about three years of regular playing time. Stave had to compete with Melvin Gordon for touches in 2014 (I still think Gordon was snubbed of a Heisman that year) but broke out his senior year.
- Alex Hornibrook, 2017, 2,644 yards
Hornibrook is another controversial figure for Badger fans, but had a very good 2017 before he was benched for Coan. He threw for 25 scores and 15 picks over the 14 games played that year, and put up an all-time performance against Miami in the Orange Bowl, scoring 4 touchdowns.
- Tyler Donovan, 2007, 2,607 yards
I can’t pretend to know a lot about this one-year starter who took over for Stocco, but he had one of the single best seasons of a Badger quarterback ever in his senior campaign. Donovan not only produced 17 touchdowns through the air, but scored five more on the ground. He also had the Big Ten’s second-highest yards per attempt, and third-highest efficiency rating.
- Joel Stave, 2013, 2,494 yards
Before putting up the fifth-most yards in a single season his senior year, quarterback Stave cracked the top 10 as a junior. Sure the Badgers got dominated by Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship, and sure Wisconsin ended the season with a 9-4 record, but at least Stave led them to a Capitol One bowl.
- Scott Tolzein, 2010, 2,459 yards
We now have our second player with multiple top-10 seasons, and again it’s the future Green Bay Packer. Tolzein wasn’t quite as good in his senior year as he was in his junior year, but it was still enough to get Wisconsin into the Rose Bowl. We will not talk about what TCU quarterback Andy Dalton did to the Badger defense in that Rose Bowl.
- Randy Wright, 1983, 2,329 yards
Wright is another guy who played well before my time, but based on era alone this might be the greatest accomplishment a Badger quarterback has ever had. Wisconsin was a dismal program in the 80’s, but Wright led the team to a 7-4 record while leading the Big Ten in touchdowns and total yards. Plus he had some guy named Al Toon to throw to.
- Darrell Bevell, 1993, 2,294 yards
Bevell is arguably the greatest quarterback in Wisconsin Badgers history. He still holds on to the second most passing yards by a Badger quarterback of all time, and he did it all between 1992-95. Putting up over 7,000 yards in the 90’s is a feat of its own – putting up over 2,000 as a sophomore at Wisconsin is in another stratosphere.
- Darrell Bevell, 1995, 2,273 yards
In his second appearance on this list, Bevell continues to make his case for Wisconsin GOAT. After a down year as a junior, Bevell came back firing and threw his most attempts as a Badger. He got close to his 1993 numbers, but fell a bit short.
- Jim Sorgi, 2003, 2,251 yards
Sorgi kind of came out of nowhere as a senior, and doubled his total yards as a Badger after winning the full-time job. His most notable stats of the year include 19 touchdowns through the air and on the ground, versus just 9 interceptions.
- John Stocco, 2006, 2,185 yards
While Stocco didn’t come very close in his senior year to putting up the numbers he did as a junior, he did improve his touchdown to interception ratio, and still threw over 2,000 yards in 11 games. If Wisconsin had made it to the Big Ten Championship and to a bowl, this number could have been a lot higher.
- Graham Mertz, 2022, 2,136 yards
My favorite Graham Mertz fun fact: he was the first college football player to jump on NIL opportunities. Sure, he basically stole his logo from the gaming company Guerilla, but everyone has to start somewhere.
- Randy Wright, 1982, 2,019 yards
It’s amazing to me that a Badger quarterback had two years over 2,000 yards passing in the ‘80s. 1982 wasn’t even a great year for Al Toon, who finished outside the top 10 in receiving yards in the Big Ten.
- John Stocco, 2004, 1,999 yards
A third mention for Stocco on this list. The sophomore was still growing into himself this year, and was agonizingly close to 2,000 yards.
- Graham Mertz, 2021, 1,958 yards
In his first non-COVID shortened season, Graham looked just OK. The hype around him becoming the greatest quarterback in Badger history pretty much died, and everyone became content with mediocrity. He did win a bowl game against Arizona State, which felt amazing eight years after Joel Stave had a win against the Sun Devils stolen by incompetent refs.
- Mike Howard, 1984, 1,924 yards
Now I don’t want to discredit anything Howard did this year, but compared to his junior and senior seasons (when he threw for 643 and 586 yards, respectively) this was a fluke. 1984 also just happened to be the final year Al Toon graced Camp Randall before heading to the NFL. Coincidence?
- Mike Samuel, 1997, 1,812 yards
Samuel came around right when Wisconsin football became Wisconsin football. The quarterback led his team to three straight bowl games from 1996-98, with his best season coming in the middle of that run. While 1,812 yards is impressive, it was still the ‘90s, and Samuel finished the season with just 8 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
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