A night game at the Big House against the No. 12 Michigan Wolverines is certainly not one you can count on the No. 15 Wisconsin Badgers to win.
But when you lose to an unranked Brigham Young University early in the season, games like Saturday’s become must-wins.
Thanks to a banged up secondary and a weak aerial attack in a showdown with the top-ranked defense in the nation, the Badgers lost a true do-or-die game in their quest to make the College Football Playoff.
On Second(ary) thought…
You’re going to run into issues when you only have one player in the defensive backfield with any meaningful playing time under their belt prior to this season.
And when that one player doesn’t suit up for the game, like senior safety D’Cota Dixon Saturday, you’re begging to be picked apart by an experienced quarterback.
Though, as easy as it would be to lay blame on safeties Eric Burrell and Reggie Pearson, who both made their first career start (it was Pearson’s first time in a game), Michigan didn’t exactly torch the Badger’s pass defense.
Wolverine quarterback Shea Patterson only threw for 124 yards, albeit on an efficient 14–21, and Burrell led the team with 11 tackles in his best attempt at a Dixon impression.
So what gives?
Quarterback Alex Hornibrook has now played the two worst games of his career in Ann Arbor.
In 2016, in only the fourth game of his career, Hornibrook was 9-25 for 88 yards and three interceptions in an ugly 14–7 loss.
Saturday was much of the same, 7-20 for 100 yards and two touchdowns. But here’s the catch — it was even worse than that.
The junior nabbed 75 of those yards on a garbage time drive which had exactly 0 people raising an eye for the fourth quarter touchdown pass to receiver A.J. Taylor that brought the score’s margin all the way down to 38-13.
Hornibrook has, up until Saturday, been enjoying the best season of his career. He’d sneakily been leading the Big Ten in a plethora of quarterback categories and hearing whispers about his development.
It turns out the lefty might not be able to cut it against elite competition like the Wolverine secondary.
Can’t contain that quarterback scramble
All season long the Badger defense has had issues containing scrambling quarterbacks.
To start the season, Western Kentucky University’s quarterback Drew Eckels fared well with 38 yards, and just last week Nebraska’s quarterback Adrian Martinez had 57 yards, both on the ground against the Badgers.
That vulnerability was exposed Saturday, as Patterson’s modest night throwing the ball was surpassed by his ability to grab serious yardage with his legs (including an 81-yard play that set an inauspicious tone early and led to the first Wolverine touchdown).
Linebackers lone bright spot
Despite the shortcomings of seemingly every area of the Badger’s play Saturday, the linebacker corp led by T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly was able to make their mark.
The two seniors had a combined 18 tackles, four for a loss of yards.
This is a strong showing from a group that was supposed to have a huge impact for a highly touted Badger offense but has largely failed to make a lasting impression this season.
Taylor stays Taylor-ing
Running back Jonathan Taylor was faced with a tall task as he stared down at the best run-stopping defense in the nation.
While he didn’t come away with a vintage 225-yard performance, his 101 yards on 17 attempts were hard-fought and impressive gains against the tough Michigan front seven.
The 183 yards the Badgers managed in the ground game, which include two long runs on end-around by receivers Kendric Pryor and Danny Davis, were the most Michigan has allowed this season.
Especially in the first half, when Taylor had the bulk of his success, the Badger offensive line looked like they were holding their own in the trenches, and had no problem opening holes for Taylor to find daylight.
The Badgers will return to Madison to take on Illinois Saturday and will likely take out their frustrations on the unranked Illini team.