Up until Saturday’s disappointing display from the Wisconsin football team, in which they lost 31–17 to the Northwestern Wildcats (in case you hadn’t heard), much of the talk in Madison had centered around the play of quarterback Alex Hornibrook.
The reigning Orange Bowl MVP has struggled to live up to the great expectations set following last season’s 13–1 campaign. Fans and critics have been vocal and at odds with one another in their assessment of Hornibrook in what feels like a never-ending blame-game.
And yet, after getting trounced on the road by an unranked foe, it’s now fair to say the problems that ail the Badgers do not begin and end with Hornibrook.
Saturday’s game featured the long-anticipated debut (not counting limited garbage-time reps last season) of sophomore Jack Coan, who was serviceable in his relief, finishing the game 20–31 for 158 yards and a touchdown.
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Other than a botched handoff to running back Jonathan Taylor in the fourth quarter, Coan played about as well as one would expect in his first collegiate start. Though Hornibrook likely would have helped quell the Badger offense’s woes in Evanston, there’s much more work to be done before this team can again be considered among the Big Ten’s elite.
Taylor turned the ball over twice Saturday, one of which came on the aforementioned handoff from Coan. The other, a conventional fumble, points to a recurrent concern for the sophomore star — in his 22 games as a Badger, Taylor has coughed up the football 10 times. Weak ball security certainly won’t help Wisconsin’s chances of making a run in the Big Ten West.
3rd and forever
Wisconsin went 4/12 on third down conversions Saturday. The one-dimensionality of the Wisconsin offense was exposed by the Wildcat defense, who were able to hold Taylor to just 46 yards on 11 carries. Running back Garrett Groshek helped spark the Badger running attack with 68 yards on only 7 carries, but Wisconsin was unable to make big plays when it had to on third down.
In contrast, Northwestern was able to control the time of possession, outrunning the Badgers 182 to 165 and converting 8/17 third downs.
Despite picking off Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson three times, the Badger defense continued to struggle without some of its key players. A hobbled defensive front was exposed by the Wildcats, as freshman tailback Isaiah Bowser powered his way to 98 yards on 30 carries.
The defense is now missing three starting defensive backs, and with defensive tackle Olive Sagapolu re-injuring himself in the fourth quarter, Wisconsin will need its young defense to step up. The good news: they seem to be doing so — safety Evan Bondoc recorded his first career interception for Wisconsin filling in for veteran safety D’Cota Dixon.
At 5-3 (3-2 in Big Ten) the Badgers are on the ropes in the Big Ten West. A trip to Evanston presented Wisconsin chance to move into first place in the division, but they could not capitalize. The offense has to improve if the Badgers want to return to Indianapolis. Otherwise, teams will continue picking apart its monotonous production.