Wisconsin’s playoff hopes are dashed, their chances to win the Big Ten West necessitate they win their remaining schedule and injuries to key defensemen have weakened the team’s biggest asset. But Saturday at Camp Randall, Rutgers was in town. At 1-7 overall, the New Jersey university is simply not a good football team.
As such, Saturday was an opportunity to savor the present, to forget the empty feeling of leaving Evanston winless, to play like the elite program Wisconsin was deemed at the season’s onset.
To fit that mold, Wisconsin would need to make way for running back Jonathan Taylor, they would need to convert third downs regularly and pressure the quarterback early and often.
Through the first quarter, it felt like the days of old. Rutgers converted just one first down compared to Wisconsin’s eight and racked up a meager 37 yards of total offense. The Wisconsin pass rush finally beat blockers off the line, collapsing pockets and panicking Rutgers quarterback Artur Sitkowski.
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But with reminiscence also comes the plagues of the past. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook caught the interception bug that has chronically infected his arm his entire career, taking the opportune offensive position and gifting it directly to the opposition.
“[He] tried to make a few things that weren’t there,” head coach Paul Chryst said postgame.
Jonathan Taylor also reminded us why he’s a running back first, bobbling, bumbling and eventually botching any ball that came his way through the air.
Yet, when it mattered most, Wisconsin’s strengths outshone their weaknesses. Their opening drive took just under three minutes, went for 65 yards and ended in a pristine Taylor rushing touchdown. The ease in which the score was recorded felt almost therapeutic.
The ensuing Rutgers drives only added to that warm, fuzzy feeling. Running backs Raheem Blackshear and Isaih Pacheco had to scrape for every yard earned, amounting to just 37 between the two of them at the end of the first half. Sitkowski could never rely on a sense of comfort in the pocket, and a Wisconsin defensive line who simply could not string games together where their production was feared finally shook things up.
Of Rutgers’ six first-half drives, five ended in punts. Their last looked like a chance to finally get on the board, but their 45-yard field goal attempt was swatted by Wisconsin linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel. Rutgers’ kicker must have been exhausted.
But for how poorly Rutgers played in the opening half, Wisconsin’s performance could have clearly been stronger. Rutgers’ defense is porous, yet Hornibrook struggled to find an open receiver without fail. Jonathan Taylor was three yards shy of the century mark through two quarters but Wisconsin led just 10–0.
Hornibrook hit the bench with concussion symptoms to start the second half, which meant it was redemption o’clock for sophomore quarterback Jack Coan. He’d play a minimal role in the Badgers’ opening second-half drive, as Taylor and fellow running back Taiwan Deal would lead the offensive charge. Deal set ’em up when he broke free for 29 yards, and Taylor knocked ’em down as he slipped through tacklers en route to a 38-yard touchdown run.
With Hornibrook out, who had already set the team back after his turnovers, Wisconsin ditched their passing effort altogether. Their next scoring drive consisted of seven plays and 75 yards. Every play was a handoff, and Taylor reached 192 yards on the afternoon as he crossed the goal line.
Until the clock hit zero, it was the Jonathan Taylor show again. Badger fans were treated to a healthy dose of nostalgia after what felt like an eternity of middle of the pack production. The once Heisman candidate looked like his old self by game’s end, recording 208 yards on 27 carries and three touchdowns.
“[Taylor] is consistent in his approach and in his personality,” Chryst said. “He’s a worker.”
Once the fourth quarter began, Rutgers was effectively forced to wait until the clock ran out, as they never found any semblance of offensive production while Wisconsin continued to find the end zone. With just under four minutes remaining, Coan found Danny Davis for the sophomore wide receiver’s first touchdown of the season.
Wisconsin would cruise to a deserved 31–17 victory. Wisconsin’s big test next week comes in the form of No. 14 Penn State, an away game which, if lost, may exclude Wisconsin from Big Ten West contention altogether.