As a unit, the 2018 Badgers came into their season ranked No. 4 in the nation. A clear preseason playoff contender, their shortcomings became clear as soon as competitive play actually began.
Most notably, the Brigham Young University loss shook the Badgers to their core. As a team that was then ranked within No. 5 in the country, a loss to an unranked BYU crushed any hopes of a playoff run.
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Prior to their first loss of the season against BYU, the Badgers defeated their opening two opponents handily. Despite this, it was the first two wins of the season in 2018 that shined a light on the faults of the Badgers that ultimately caused their season to hit a wall.
It follows then that the big question coming into this season was whether or not the Badgers, still ranked as a top team in the nation at No. 17, would be able to live up to expectations and continue to improve performance.
As of now, all signs point to a clear and definitive yes. With an opening 2-0 record as well as a stunning aggregate score line of 110–0, the Badgers are back in business.
The first part of that record, the 110 points scored in their opening two games, is an impressive stat in its own right. But it’s not the number of points the Badgers scored that matters the most, it’s how they scored them.
In the opening two games of 2018, just 38% of their total offensive production came from pass attempts made by Alex Hornibrook. This placed a heavy burden on Jonathan Taylor and the Wisconsin offensive line to drive the offense nearly single-handedly.
In 2019, 58% of the Badgers’ aggregate offense yards gained have come from the air. Despite his extremely impressive performances up to this point, Chryst decided to pull Taylor from each of the opening games prior to the beginning of the fourth quarter.
Through the first two games of this season, Taylor is averaging 121.5 yards per game. Against Western Kentucky and New Mexico, he averaged a stunning 201.5.
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While generally one would think more rushing yards from arguably the nation’s top running back would be a good thing, the fact that Taylor has not had to carry the offense is a good sign heading into the Badgers’ bye week.
This is especially true when the Badgers, while still under-utilizing Taylor, managed to outscore their initial two opponents by a significantly higher margin than the previous season.
Perhaps the most promising sign of life for a once heavily doubted Badger team is their revamped defense.
Without a doubt, the Badgers’ lackluster defensive performances were one of the most disappointing and damaging aspects of their game.
In 2017, the Badgers’ defense was ranked No. 4 overall in the nation on their way to a victory in the Orange Bowl against Miami. In 2018, they earned a measly No. 38 spot ranking on that same list on their way to an 8-5 season.
Even as the Badgers held Western Kentucky and New Mexico to just a combined total of 17 points over two games, some holes in their defense began to be apparent.
Most notably, the Badgers allowed Western Kentucky 305 yards of total offense in their season opener at home. While they held WKU to just a single field goal, WKU was anything but a sturdy offensive threat as they would end up going just 3-9 on their season and score an average of just 21 points per game.
The Badger defense got off to a shaky start that served as a prelude to an early season heartbreaker against BYU.
Any doubts that lingered after last year’s defensive performances have certainly been squashed after the Badgers’ opening games against South Florida and Central Michigan.
Over these two games, the Badgers allowed a whopping zero total points. Zero. Nada. Zip. Zilch.
But as shown with WKU, points don’t always tell the whole story.
Currently, the Badgers are ranked second in the nation for pass yards allowed per game with just 87, second in the nation in rush yards allowed per game with 20.5 and first in the nation for total yards allowed per game at 108.
Finally, their zero points allowed per game puts them at first in the nation for yet another defensive statistical category.
It remains to be seen how these early performances will translate when the Badgers run up against more formidable opponents. Yet, if last season’s opening games were any indication of the mediocrity that was to come, then this year’s opening games point towards Badger team that has made significant strides towards improvement.
The only bad news that came from the start of the Badgers’ season was that safety Scott Nelson will miss the rest of this season following a leg injury suffered in the season opener against USF.
Nelson made the announcement official over Twitter on Saturday following the Central Michigan game.
“While I am disappointed to receive the news that my season is over because of an injury, I will not be deterred” said Nelson. “My plan is to be back on the field and better than ever when we kick off in 2020.”
With a secondary who was marred by injury and inexperience in 2018, the loss of a returning starter is a big hit for the team.
The loss of Nelson is certainly a hit to the Badgers’ defense, but their performance up to this point has been stunningly impressive.
All visible indicators point toward a revamped Badger team that is set to build upon last year’s campaign. One thing is for certain — they will be interesting to watch as they take on top Big Ten competition at Camp Randall throughout the year.