THE GOOD: What positives came out of Saturday’s loss?
Owen Riese: I hate to be obvious here, but the Badger defense, even without Vince Biegel is elite. They held a Michigan team that averaged north of 50 points a game to 14, with what seemed like every UM possession starting in Badger territory. They were able to force three field goals, and gave up 14 points, that should be good enough to win a game. However, it unfortunately wasn't enough on Saturday.
Cory Lindenberg: Right up until the very end, the Badgers had a chance to win the game against what was their most formidable opponent to date. With LSU and Michigan State fading, someone could make the argument that the Badgers are running into teams that are overrated at the right time, but Michigan has put up points on opponents with the consistency of Belichick cutting off the hoods and sleeves from his sweatshirts, blowing out competitive Colorado and Penn State teams, and the Badgers went toe to toe with what may be their first truly top 5 foe.
Jake Kocorowski: Two things quickly. Piggybacking off of Owen’s answer with the defense—you didn’t hear Garret Dooley or Zack Baun’s name mentioned really in a negative light. Most notably, Dooley played quite well, registering seven tackles, one sack and one quarterback hurry. The redshirt junior asserted himself in the game, and the defense played well enough to win. Quite the accomplishment when your team captain and emotional leader is ruled out for several weeks.
Another positive—you didn’t hear Jabrill Peppers’ name at all on special teams. He returned two punts for 19 yards (much below his average), and his one kickoff return went for 14 yards. When many thought a play in the third phase of the game would ultimately decide the game, Wisconsin contained his explosiveness.
THE BAD: Plenty of teaching lessons to go around. With a week off, what will the Badgers have to do better against Ohio State?
Owen: Plain and simple they're going to have to run the ball more effectively. The offense line, although better than last year’s group, was really dominated for most of the day by a stout Michigan front 4. Unfortunately, the level of competition doesn't drop at all heading into the game versus Ohio State. The OL has to establish a run game and keep some pressure off of Alex Hornibrook, who people wanted to anoint king a week ago, but now agree that he's just a freshman quarterback. The correct take is likely somewhere in the middle, but he can't be leaned upon to carry the offense at this point.
Cory: Take advantage of big play opportunities. This is what separates the men from the boys when top teams duel, especially when one of those teams is still searching for an offensive identity. On the defensive side of the ball there were several sack opportunities that Speight was able to muscle through and turn into a positive play. Maybe one of those ends a drive, or even better a fumble that gives the offense a short field. And while it isn’t fair to expect the defensive backs to intercept every pass (anyone that played NCAA 2007 will remember the announcer saying “that's why they play defense” after dropped interceptions), an interception in the first quarter keeps points off of the board, and the one in the end zone had the chance to be a pick 6 if things broke right. Offensively the run game isn’t the road graters Badger fans have come to expect quite yet, so Hornibrook has to connect on explosive pass plays if Wisconsin is going to be able to topple a truly elite team.
Jake: The punting game in the first half led to some quite favorable field position for the Wolverines. In consecutive series, Michigan started at its own 44 and UW’s 39-yard line. If not for the defense locking up and the Wolverines’ missing two field goals, this game wouldn’t have been as close as it was. True freshman Anthony Lotti did place the ball, as two of his five punts were downed inside Michigan’s 20-yard line, but he averaged 34.8 yards per punt with just a long of 40. Kickoff specialist P.J. Rosowski performed slightly better (36.8 yard average with four punts), but this phase of the game is concerning facing a top-2 team in Ohio State in a couple of weeks.
UP NEXT: BYE WEEK. Through five games against three top-10 teams, the Badgers are 4-1. What have you liked from this team so far?
Owen: They're a very resilient group who has developed an “us against the world” type of attitude, and it shows. Even in defeat, they put a scare into Michigan and lost by 7 on the road at a top 5 team. They're not intimidated by any team, and that will bode well for them moving forward this season.
Cory: If someone asked me before the season started if I would take a 7 point loss on the road against a top 4 team during the fifth week of the season, I would have said yes please. Preseason expectations for this season hovered somewhere between let’s try to be near .500 by the end of the year and a rebuilding year wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. The fact that this group has shattered the glass ceiling and put a charge into the fan base is really something to take a second and appreciate. The defensive personnel have cemented the fact that they are an extremely talented group of players that aren’t beholden to Arandan wizardry to succeed and Hornibrook has shown that while there are certainly going to be growing pains, the offense has a promising signal caller that can unlock some special seasons for years to come.
Jake: Owen and Cory have hit the main points, but I’ll dig a little deeper into the defense. The secondary had tons of questions coming into the season with the loss of three starters and their defensive backs coach in Daronte Jones, but cornerbacks Sojourn Shelton and Derrick Tindal have played very well this season—combining for four interceptions and 10 pass break-ups. Even with the loss of Natrell Jamerson for several weeks, junior Lubern Figaro has stepped up admirably in his absence after a forgettable 2015.
The biggest surprise may be how well the safeties have acclimated themselves into this defense. Senior Leo Musso has shown he can play well against top-10 talent and be a factor, and D’Cota Dixon is a punishing hitter who hasn’t been a liability in the defensive backfield but has shown he can also provide pressure to the quarterback (three quarterback hurries and a sack). Having three-time All-American and 10-year NFL veteran Jim Leonhard guide them is an added boost. The secondary, despite the long touchdown reception by Michigan, has become one of the strengths of the defense. We’ll see how they respond against the Buckeyes.
FIVE GAMES IN: TEAM MVP. If you would pick your MVP almost halfway through the season, who would it be and why?
Owen: It has to be one of the outside linebackers, probably. The offense has had a different hero every week, but the defense has been rock solid week in and week out, and it starts with Vince Biegel. The pressure he puts on opposing offenses both against the run and the pass forces him to be accounted for on every snap. While his replacement played well against Michigan, it was evident in pass rush situations, especially against Michigan’s backup left tackle, the Badgers needed their stud. Unfortunately, he was out.
Cory: Paul Chryst. There are few positions in the sport of football that can singularly impact a game. If the defensive line doesn’t do their job, the linebackers can’t do theirs. If the offensive line doesn’t make a hole or protect the passer, quarterbacks and running backs can’t make plays. Players that make their own plays exist, but the way the Badger team has put things things together over the last 5 weeks is a testament to the coaching staff’s ability to put players in situations that allow them succeed. The amount of things that have broke Wisconsin’s way in terms of player development--the defensive backfield, quarterback, and offensive line to name a few-- and the way the Badgers have been able to leverage their strengths has Chryst’s and the coaching staff’s fingerprints all over them and offers a stark contrast to the bygone days of Gary Anderson.
Jake: I’ll take the other outside linebacker spot with T.J. Watt. He had “breakthrough” player written all over him heading into 2016, and the pairing of Watt and Biegel have really given offenses headaches. Though Biegel hasn’t had the stats many thought he would (two tackles for loss, one sack through four games), he was rated as one of the conference’s best pass rushers. Watt’s converted on those opportunities when needed—leading the team in sacks (5.5), quarterback hurries (5) and tackles for loss (7.5), while also being second in the team in tackles with 29. The latter may be the most impressive aspect to his game so far, as he was second on the team in tackles (11) on Saturday, and has shown he’s not just a one trick pony as an edge rusher.