It’s been quite the week leading up to the Wisconsin Badgers’ (3-0) conference opener against No. 8 Michigan State (2-0) Saturday in East Lansing.
After narrowly defeating Georgia State at Camp Randall Stadium last Saturday, a quarterback controversy stirred after a report late Sunday stated redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook was set to start in place of Bart Houston. While head coach Paul Chryst didn’t confirm the starter on Monday, Hornibrook accidentally let the cat out of the bag on Tuesday—and finally, UW confirmed it on Wednesday evening.
Then on Thursday, news hit that junior kicker Rafael Gaglianone (back) and redshirt freshman left guard Jon Dietzen (right leg) will miss the game, while substantial contributors in left guard Micah Kapoi (left foot) and running backs Corey Clement (left leg) and Taiwan Deal (right leg) are questionable.
Hobbled by injuries, the Badgers still have their front seven intact on defense, a secondary that should learn from its mistakes last week and an offense that could have an added dynamic with the sweet touch and accuracy Hornibrook delivers with deep passes.
Will that be enough, however, against a Spartans team that ran for 260 yards and accumulated over 500 yards of total offense against Notre Dame in a 36-28 win, as well as featuring a physical defense with an impressive set of linebackers and defensive tackle Malik McDowell?
Here are three keys to how Wisconsin can upset Michigan State to begin Big Ten play.
1. The offense needs to convert in the red zone and on third down
HOLY CLICHE, BATMAN! This holds true, however, for Wisconsin. Entering Saturday’s win vs. Georgia State midway through the third quarter, Hornibrook guided the UW offense to converting five of seven third downs. Houston, being a bit out of sync with the offense, managed only three of nine in that category.
Chryst has repeatedly called out that he wants his offense to improve in these categories. Wisconsin, on the year, is 40th in the nation in third-down conversion (45.7 percent). Michigan State’s defense is tied for 23rd (allowing 28 percent). This isn’t an Akron or Georgia State defense, and the Badgers only moved the chains three times in 15 attempts in that category against LSU. The talent on the Spartans’ defense will make this a challenge, even if Clement and/or Deal can play.
Hornibrook also led the offense to 17 of its 23 points, including converting scoring opportunities in the red zone on three drives. It wasn’t all Houston’s fault for 2.5 quarters, as a fumble at the goal line by Bradrick Shaw and a missed 30-yard field goal by Gaglianone left 10 points off the board. Deeper than that, though, they missed opportunities to put touchdowns on the board instead of field goals early on.
On the road, just converting field goals won’t be enough to topple the Spartans.
“Oh it drives me nuts,” Chryst said Monday when asked about red-zone inefficiency. “Those are opportunities—you don’t know when you get them or how you get them.”
2. Make Tyler O’Connor win the game
O’Connor, a fifth-year senior who hasn’t started a handful of games in his career (Saturday will be his fourth), looked impressive against the Fighting Irish last week. He completed 19 of 26 passes for 241 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.
However, the Spartans rushed for 260 yards on the evening, with Gerald Holmes gaining 100 yards on 13 carries (including a 73-yard touchdown) and L.J. Scott nearly eclipsing the century mark.
Wisconsin’s run defense allows only 82.3 yards per contest so far, 13th in the nation. The front seven, including an underrated defensive line, is among the best in the conference. If they can stuff the run, O’Connor will have to go to the passing game, which features some talented skill players in wide receivers R.J. Shelton and true freshman Donnie Corley.
The secondary will have to hold up after a less-than-optimal outing last week, but outside linebackers Vince Biegel and T.J. Watt could dictate the game with pressure from the edges. Wisconsin didn’t record a turnover in that close win last week after creating five over the previous two games. Force O’Connor to make some errant decisions under center, and the game will change rapidly.
Said to #Badgers TJ Watt: "I didn't see MSU use a lot of three-step drops like Georgia State." All he did was grin.— Jeff Potrykus (@jaypo1961) September 22, 2016
3. Walk-ons stepping up
NO, THIS IS NOT A CHEAP PLUG FOR MY BOOK (*coughs* available for preorder here coughs). There are six walk-ons in the two deep for the offense/defense, 11 if you include special teams. The starters you know on both side of the ball—tight end Troy Fumagalli, left tackle Ryan Ramczyk and inside linebacker Jack Cichy—will be counted upon, but several others will have to step into key areas due to injury.
Wisconsin needs to establish the running game to not be one-dimensional and to take the pressure off of Hornibrook in his first career start. With both Clement and Deal questionable with leg injuries, Dare Ogunbowale—last year’s leading rusher and one of this season’s team captains—will undoubtedly have a huge role if both are limited or out of the game.
His role this year may not be as significant as last year’s, but the converted cornerback has experience and can provide some versatility carrying the rock and as a receiving threat out of the backfield.
Blocking for him at some point in the game may be redshirt sophomore Brett Connors. The New Berlin, Wis., native essentially is the backup for all of the positions on the offensive line, as Dietzen is out of the game at left guard.
Connors may even be inserted into the starting lineup at that spot, as Kapoi is still dealing with a lingering left foot injury suffered during the LSU game. He’s currently listed as questionable, and with the depth so thin at offensive line, the 6’6, 306-pound Connors provides a quick plug where needed.
“That’s what I appreciated from Brett, he gives us versatility,” Chryst said.
The biggest impact may come from Gaglianone’s injury, as the Brazilian kicker returned to form in the early part of 2016, converting seven of eight field goals. His presence will be surely missed in terms of his accuracy and the strength of his leg.
Insert senior Andrew Endicott, who hasn’t attempted a field goal or extra point in his UW career and has been primarily known as a kickoff specialist.
The California native and former walk-on had a solid camp, and though he doesn’t have the leg of Gaglianone, Chryst said on Thursday that he wouldn’t trot out someone he didn’t feel confident in.
“I think he did have a good camp,” Chryst said. “That group of specialists, they’ve been fun seeing them growing and developing. Obviously “Raf” has been doing really well and [punter/kickoff specialist] P.J. [Rosowski]’s giving us something. Anthony [Lotti], I think he’s settling in. [Long snapper] Connor Udelhoven—it’s a good thing we don’t talk about him, right? He’s been good, and Andy—I feel good about that group.”
Wisconsin needs to convert scoring opportunities when presented in a rough environment in East Lansing. Endicott’s leg may end up deciding the game.