The No. 11 Wisconsin Badgers (4-0) dominated the No. 8 Michigan State Spartans (2-1) in East Lansing during Saturday's Big Ten conference opener.
Here are three takeaways from UW’s second statement win of the 2016 season.
1. This defense is for real
Wisconsin’s defense lost one of its starting inside linebackers and a nickelback in consecutive weeks, and was shaky at times in a narrow win against Georgia State last week.
On Saturday, the Bbadgers overwhelmed the Spartans’ offense, forcing four turnovers and only allowing 4-of-13 third-down conversions. The biggest turnover led to direct points, with Leo Musso returning a fumble 66 yards for a 20-6 lead in the third quarter. That may have been the soul-crushing blow to Sparty early into the second half.
More impressively, Wisconsin didn’t allow a touchdown against an offense that gained over 500 yards last week against Notre Dame. Michigan State actually out-gained Wisconsin 325-317 on the afternoon, but keep in mind 206 yards came after Corey Clement’s five-yard touchdown run to put UW up by 24.
The Badgers were able to consistently pressure Tyler O’Connor, ending the day with four sacks. That run game that gained 260 yards against the Fighting Irish only mustered 75 against a stiff front seven.
Can Wisconsin continue this heading into a top 10 matchup in Ann Arbor next week? We’ll see.
2. Wisconsin’s offense can come up clutch.
It was one of my keys to the game: convert on third (and fourth) downs, and in the red zone. UW could not afford to miss out on scoring opportunities, and it needed to move the chains.
For the game, Wisconsin was under 50 percent (7-for-16) on third downs, but starting on the first two offensive drives, quarterback Alex Hornibrook completed two key conversions through the air. When driving for their first touchdown, two fourth-down conversions kept the series alive.
On the day, the Badgers converted all three of their red-zone opportunities, all resulting in touchdowns that stretched the lead and extended the advantage to at least two scores.
3. Alex Hornibrook looks the part.
First career start on the road against a tenacious defense and the No. 8 team in the nation—no sweat, right?
The redshirt freshman made it appear that way, completing 16 of 26 passes for 195 yards with a touchdown and interception apiece. He showed the poise many have seen throughout spring practices and fall camp, and also a dynamic Hornibrook brings in the passing game with accuracy in his passes at the second and third levels of the defense.
Even after losing a fumble on Wisconsin's first offensive series, he came back and led the Badgers to their first touchdown, the one-yard catch to redshirt senior Eric Steffes.
Back to third-down conversions—Hornibrook had huge success in the passing game, going 9-of-13 for 136 yards and a touchdown, with six first downs. As noted before, Wisconsin scored touchdowns in the red zone.
Hornibrook completed passes to six different receivers on the afternoon, and showed his accuracy throughout the game. It’s a promising start, even without the running game picking up much against a stout Spartans defense and injuries on the offensive line leading to former walk-on/"backup to the stars" Brett Connors starting at center.