Welcome again to another edition of the B5Q roundtable sessions — where the points don’t count, and we always fire Drew Hamm.
The Wisconsin Badgers now ranks No. 8 in both the AP and Coaches poll after dominating then-No. 8 Michigan State 30-6 on the road in East Lansing. Lots to talk about, and our writers are here to break down the game.
The Good: What stood out to you in Wisconsin’s win?
Jake Kocorowski: There’s a lot here, but let’s talk turnovers created by the Wisconsin defense first. Redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook’s performance was great (more on that in my Game Ball answer), but four takeaways led to 13 points -- both touchdowns -- and really altered momentum in the game. Senior cornerback Sojourn Shelton’s interception in the second quarter led to Corey Clement’s first touchdown six plays later, and D’Cota Dixon’s forced fumble allowed Leo Musso to scamper 66 yards while hitting the circle button on Tyler O’Connor for a touchdown in the third quarter.
Interceptions later stalled out drives that showed promise for scoring, and Wisconsin’s only allowed three offensive touchdowns so far this season. Through four games, the Badgers’ defense has forced nine takeaways. That’s the most since the 2003 season.
Jon Beidelschies: What’s promising to me is that the Badgers were down a few critical starters (with a few more banged up) and were still able to lay the wood to Sparty. There is definitely a change in the program’s mentality. They simply did not win these kinds of games in the Bret Bielema or Gary Andersen eras. I am sure there is an example out there that someone will post in the comments and prove me wrong, but I don’t recall a time where the Badgers went on the road and just whipped a top 10 program. Under Chryst, there is a quiet aggression (consistently going for it on fourth down, thoughtful use of defensive pressure) that is weaving its way into the team’s DNA.
Kevin O’Connell: Play calling, play calling, play calling. Head coach Paul Chryst put together a masterpiece of a game plan for his freshman quarterback on Saturday. The Badgers ran the ball 41 times, but kept the Spartan defense on their toes all day with 26 pass attempts from Hornibrook. In recent years under Bielema and Andersen, Wisconsin has been tripped up because of the predictability of their play calling but Chryst finds creative ways to move the chains and takes more chances through the air. Chryst made all the right decisions in the red zone, and showed confidence in Hornibrook on a number of big play-action plays including his touchdown pass to tight end Eric Steffes. We all know how great Chryst was as an offensive coordinator under Bielema, but seeing a game plan like yesterday’s reminds you what an exceptional offensive mind he has.
The Bad: Great win, but what were some areas that could be improved upon?
Jake: Wisconsin only ran for 122 yards, averaging only three per carry (Corey Clement only gained 54 yards on 23 carries). In its defense (pun intended), however, UW faced a tough front seven on Saturday and the offensive line again had to be shuffled due to injuries -- as former walk-on Brett Connors made his first career start at center with Michael Deiter swinging out to left guard. A bright spot was redshirt senior Dare Ogunbowale, who rushed for 55 yards on nine carries.
It will bear watch to see the progression of both left guards Micah Kapoi and Jon Dietzen throughout the week.
Jon: Turnovers. The Hornibrook fumble on the first series was not great. The interception he threw with 0:01 left on the clock didn’t hurt, but it was a bizarre choice — there’s no way the receiver gets to the end zone. Hornibrook also got away with a few throws into triple coverage. He got lucky in East Lansing, but you do that consistently enough, you’re going to get burned.
Kevin: Piggybacking off Jon a bit, I think Hornibrook is going to have to move better in the pocket next week. It’s hard to nitpick the freshman quarterback after the performance he put together, but there was a number of plays where Hornibrook didn’t feel the rush, his fumble being the most notable example. I look for Chryst to roll Hornibrook out on more bootlegs to help him against a talented Michigan defense.
Team MVP: Who do you give the game ball to?
Jake: Gotta give it to Hornibrook here. The southpaw throws for nearly 200 yards, and even more impressive, completed 9-of-13 passes for 136 yards and a touchdown on third-down conversions. Even crazier stat -- he was 6-for-6 when throwing when the third down attempts were 10 yards or greater.
Head coach Paul Chryst has repeatedly mentioned they want to move the chains and score in the red zone. They did that for the most part on third down (yes, they were under 50 percent against the Spartans) but also converted two key fourth down opportunities on their first scoring drive. Hornibrook led the offense to three touchdown drives in the red zone -- something they couldn’t do against Georgia State.
Jon: Let’s spread the wealth a bit and give one to wide receiver Jazz Peavy and one to Shelton. Shelton had an early interception and a few passes defended that led to some big stops which had the Spartans out of sorts. Peavy had four catches for 96 yards. If he can continue to be a threat, that’s going to open up the middle of the field for the tight ends.
Kevin: Hornibrook is the clear choice, but I’ll go a different direction and give the game ball to T.J. Watt. J.J.’s little brother has been a beast all year and yesterday was no exception. He finished the game with six tackles, 3.5 for a loss, and 2.5 sacks to lead the Badgers’ impressive defensive effort.
UP NEXT: MICHIGAN -- what are your early keys to the game, and does the win against Michigan State vault Wisconsin into Big Ten Championship discussion?
Jake: I said last night on SB Nation Radio that the key again will be turnovers. Justin Wilcox’s defenses have been known for their turnover margin in his time at USC, Washington and Boise State. Takeaways swung momentum completely on Saturday with the Shelton and T.J. Edwards interceptions, and the back-breaking fumble return for a touchdown by Leo Musso. This last part is coachspeak, but continue to move the chains and make the most of their scoring chances. It’s what Chryst is preaching, and the team’s buying into it.
A win on the road, against the No. 8 team in the nation, and its second against a top 10 team in four games (and only giving up one offensive touchdown in those two outings), there has to be discussion about this team’s potential in regards to a conference title. Mind you, they still have to travel to Michigan and Iowa, with facing Ohio State at home in between, but this team has shown that they can compete week in and week out. These next two games against the blue bloods of the Big Ten will dictate if they can continue their “giant-killer” ways. It’s still early in the conference season, but that defense will keep Wisconsin in games this season. The offense just needs a bit more seasoning, and there was welcomed signs with Hornibrook under center.
Jon: I agree with Jake — they’re there. Even if the Badgers drop games against Michigan and Ohio State, they will still be perceived as one of the leaders in the West unless they just get the doors blown off. Iowa looked pretty bad against Rutgers (coming off the loss to North Dakota State). Nebraska just dropped 550 yards on a Northwestern team that may be kinda ok or really bad. Minnesota is still lingering but they had trouble against Colorado State.
I think the challenge for the Badgers over the next two games is to not buy into the hype. As they keep winning, they’re going to hear more from the fans, the press, and their friends. They have to tune all of that out and stay focused on the mission. It’s more of Jake’s coachspeak, but they also cannot let the moment get to large when they step onto the field at the Big House. They’ve already been in two big games away from home, but they need to play within themselves on Saturday.
Kevin: The defense gets its biggest challenge of the season next week against a Michigan team that has scored 45-plus points in each of their first four games. Jim Harbaugh has done wonders for quarterback Wilton Speight who suddenly looks like one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten, and Jabrill Peppers will need to be contained on returns and the few carries he is sure to get. Like Jake said, this defense will keep the Badgers close on the road but Wisconsin has to avoid big plays from De’Veon Smith, Amara Darboh, and a number of other explosive playmakers for the Wolverines.
As far as what Saturday’s win means for Wisconsin’s Big Ten Championship hopes, I think it makes them the clear favorite in a West division that is there for the taking. More importantly though, the win justified the Badgers’ high ranking from the LSU win and showed the College Football Playoff committee that they are a team to watch and take seriously as the season progresses. We all know how tough the schedule is, but with two impressive wins already behind them, Wisconsin is putting together one heck of resume with a chance to add to it in their next two games against powerhouses Michigan and Ohio State.