In a tough environment at one of college football’s famed stadiums, the No. 7 Wisconsin Badgers overcame an early third quarter pick-six and rough first half on defense to overwhelm the Nebraska Cornhuskers in their 38-17 win on Saturday night.
The star of the game was undoubtedly true freshman running back Jonathan Taylor, who just earned Big Ten offensive player and freshman of the week honors on Monday, rushed for 249 yards on 25 carries with two touchdowns.
A Wisconsin defense that uncharacteristically allowed over 300 yards in the first half came back and halted quarterback Tanner Lee and Nebraska’s offense in the second half.
Our team of writers broke down the good, the bad, and what’s next for Wisconsin.
The Good: Besides Jonathan Taylor’s performance, what else stood out for Bucky on Saturday night?
Owen Riese: This team never gets too high or too low, and it's evident. After the pick-six, Nebraska was jubilant, as expected. However, all Wisconsin did was get the ball back, and impose their physical will on the Huskers. The game never felt close after it was tied, and Wisconsin’s composure was a big part of that.
Neal Olson: Quintez Cephus has done something every game that stood out. Despite struggles passing the ball, Cephus still managed to flash again. I cannot recall a time when the Badgers have had a receiver they consistently attempted to get on a back shoulder fade, but Cephus seems to have a knack for it. He still has some parts of his game to clean up, but he definitely has big time playmaking ability.
Kevin O’Connell: Wisconsin’s offensive line was rolling on all cylinders on Saturday. They physically manhandled Nebraska in the second half to the tune of three touchdown drives that took nearly 18 minutes off the clock. Even with tackle Michael Deiter and guards Jon Dietzen and Micah Kapoi dealing with injuries, the Badgers were still able to dominate the line of scrimmage and lead the way for Taylor’s 249 yard explosion.
Ryan Mellenthin: Wisconsin continues their bend but don’t break style of play on defense. Whenever their opponents start to get back into the game, the Badger defense tightens and keeps them at bay.
The Bad: What caused concern or needs to be cleaned up?
Owen: Mistakes in the passing game, on both sides. Alex Hornibrook played relatively fine with the exception of the pick-six, but against real, legitimate good teams, mistakes like that will cripple the Badgers, whose margin for error is so small because of their style of play. Also, Nebraska had the most talented wide receivers Wisconsin has played thus far, and it showed. UW can cover just about anybody, but they will elevate their game as the season moves on.
Neal: The BYU game notwithstanding, Wisconsin has managed to be sloppy, uninspired or both for multiple quarters of every game. As Owen mentioned, the margin for error on this team is so small, they can ill afford to fall behind by multiple scores. Thus far, they have held a distinct or even major talent advantage over every opponent. Eventually they will run into a team where execution on both sides will need to be sound from opening kickoff to final whistle is needed to win.
Kevin: The secondary was susceptible to some big plays against the Cornhuskers, the 80-yard touchdown pass being the one that stood out the most. Penn State gave the blueprint on how to attack Wisconsin’s defense in last year’s Big Ten Championship, and so far this season we have seen Jim Leonhard’s secondary surrender some deep shots. Overall, the defense played outstanding in Lincoln, but I worry about the secondary at times, especially at the nickel position where redshirt freshman Dontye Carriere-Williams has had his ups and downs through five games.
Ryan: Once again, Wisconsin was beat deep for a long score, this time for 80 yards. They allowed receptions of 22 and 37 yards to the Nebraska offense. Defensively Wisconsin is staunch, but they do allow the occasional long play and when they face off against more and more talented teams, those could become more common.
Game Balls: Besides Taylor, who else deserves them?
Owen: I'm gonna go with Jason Erdmann. The walk-on offensive guard came in during the second quarter at left guard and played very well considering the circumstances. He's a big mauler and made a nice block on Taylor’s long TD run.
Neal: On a night when not much besides Taylor jumped out, I’m going to roll with Owen on Erdmann. The Badgers have been struggling to field a consistent five lineman every week. For Erdmann to come in and not have the offense miss a beat, is a job very well done.
Kevin: Since I can’t decide who was more important to the victory, I’ll cheat and give co-game balls to inside linebackers Chris Orr and T.J. Edwards. Orr’s opportunistic pick-six completely shifted momentum for the Badgers, considering they were giving up some yards on that opening drive. It was another day at the office for Edwards, who finished with nine total tackles, six of them solo, and was flying around the field for much of the game.
Ryan: Rachid Ibrahim and Bradrick Shaw both carried the ball well while spelling Taylor. Ibrahim compiled 51 yards on seven carries, which equaled his season total through three games. Shaw picked up 43 yards on the ground and added one score.
UP NEXT: Purdue. What are the early, key match-ups that Wisconsin will need to address against a resurgent Boilermakers squad?
Owen: Open field tackling and running the ball. Purdue’s offense puts a lot of stress on opposing defensive backs in space. Also, Purdue is still a bit thin depth-wise, and if the Badgers can lean on them in the run game, Purdue might pack up mid-way through the third quarter.
Neal: The pass defense will be tested early and often against the Boilermakers. Wisconsin will need find a way to disrupt the timing by pressuring the quarterback and forcing hurried or poor decisions. Offensively, the Badgers definitely need to find some mojo for Hornibrook. He did an admirable job righting the ship after the pick-six against Nebraska, but it is not too much of a stretch to think his recent slump will start to wear on his confidence.
Kevin: With first-year head coach Jeff Brohm at the helm, Purdue has been one of the biggest surprises in the Big Ten. As Neal pointed out, I suspect Brohm will attack Wisconsin’s secondary, as the Boilermakers’ 92nd ranked rushing offense likely won’t be able to get it done on the ground. If Wisconsin protects the ball and avoids giving up big plays through the air, it’s hard to realistically see Purdue coming out with a win at Camp Randall Stadium.
Ryan: Purdue may test the Wisconsin defensive backfield, as they compile 265 yards through air per game. The Badgers will have to be sure to keep the Boilermakers from breaking one.