MADISON — Despite gaining 494 yards of offense and seeing eight of their nine offensive drives span 40 yards or more in Saturday’s win over the Purdue Boilermakers, the Wisconsin Badgers’ offense showed it still has some work to do.
The stat sheet reveals potential, as Wisconsin accumulated nine “chunk” plays of 10 or more yards, and seven plays of over 15 yards in the passing game. True freshman running back Jonathan Taylor ran for 219 yards on a career-high 30 carries with a 67-yard touchdown and is only 14 yards short of 1,000 for the season. True sophomore wide receiver Quintez Cephus recorded a career-high 100 yards on five receptions, and quarterback Alex Hornibrook completed over 72 percent of his passes.
Yet three turnovers and six of Wisconsin’s eight penalties by the offense negated points on the board and allowed Purdue to stay in the game until the end of UW’s 17–9 win at Camp Randall Stadium.
“It’s a concern right now. We won today, but it’s a concern,” left tackle Michael Deiter said of the offense’s miscues. “We’re better than that, and we know it.”
Asked what’s behind those miscues, Deiter said the players have areas “individually to work on.”
“Obviously, turnovers [are] never gonna help you especially on the goal line and stuff like that, but it’s 11 guys being on the same page and playing to the best of their ability. That’s all it is.”
This conversation comes after Wisconsin started off hot with two consecutive touchdown drives of 70-plus yards to gain a 14–0 advantage. Overall, the Badgers notched four 70-plus-yard possessions, and the game showed an offense that has the pieces in place to be the most balanced and explosive offense seen in some time in Madison.
Taylor’s 67-yard run in the first quarter was his third carry that went over 60 yards through six games. It sparked his third 200-yard-plus game only halfway through his freshman campaign, joining the likes of Adrian Peterson, Samaje Perine, Mike Hart, and two other players since 2000 to achieve that mark.
“Yeah, he’s a freak. He makes some plays.” Hornibrook said. “It starts with the o-line, getting a great push with them, and then ‘JT’ just makes some ridiculous plays, makes people miss and runs through people.”
Yet, with Wisconsin driving on a nine-play, 70-yard series and facing a 2nd-and-goal from the Purdue 4-yard line early in the fourth quarter, Lorenzo Neal forced and recovered a Taylor fumble. That took away the possibility of Wisconsin extending its eight-point lead.
“In traffic, coach [John Settle] always coaches it up two hands on the ball,” Taylor said. “Ball got away from my body, knocked it out, but you know, the guys gave me so much confidence coming to the sideline. They’re like, ‘Alright, now it’s time to fight back. How are you going to respond?’ They kind of challenged me.”
That was the third of the Badgers’ three turnovers on the afternoon. The first two were interceptions thrown by Hornibrook.
On Wisconsin’s third drive in which it moved down the field 41 yards in six plays, the redshirt sophomore threw a pass intended for true freshman wide receiver Danny Davis. Both head coach Paul Chryst and Hornibrook admitted that there was miscommunication between the Hornibrook and Davis, resulting in a pick by Da’Wan Hunte that was returned 42 yards to the Wisconsin 44-yard line.
The second was a screen pass in the third quarter. Again, Wisconsin constructed a long drive—this time, 11 plays—into Purdue territory. On a 3rd-and-12, a screen pass that was read well by the Boilermakers turned into a takeaway, as defensive end Danny Ezechukwu took the errant Hornibrook pass 38 yards to UW’s 28-yard line.
For as dominant as Wisconsin’s offense looked at times, these miscues put its defense in tough positions with short fields to defend—though it only allowed three points off of the offense’s three turnovers.
“The [first] pick was a missed communication between Alex and Danny, and yet that’s a big, big play,” Chryst said. “Then, the screen really wasn’t there and [Hornibrook] tried to shoe horn it in. Then that was a heck of a drive that we didn’t finish on with JT’s [fumble], then, certainly the punt block, so those you look at and say, we got to be better. We got to eliminate those, but there’s a lot of good things throughout the game. You just got to put it all together, and that’s where it’s never easy and that’s why I appreciate the guys keeping their poise and just continuing to work and play together. It takes everyone to win.”
The Badgers also committed eight penalties, six of them by the offense. Four were called false starts, with two each attributed to center Tyler Biadasz and right tackle David Edwards.
“We had a couple of weird ones where it was on two and we were motioning our tight end and just the rhythm of the cadence itself was off ... so those two were for sure on me,” Edwards said. “Got to clean those up for sure.”
On the drive that ended with Ezechukwu’s interception, Wisconsin had three penalties alone: a hold by tight end Kyle Penniston, an illegal block by running back Rachid Ibrahim, and a false start by Biadasz.
“Turnovers, penalties, all that stuff makes for a sloppy game,” Deiter said. “It’s an uphill sledding. It’s stuff we have to fix. It’s too many. We have to get better.”
Yet despite all the errors that could have easily swung momentum to Purdue’s favor, Wisconsin’s offense had an opportunity to close out the game with 8:14 left. Outside linebacker Leon Jacobs intercepted a Elijah Sindelar pass at the Badgers’ 11-yard line to stifle the Boilermakers’ scoring opportunity, and the offense came back on the field.
There was a message heading back onto the field.
“This is the drive, and we’re not going to get rid of the ball,” Biadasz said, “and if we are, we’re scoring with it. That’s the mindset. This is the drive, and we’re going to put the game away here. Probably should have been put away, obviously.”
The sentiment was echoed by Edwards.
“It was, let’s stop hurting ourselves. Let’s finish this game the way we know we could,” Edwards said. “I think that we blocked well, we made plays when we had to.”
Wisconsin again pushed down the field with six first downs and some key third-down conversions, including two key completions by Hornibrook to his young receivers, and Purdue never received another opportunity to attempt to tie the game.
On a 3rd-and-12, Hornibrook found wide receiver Kendric Pryor for a 20-yard gain, the first reception of the redshirt freshman’s career.
For as much as Purdue was known for its misdirection or “gadget” plays, Wisconsin threw one of its own into the mix. With Hornibrook spread out wide and redshirt freshman running back Garrett Groshek in the shotgun in the quarterback’s position, the walk-on gained 18 yards on a 2nd-and-11 running behind the blocks of Edwards and fullback Austin Ramesh.
Groshek, a former prep quarterback and 2015 WFCA Offensive Player of the Year, also gained 14 yards from the running back spot to give Wisconsin another first down on that drive.
“Proud of the way guys kept playing, and also a great response by the offense to finish that game with the ball in their hands, and some guys came up big,’ Chryst said. “‘KP’ gets his first catch on a third down and ‘Grosh’ had a couple nice runs, and we’re going to need everyone and continue to do that.”
To essentially finish the game on a 3rd-and-2 from the Purdue 8-yard line, Taylor gained the two yards necessary for a first down.
For the game, the Badgers converted nine of 14 third downs.
There are obvious things for the Badgers to clean up offensively as they continue their march toward a Big Ten West division title. The penalties nullified at least one drive, the turnovers nearly neutralizing a dominating performance by its defense.
For all the potential concerns, there are also obvious reasons to still believe this unit can be one of the most explosive in the conference. The Badgers boast a freshman phenom in Taylor, a receiving game with young but intriguing receiving threats, and an offensive line that can overwhelm opponents.
Though they cooled off after a hot start, that final drive showed how potent they can be.
“To be able to put the game away like that, it’s awesome,” Deiter said. “That’s how you want to finish a game. That’s a huge positive, something we have to build off.”