MADISON — Troy Fumagalli started off hot in Wisconsin’s three-game non-conference season, but the Big Ten slate had not treated the team captain well recently.
That is, until, Saturday afternoon.
The Badgers’ tight end reeled in seven catches for 83 yards in No. 5 Wisconsin’s 38–13 win over Maryland during homecoming weekend.
“As the season continues to go, we’re going to need everyone, and I thought ‘Fum’ for the first time since the bye was playing fast in practice, and it carried over,” Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst said after the game. “So ... he was big. I think we were pretty good on third down, and I’ll bet you he had a big part of those.”
Quite frankly, he was.
Three of Fumagalli’s seven receptions on Saturday came on third down. All of them moved the chains and allowed Wisconsin’s offense to continue drives that ended with touchdowns.
His mentality on third downs?
“Just win,” Fumagalli said. “Coach gives me a bunch of freedom out there and gives me the best advantage I can. I expect to win. I want to make the big play for those guys.”
In the first three games of the season, Fumagalli, a preseason All-American, hauled in 15 catches for 236 yards with three touchdowns.
After the bye week, he was ruled out for the Northwestern game due to a left leg injury and was held to only three receptions in wins over Nebraska and Purdue. All of those catches came in Lincoln against the Huskers in the 38–17 win.
Fumagalli was shut out in the passing game against the Boilermakers last week, and he admitted after Saturday’s win that he wasn’t 100 percent.
This week was the first time since his injury where Fumagalli participated fully in practice.
“Just during the week, I felt great,” Fumagalli said. “I didn’t want to rush it, I know it was a long season, so just wanted to take my time, just get better every week and finally they cut me loose this week. I felt great, and just it felt great helping the team out earlier.”
Fumagalli was asked after the game if practicing at full speed simply carried over to the game or if there was more to it.
“We got to trust it during practice if we’re going to trust it in the game, and I think that was the biggest key this week,” Fumagalli said. “I wanted to be out there in the past weeks but I also wanted to be smart. I didn’t want to do anything that would hurt me down the road. Just being on the same page early in the week and being able to make adjustments, it makes a huge difference.”
In the first half alone, Fumagalli caught six passes for 74 yards. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook found the tight end on two third-down conversions on completions of seven and 10 yards in the second quarter. Both were on 3rd-and-3, and both receptions continued drives that led to touchdowns by Jonathan Taylor and Zander Neuville on the way to giving Wisconsin a 21–3 lead.
There was also the 20-yard reception in that second quarter on a first down that pushed the Badgers into Maryland territory.
“It was great,” Hornibrook said. “He was making plays and getting open, so obviously he’s a nice target to have out there. When he’s active and playing, it’s awesome.”
Hornibrook targeted Fumagalli nine times during the game, with the tight end reeling in those seven catches.
“Usually if you put it in his area,” Hornibrook said, “he’ll come down with it or do the best that he can to make sure that they don’t, so it’s good to have a receiver like that.”
The production at tight end did not come just from Fumagalli on Saturday. Neuville reeled in two receptions for 23 yards, including that eight-yard touchdown reception on a 2nd-and-3 in the second quarter.
“I think the biggest thing is that we’re all pretty versatile” Neuville said. “If one of us goes down, we won’t have any issues having a tight end fill the spot that’s needed. The biggest thing is meshing together, and how our group is always ready to step up.”
Having Fumagalli at full strength and producing doesn’t hurt, though. Wisconsin’s offense was extremely balanced against Maryland, passing for 225 yards while rushing for 215. It was the first time since Wisconsin’s overtime loss to Ohio State last season that the Badgers gained over 200 yards in both areas in a Big Ten game.
Fumagalli influences the offense in multiple ways, and his presence at 100 percent can only help continue stabilizing a unit that has the potential to be explosive when it does not shoot itself in the foot.
“I think he’s a really good blocker and then obviously he catches mostly anything you throw at him, so that’s a huge component,” left tackle Michael Deiter said. “His blocking ability and what he does in the pass game is huge.”