Last week, while the No. 5 Wisconsin Badgers prepared to face their most storied rival and were on the brink of the program’s first undefeated regular season since 1912, I was asking the hard questions.
Most notably, what were players thankful for, and how big of a Spider-Man fan cornerback Derrick Tindal was, as answers to one set of questions became part of our Thanksgiving video, while “The Amazing Tindal’s” first issue was released on Saturday morning.
Yet within those seemingly light questions, it became apparent just how much this team means to the players, just how special it is.
Safety Joe Ferguson, the former walk-on turned significant contributor in the defensive backfield, was “enjoying every minute” of playing with and being on this team.
“This team is really something special,” he said last Wednesday. “It’s something I’m going to miss when I’m done. I’ll miss all of these guys, they’re like brothers to me at this point.”
Again, that word special. Remember, Ferguson has seen the program for many years, being the grandson of current Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez (in case you haven’t heard from the television broadcast teams since he was inserted for an injured D’Cota Dixon).
What exactly makes this group of players special?
“Just the care that we have for each other, it’s different than any other team that I’ve been on,” Ferguson said. “The average player cares about the average player more than any other team. From top to bottom, you care about the guy to your left and your right. It’s just something we’ve worked on since the beginning of the year, and I think we’ve done a great job.”
Tindal taped a poster of Marvel and DC comic book characters on his locker, which he believes is a reminder of this team, a “bunch of guys, different guys, coming together to complete one cause.”
A team he believes is the best one he has been a part of.
“Just the love on this team,” Tindal said, “I don’t think there’s anywhere else like that in the country where you can have a DB to hang out with an o-linemen and have fun.”
Elaborating further, you can see through the senior corner’s eyes the bond this team has.
“I kick it with [Michael] Deiter and Beau [Benzschawel] all the time. I love Tyler, my dog ‘Tyler Badass,’ that’s what I call him,” Tindal said. “Our team is just close, every position conserves with each other, hang out with each other. Shoot man, [redshirt freshman running back Garrett] Groshek and I are going to the movies Thursday, stuff like that.
“It don’t matter about color on this team, don’t matter about where you from, what you been through, everybody just loves each other and that’s what makes us so great.”
Wisconsin’s team this year — with a 12-0 record, a true freshman who is a potential Heisman Trophy finalist, a smothering top-2 defense that constricts its opponents weekly — certainly is special.
And yet, there’s still so much more left for this team to achieve.
A match-up with No. 9 Ohio State is on the horizon this Saturday to capture UW’s first Big Ten Championship since the 2012 season. A spot in the College Football Playoff is within Wisconsin’s grasp if it pulls off what would be a hard-fought victory in Indianapolis.
Like that old added phrase bellowed by former team captain Joe Panos back during the 1993 season, “Why Not Wisconsin?”
Seriously, why not?
This team fought off injuries at a variety of positions this season, including inside linebacker and wide receiver, while having to replace key contributors at outside linebacker, running back and the secondary from a year prior.
Yet they’ve excelled and topped what was seen in 2016. Yes, much has been said about its schedule, but Wisconsin asserted themselves against each of its opponents. On Saturday, in a rivalry game that often has turned logic on its head in years’ past, the Badgers winning was not an if, just a when in terms of how much they would overwhelm the Gophers in their 31-0 win.
These players and coaching staff now have the ability to take the program to new heights, not just to win the conference championship, but to lock in their place to compete for a national title.
Enjoy watching this team. They’re not done.
The Eden Prairie, Minn., native was all around the field on Saturday, registering six tackles, three for loss, and two sacks in a return to his home state. With the loss of Jack Cichy for the entire season, along with Chris Orr hampered for part of it, he has solidified the inside linebacking corp this season — just like he did last year when called upon.
Connelly leads the team in tackles this season (71), with Edwards just four behind him (67). The latter led the team in tackles against the Gophers (seven) with 2.5 for loss. The Butkus Award finalist deserves all-conference honors this season at the very least.
The redshirt sophomore had his best game since the road win at BYU game, completing 15 of 19 passes for 151 yards with three touchdowns and zero interceptions. He was accurate, and also like last week against Michigan, showed a zip on the throws into tighter windows.
He will face an Ohio State defense that will be considerably more difficult this upcoming weekend, but he needs to have another game like Saturday’s performance to help Wisconsin win the conference title and keep its College Football Playoff hopes alive.
With tight end Zander Neuville out for most of the game, the redshirt sophomore caught a five-yard touchdown pass and provided a key block on Austin Ramesh’s 41-yard run.
Honorable mention: Kendric Pryor (three receptions, 51 yards), Jonathan Taylor (20 carries, 149 yards, one touchdown), the entire Wisconsin defense (only 133 yards allowed), Austin Ramesh (41-yard run).
Play of the game
The game was out of reach in the third quarter, but Pryor’s 31-yard reception was a season highlight for the offense. Keeping his feet in bounds while falling out was impressive. Maybe even more intriguing was how Hornibrook threw that ball while being hit. Three plays later, Hornibrook found Danny Davis for a five-yard touchdown.
Two questions, @BadgerFootball:— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) November 25, 2017
1. How did Alex Hornibrook stand in there and deliver that ball?
2. How are Kendric Pryor's mittens so good as a freshman?? pic.twitter.com/1itzR8PCW5
Connelly’s sack on Minnesota’s first offensive play after Jonathan Taylor’s fumble was huge as well, as any momentum gained after the turnover was squelched and led to another three-and-out.
On this week’s injury report, it will bear watching the status of tight end Zander Neuville and running back Bradrick Shaw. Neuville, who is a major component of Wisconsin’s offensive rushing attack and can be used effectively in UW’s passing attack, exited in the first quarter and was listed as doubtful to return.
Shaw is UW’s second-leading rusher with 365 yards (3.8 yards per carry) and four touchdowns, and did not return with a left leg injury suffered during the second quarter. Chris James and Garrett Groshek picked up the slack in Shaw’s absence, combining for 91 yards on 12 carries.
We’ll also have to see if safety D’Cota Dixon and inside linebacker Chris Orr will be on this week’s report after Saturday’s win.
- Along with Wisconsin taking the all-time series lead for the first time against Minnesota (60-59-8) with its 14th straight win versus Goldy, the program now has recorded victories in 17 of its last 18 trophy games since 2010 (that’s against Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska — remember the Freedom Trophy was introduced in 2014).
- Along with starting 12-0, those dozen wins actually tie the 2006 squad for the single-season record for victories.
- Wisconsin is now 13-1 in true road games with Paul Chryst as head coach. That includes eight straight wins, which is now the second-longest streak in the nation behind Oklahoma. [ed. note: when UW released the post-game notes, Alabama had 14 straight road wins, but their loss at Auburn snapped that streak]
- UW is 19-2 in November, dating back to the past four seasons.
- The Badgers are the only team in the nation NOT to trail in the fourth quarter so far this season.
- The 31-0 win is the first shutout of the Gophers since 1982, which was a 24-0 win. Sixty years prior to that, in 1922, was the last time Wisconsin shut out Minnesota in Minneapolis.
- Hornibrook now has 17 touchdown passes and only one interception in the red zone this season.
- Jonathan Taylor’s 1,806 yards lists him third all-time for most rushing yards by a freshman in FBS history behind the likes of Adrian Peterson and Ron Dayne. He also currently holds the sixth-best rushing mark for a single-season in UW history.
- Placekicker Rafael Gaglianone has now connected on 12 of 14 field goal attempts this season and is 22 of his last 25 when going back to the 2015 Holiday Bowl.