The good: Alex Hornibrook, obviously. Besides the career day for the quarterback, what else went well for Wisconsin on Saturday?
Owen Riese: Really, just about everything. The Badgers traveled across the country to play a team that would very seamlessly fit in the Big Ten from a style standpoint and disposed of them in impressive fashion. In particular, the passing attack was phenomenal. I’ve often said this, but Quintez Cephus is what the Badgers wanted Rob Wheelwright to be, and you’re seeing it in the red zone. He’s the first stud they’ve had at Z since Nick Toon.
Ryan Mellenthin: Defense. Wisconsin has yet to allow a point in the second half in 2017 and on Saturday, they put up their best showing, only allowing six points. Wisconsin also had two takeaways. BYU also only managed to compile 192 total yards.
Kevin O’Connell: Wisconsin’s offensive line battled some injuries this week, but were still able to manhandle BYU’s defensive front on Saturday afternoon. The Badgers were without starting left guard Jon Dietzen (right leg), while left tackle Michael Deiter (right ankle) and right guard Beau Benzschawel (right leg) both battled lower-body injuries in the game. Tasked with their first real challenge of the year, the offensive line was physically dominant and paved the way for the 235 rushing yards. Joe Rudolph’s unit was also exceptional in pass protection, allowing only one sack and providing enough time for Hornibrook to make accurate throws during his career performance.
Neal Olson: Obviously Hornibrook threw his way into the record book against BYU, but the variety of weapons he has in the pass game is what stood out most. Five different Badgers had more than one reception, and none of those was Jazz Peavy, who was largely expected to be a 1B-type target alongside 1A Troy Fumagalli entering the season. Having young receivers like Cephus, Danny Davis, and A.J. Taylor emerge as legitimate threats will help keep defenses from loading the box against the run. Granted it has only been three games against non-conference opponents and Big Ten defenses are a whole different animal, but the progress thus far has been encouraging.
The bad: What should be cleaned up more during the bye week?
Owen: The Badgers were nearly flawless on Saturday, but the only thing that makes me anxious with this defense is giving up the deep ball. They’re going to make offenses work for everything, but if they give up a deep ball, it can snowball quickly.
Ryan: I agree with Owen. Wisconsin’s kryptonite on defense over the years has been the deep ball. We saw it against Penn State during the Big Ten championship last season and we saw it against FAU last week.
Kevin: Wisconsin was exceptional in nearly every facet of the game against BYU, so excuse my nit picking, but for the third consecutive week the defense allowed a 54-plus-yard scoring drive in the first quarter. BYU’s second drive of the game was the first time all year I’ve seen Wisconsin’s defense on their heels a little bit, and they were saved by a Cougars holding penalty in the red zone. Of course, Jim Leonhard’s unit has been nothing short of spectacular in the second halves of games, but the Badgers’ defense could afford to get off to faster starts as they head into Big Ten play.
Neal: This is not to suggest there have been no defensive breakdowns or missed blocks, but the thing most needed for the Badgers is rest. Both starting guards, Benzschawel and Dietzen, are banged up and left tackle Deiter was noticeably limping against BYU. The Badgers have some pretty grand expectations for the season and will need to remain healthy in order to accomplish them. They have already lost several key players on defense and can ill afford any more testing of the depth chart.
Game balls: Besides Hornibrook, who gets ‘em and why?
Owen: Cephus, Taylor, and Davis. The trio of wide receivers has taken advantage of Peavy being blanketed and taken out of the game plan at times. They’ve all stepped up and elevated this passing game.
Ryan: Dontye Carriere-Williams. The redshirt freshman corner had a career day on Saturday in recording a career-high eight tackles (six solo, two assisted) that led the team and also picking up his first career interception.
Kevin: I’ll go with running back Jonathan Taylor, who continues to be a force on the ground for the Badgers. The true freshman followed up his 223-yard performance last week with 128 yards on 18 carries and a touchdown against BYU. Taylor’s numbers are great, but he also passes the eye test, gains seven to eight yards seemingly with ease, and is the catalyst that has made Wisconsin’s offense so successful through three weeks.
Neal: In what is quickly emerging as a theme, the young Badgers continue to shine. While tempting as it may be to give this to Davis for his leaping catch, I’m going to echo Ryan here on the other side of the ball and go with Carriere-Williams. Nick Nelson and Derrick Tindal are solid on the outside, so the nickel corner in the Badger defense is going to be tested often. BYU was the first real high-volume test and so far so good for Carriere-Williams.
Bye-week reflections: Where do you see Wisconsin compared to the rest of the Big Ten after three games?
Owen: I think it’s pretty clear that there are four or five good teams in the Big Ten. Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Wisconsin, and MAYBE Iowa, maybe. Wisconsin should have no real issues with the Big Ten West, as they pretty obviously have the most talent on the offensive side of the ball to pair with their nasty defense. It’ll be interesting to track the East, in particular Michigan, and the Penn State vs. Ohio State game.
Ryan: In regard to their Big Ten West counterparts, I think it’s clear that Wisconsin is the best team. Nebraska was thought of as a serious threat to Wisconsin, but the Cornhuskers have dropped two in a row. Their first loss, a 42–35 loss at Oregon, is respectable, but on Saturday they dropped a non-conference game against Northern Illinois at home. Iowa could be good, but that’s a common Hawkeye trait. As far as the East is concerned, it’s a three-team race with Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan. The Wolverines, who Wisconsin will host later on this season, have been sputtering a bit on offense. They have relied on their defense and special teams to put up points. If Wisconsin can protect the ball on offense and limit the impact of their return game, Wisconsin should be able to contain the Michigan offense. Provided Wisconsin can get to the conference championship game again this year, it will likely be a rematch of one of Wisconsin’s last two championship game appearances.
Kevin: I don’t want to get ahead of myself but it’s clear that Wisconsin is a step above the rest of the teams in the Big Ten West. Nebraska looked overwhelmed in a home loss to Northern Illinois, a team that finished 5–7 a year ago, while Northwestern has played anything but spectacular through three weeks. Iowa and Minnesota could prove to be worthy challengers, but the Hawkeyes have to come to Madison on Nov. 11, while the Gophers still haven’t figured out how to beat the Badgers in over a decade. The toughest obstacle for Wisconsin is still their Nov. 18 home showdown with Michigan, but even the Wolverines have struggled offensively and found themselves in a battle with Air Force before pulling away last weekend. The West division is there for the taking and a showdown with Ohio State or Penn State in the Big Ten Championship Game looks like the most likely scenario for the Badgers.
Neal: Well, well, well. Hard to imagine a better start to the season for Wisconsin. A solid three wins while expected contenders in the Big Ten West turned in performances ranging from underwhelming to outright embarrassing. Michigan and Ohio State have both struggled offensively (sorry, not sorry). However, September football rarely looks the same as November. As the saying goes, “there is a whole lotta football left.” Particularly in the Big Ten, where the weather turns colder and road games are almost always harder than anticipated. Wisconsin entered the season a strong contender in the Big Ten West with an outside shot at the playoffs. Now with the emergence of the underclassman playmakers and the generally high expectations entering the season, the Badgers have to be considered favorites to be Big Ten champions.