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How does Wisconsin look heading into Big Ten play?

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There were some questions about the Badgers heading into the season. After three games, do we have any answers?

Wisconsin v BYU Photo by Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images

Entering the 2017 season, there were multiple questions facing the Wisconsin Badgers:

  • Is Alex Hornibrook the guy?
  • Who’s going to be the starting running back?
  • Is the offensive line going to gel?
  • How will Jim Leonhard perform as defensive coordinator?

Well, we’ve got some answers.

Is Alex Hornibrook the guy?

Most of the questions surrounding the redshirt sophomore signal caller were about his arm strength. An anticipation thrower by trade, Hornibrook struggled to drive the ball downfield in his freshman season. He added muscle during the offseason and also worked with renowned quarterback guru George Whitfield.

While Hornibrook will never be confused with a quarterback with a Jeff George-like Howitzer attached to his left shoulder, he’s shown some improvements with his arm strength. On the play above, he’s hit on the goal line and A.J. Taylor drops the ball on the logo, basically midfield. Fifty yards in the air, unable to get everything into it—I’ll take it.

Hornibrook also just went 18-of-19 in a game, setting a program record for completion percentage. Actually good!

Who is going to be the starting running back?

Sometimes the best ability is availability. Bradrick Shaw had the misfortune of getting dinged in the opener against Utah State, and Jonathan Taylor has taken full advantage of his opportunities.

Taylor has amassed 438 rushing yards and five touchdowns in his first three games, averaging a dizzying 8.3 yards per carry. He has given the Badgers a game-breaking element in the running game that Shaw and James have yet to display. Taylor will head into Big Ten play as RB1.

Is the offensive line going to gel?

No fancy GIF here, but I think the answer is pretty resoundingly, “Yes.” The Badgers are averaging 275 yards per game on the ground, which paired with the continuing improvement of Hornibrook, should develop into a nasty offense by the end of the season with plenty of wrinkles and options for head coach Paul Chryst to turn to.

Each year Chryst has been in Madison, the offense has progressed. It’s continued this season as Wisconsin continues to get back to “Wisconsin football,” a.k.a. smashing you into the ground and then running the ball again. The offensive line, which doesn’t have a true senior in the group, should keep improving, which is bad news for the rest of the Big Ten.

How will Jim Leonhard perform as defensive coordinator?

Oh, you don’t have a 6’7, 306-pound defensive end standing up to rush the passer? Sucks to suck.

In all seriousness, Jim Leonhard—aside from a few deep passes, the toughest play in football to defend—has orchestrated a nasty stop unit.

Utah State was pesky early, but eventually hit the wall. FAU, aside from one long bomb, essentially ran into the wall all game. BYU was able to manage less than 200 yards of offense on its home field, sans its starting quarterback.

Leonhard mentioned in the spring that he was going to draw influence from his previous coordinators during his time in the NFL, and it’s shown. Wisconsin’s defense will only continue to get more complex and blitz-happy as the season goes along. Leonhard is like the young protégé who gets an opportunity very early and develops very quickly into the evil scientist who eventually plots to take over the world.

Rex Ryan is my favorite defensive coach of my lifetime, so these are compliments to Leonhard.

Wisconsin now gets a week off to prepare for a Northwestern team that just lost at least one starting cornerback for the season. Chryst will have the Badgers focused week in and week out, but admittedly, some of the road blocks on the Big Red Machine’s (going to make this happen) schedule are looking more like ant hills than construction zones. Northwestern and Nebraska are struggling, and if Wisconsin continues its offensive progress paired with its defense continuing to be suffocating, there could be a realistic possibility the Badgers find themselves with a chance at the College Football Playoff with a win in Indianapolis.

However, they need to beat Northwestern in two weeks. Let’s focus on that first.

As always, On Wisconsin.