MADISON—For over 20 game minutes on Friday night, the No. 9 Wisconsin Badgers kept their fans on edge to start the 2017 season.
Utah State earned its a 10-point lead by taking advantage of Wisconsin’s self-inflicted mistakes and translating opportunities into points.
Starting with 9:37 left in the second quarter, the Badgers turned the tide on both sides of the ball, and by halftime, tied the game heading into the final 30 minutes.
Then, perhaps with a hint of motivation from head coach Paul Chryst during that intermission, Wisconsin finally took the bull by horns and overwhelmed Utah State 59-10 in from of 75,324 fans at Camp Randall Stadium.
According to safety D’Cota Dixon, the shift in momentum occurred in the second half, but Chryst—who he described as a “a dad away from home”—gave a “little speech” during the intermission to his team to pump them up.
“He’s very smooth, very calm, very collected,” Dixon said after the game, “but...”
“As a father would, when the child needs to be disciplined and needs to be talked to, he will discipline us. He just honestly told us the truth. We were beating ourselves a lot, we were shooting ourselves in the foot, and he just kind of gave us a wake-up call and told us to stop playing against ourselves and let’s play football tonight.”
The Badgers were a completely different team the final 30 minutes, and building off of a second quarter that started to swing the pendulum back to their side, took off and exploded to finish with a balanced 478 yards without allowing Utah State to answer or fully recover.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook finished his first start of the 2017 season in fine form, completing 15 of 23 passes for 244 yards and three touchdowns—all three coming in the third quarter. True freshman running back Jonathan Taylor rushed for a team-high 87 carries on nine carries with a touchdown while redshirt sophomore Bradrick Shaw contributed 84 yards on 15 carries and a score.
Despite the lopsided final score, the first half saw Wisconsin commit an uncharacteristic six penalties, drop passes, and generally not play the type of football many have seen out of the program since Chryst arrived.
After a couple of sacks forced Wisconsin to punt, Utah State drove 54 yards on eight plays and started off the scoring. A Dominik Eberle 25-yard field goal allowed the Aggies to take a 3-0 lead with under five minutes left in the first quarter.
The pendulum swung more in favor of the visitors, as a fumbled exchange under center was picked up by Utah State.
“I don’t know, both of us were a little confused on it,” Hornibrook said, “but we just didn’t do a good job on that snap. I should have gotten that one.”
Two plays later, running back LaJuan Hunt ran it into the south end zone for a 12-yard touchdown.
Rather than pouncing back on the ensuing drive, missteps hampered any opportunities to get out of the rut as both Jazz Peavy and A.J. Taylor dropped would-be catches.
“I think we just weren't doing the little things, playing good football,” Chryst said. “We had a first down and going for a pass and they bring pressure off the edge. We didn't pick that up. We didn't do anything to flip the field and we weren't converting. I think it was just, it comes down to you either play good football or you don't. And I think that's where the focus has to be on.”
Eventually the defense would settle down in the second quarter, only allowing 10 yards.
“I think it was one, us just misfitting a little bit by ourselves,” inside linebacker Chris Orr said after registering seven tackles. “Two, penalties as well, and then just getting used to their pace. We tried to mimic it as much as we can in practice, but you won’t have it down to a T. So I think once we got that down, we were able to communicate a little better and you saw the end result.”
The Badgers churned out a 15-play, 79-yard drive that ate up 8:25. Converting all five third-down opportunities—including one by penalty—the series ended with Shaw scoring from three yards out to bring UW back from within a field goal.
“Once we started scoring and moving the ball, everybody started believing and everybody started playing better,” Hornibrook said.
On Utah State’s first offensive play after Wisconsin’s touchdown, inside linebacker T.J. Edwards snagged a Kent Myers pass that was deflected into the air. Though the offense didn’t capitalize with a touchdown, Rafael Gaglianone’s first field goal attempt of the season was successful from 29 yards out to send the teams to their respective locker rooms at 10.
Then at halftime, the team heard from its head coach.
“He does a good job of refocusing the team and getting us all on the same page,” Hornibrook said of Chryst. “It was basically that nothing that given to us. We had to go earn it, we had to go show that we were a good football team.”
The third quarter started off with a bang and displayed the potential explosiveness of the team. Wisconsin scored 28 points and gained 251 yards in those 15 minutes. In that third quarter alone, Wisconsin gained seven “chunk” plays of 15 yards or more (five passing, two rushing).
With the first carry of the second half, Taylor bumped a rush to the outside for a 41-yard gain down to the Aggies’ 31.
“I was supposed to stay on the midline, but seeing guys crashing down, I cut it outside,” Taylor said. “The big thing was trying to get the offense rolling and getting into a rhythm. This offense thrives on big plays. We try to capitalize on big plays so I was just trying to be the guy to get the offense rolling and give us a spark.”
Hornibrook found Troy Fumagalli three plays later for a 23-yard touchdown pass. Wisconsin (finally) found its first lead of the game with the 17-10 advantage.
Fumagalli—who wore No. 48 in honor of injured inside linebacker Jack Cichy—reeled in five receptions for a career-high 105 yards and a touchdown on the evening.
After taking advantage of Wisconsin’s initial miscues, the tables turned fully on Utah State. Myers’s deep throw over the middle was picked off by Dixon, which gave UW great field position at its own 47-yard line. Three plays and 53 yards later, Hornibrook found tight end Zander Neuville on a rollout for his first career reception.
With the assistance of true freshman wide receiver Danny Davis, who took out a couple of blockers on the left sideline, Neuville took it 28 yards for a touchdown. Make that a 24-10 lead, with those 24 unanswered coming within a span of 4:52.
“Coach always says when someone catches the ball, find work,” Davis said, joking that there may have been a third player blocked in the process. “So I’d seen the DB right there, and I’d seen the safety, so I tried to create some contact between them so I tried to make the best block that I can.”
The scoring in the quarter continued with a Taylor 13-yard run and ended with a Quintez Cephus 21-yard touchdown reception that wrapped up a seven-play, 68-yard drive to make it 38-10 with 51 seconds left in the third quarter. That was the first career touchdown for Cephus, who caught three passes for 33 yards on the evening after a difficult spring that included the death of his father.
“It was a lot of build up to me coming out here after my dad passed,” Cephus said. “I was just thinking about my dad. To see myself succeed for my dad, that’s special to me.”
Three more touchdowns set the game further into blowout mode with touchdowns by redshirt seniors Austin Ramesh and Joe Ferguson, along with redshirt freshman Garrett Groshek.
Ferguson’s actually set a record. With the second-team defense in and the Utah State offense driving to the Wisconsin 8-yard line, Myers—who completed 25 of 41 passes for 219 yards—made his third mistake of the night. He threw into the middle of the field and right into the hands of Ferguson. Behind a convoy of blockers, the safety ran 99 yards for a touchdown, setting the modern-era school record for an interception return in the process.
“I was carrying him for about 15 yards because I thought he was about to fall,” Orr cracked, staring in Ferguson’s direction after the win. “That electrified us as a team and helped us close out the game.”
Wisconsin got itself on track starting in the second quarter and turned it into the largest number of points scored in a game under Chryst.
There is work to be done, however.
“It feels good to get the season gong and certainly a number of areas we can build on,” Chryst said, “but a lot of areas that we have got to clean up.”