MADISON—Opening games of the regular season can always be tricky. Ohio State withstood all that Indiana could muster before pulling away. Heck, even Rutgers (RUTGERS!) was up on Washington until 3:50 left in the second quarter.
The No. 9 Wisconsin Badgers took on a Utah State team with a new offensive coordinator, and after the team stopped beating itself up, it got back on track on way in explosive fashion in a 59-10 victory on Friday night.
Here are three things B5Q learned about the Badgers from its first victory of the 2017 season under the lights of Camp Randall Stadium.
There’s plenty to clean up...and yet they responded
There were dropped passes, sacks allowed, and some early penalties that all disrupted Wisconsin’s ability to get on track. Case in point, a couple of sacks dropped quarterback Alex Hornibrook which halted a solid start to its first offensive drive that included a first down reception by Bradrick Shaw.
Then the fumbled exchange between Hornibrook and center Tyler Biadasz on the ensuing series led to Utah State only needing 16 yards to punch in a touchdown to make it a 10-0 game—a surprising turn of events for a team favored by nearly four touchdowns.
“I think we just weren't doing the little things, playing good football,” head coach Paul 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.”
Defensively, Utah State gained 88 yards in the first quarter and utilized its pace offense as an advantage. Inside linebacker Chris Orr mentioned after the game the combination of some missed fits on defense, penalties and getting used to the tempo of the Aggies’ offense contributed to the early struggles for the team.
Yet starting in the second quarter, the team responded. The 15-play, 79-yard drive that ate up almost eight-and-a-half minutes on the clock kickstarted an offense. Then, T.J. Edwards’ interception allowed Wisconsin to put themselves in a position to have a tie game at hand heading into the second half.
After halftime, where a couple of players noted Chryst gave a speech during the intermission (more on that in a soon-to-be-published article), the flood gates opened.
Fifty-nine unanswered points, to be exact. With the offense getting on track in both the passing and rushing attacks (balanced effort with 244 yards passing and 234 rushing), along with forcing key turnovers like the Edwards’s and D’Cota Dixon’s interceptions, momentum snowballed into an onslaught of points, and ultimately a victory.
Wisconsin’s tight ends are going to be fun to watch
Position coach Mickey Turner has a deep group to work with this season, including an All-American candidate and two other starting-caliber tight ends. On Friday, two really showed up in a big way.
Redshirt senior Troy Fumagalli tallied 105 yards on five receptions and a touchdown, including a career-long 44-yard catch in the fourth quarter. His 23-yard score on the first drive of the third quarter gave Wisconsin the lead it would never relinquish, and his versatility in catching short and deep passes are apparent. The former walk-on and current team captain started off his 2017 campaign the right way.
It may have been only one catch, but Zander Neuville’s first collegiate catch turned into a 28-yard touchdown. After a rollout to the left by Hornibrook, he found the former walk-on and converted defensive lineman. With the help of true freshman wide receiver Danny Davis, who took out at least a couple of Utah State defenders, the 6’5, 258-pounder had the wheels to take it all the way for the score.
Neuville appears to be one of those prototypical hand in the ground tight ends, but there’s some shake in his step.
“He can move a little bit,” Hornibrook said. “He’s a good tight end, but that was awesome seeing him get into the end zone there.”
Also to note, redshirt sophomore Kyle Penniston didn’t even record a reception, and he’s on the Mackey watch list.
There are reasons why Jonathan Taylor earned first-team reps
Maybe one of the surprises of the first depth chart for Wisconsin, the true freshman found significant time in the backfield and contributed heavily to the Badgers’ win on Friday.
Officially, Taylor ran for 87 yards on nine carries and a touchdown. The first play of the third quarter, his explosive 41-yard run sparked a drive that ended with Fumagalli’s touchdown pass.
“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.”
Later in that frame, he scored in a similar fashion, running inside initially—but after running into his offensive linemen, bounced it outside and used his speed to get into the end zone. That gave Wisconsin a 31-10 lead with under eight minutes left in the third quarter.
There will be some learning experiences and plays he’ll want back, most notably the drop in the first half from a Hornibrook pass in the flat. However, he asserted himself well in his first collegiate game and showed why he won’t redshirt, along with displaying his potential for a promising career in Cardinal and White.
Honorable mention: T.J. Edwards will play on Sundays; we need another couple of games to assess Wisconsin’s offensive line; true freshman wide receiver Danny Davis can block, and fullback touchdowns may be the best touchdowns