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T.J. Edwards, Jonathan Taylor shine in Wisconsin’s season-opening win

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Our writers answer a series of questions after the Badgers’ win.

Utah State v Wisconsin Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Who played well for the Badgers on Friday night?

Ryan Mellenthin: While many in cardinal and white played well on Friday, I am going to have to focus on Jonathan Taylor. The true freshman separated himself from his other co-starters on Friday night. Taylor picked up 87 yards on only nine carries and added a score, while Bradrick Shaw rushed 18 times for 84 yards and a touchdown as well. Pitt transfer Chris James managed only 15 yards on five carries and lost a fumble. Three plays stuck out to me regarding Taylor. First, came on the first play of scrimmage of the second quarter, which was our first chance to see Taylor, but he dropped a pass from Hornibrook, that should have netted a fair gain given the freshman’s speed. The second play was when Taylor ran a 41-yard gain, to open the third quarter. Finally, Taylor’s 13-yard touchdown. The back looked to be all but stopped at the line, when he emerged from behind a couple of blocked and bounced to the outside for the score.

Kevin O’Connell: The Badgers young receiving corps is what stood out to me on Friday night. Fumagalli is clearly the best weapon at Alex Hornibrook’s disposal but the wide receiver trio of Quintez Cephus, A.J. Taylor, and Danny Davis all impressed last night. Taylor’s drops were problematic, but the sophomore was open for a reason and finished with three catches for 38 yards. Chryst put Taylor in motion throughout the game and projects to be an important weapon in this offense. Cephus caught the first touchdown of his career on a beautiful back shoulder throw from Hornibrook, making up for a key drop in the first half and will be valuable in the red zone. True freshman Danny Davis also played well, drawing two pass interference calls and laying a huge block that sprung Zander Neuville for a touchdown. All three will have their ups and downs this year, but for the first time in a while the Badgers look to have some young, promising athletes at wide receiver.

Jake Kocorowski: You both mention him in getting game balls below, so I’ll differ with the answer on that question in a bit. For now, I’m going with this answer being inside linebacker T.J. Edwards. Seven tackles, one for loss, two pass break-ups and a key interception to help get Wisconsin even with Utah State at the half was huge. He’s been the leading tackler the past two years for this program, along with grabbing three interceptions last year alone. With Jack Cichy out the rest of the year, he stepped up huge and flew around field.

Obviously with the slow start, what needs to be worked on?

Ryan: I would say the thing that needs to be worked on the most is the offensive line’s protection of Hornibrook. Early on in the game, it seemed as though the Aggies were starting in Wisconsin’s backfield, getting a lot of penetration while sacking Hornibrook three times. They also forced bad passes and a fumble. Obviously, the line was able to right the ship late in the second quarter, but it will only get more difficult to do so as the season goes on.

Kevin: The whole first half was a wake-up call for the Badgers. Wisconsin was about as undisciplined and sloppy in the first 30 minutes as they have been at any time during Paul Chryst’s tenure in Madison. Aided by penalties and fumbles, the Utah State rushing attack had the Wisconsin defense on their heels for a bit in the first half. Of course Jim Leonhard’s unit tightened up with a second half shutout, but the Aggies still rattled off rushes of 7, 5, 19, 4, 4, and 12 yards during their two first half scoring drives. The final team stats (85 rushing yards allowed) may look good, but the run defense will need to be better against bigger offensive linemen and more explosive running backs in the Big Ten.

Jake: Not trying to be an apologist here, but first games of the season are difficult. There’s not current film of personnel groupings of the teams, and the way each offense and defense will attack you can throw you off. Unless a lot of returning starters or contributors return, it’s sometimes hard to know what exactly will come at you. We saw it with Ohio State versus Indiana, Louisville against Purdue (SERIOUSLY!), while Nebraska and Washington all seemed to be in tight games (though the Huskies righted the ship starting before halftime).

That being said, and has been stated above, they can’t start off as slow as they did. It’s happened the past few years during 2014 (think Nebraska and Minnesota wins), 2016 (again, Minnesota) and starting off this year against Utah State. It’s been noted before, but the uncharacteristic penalties (six in the first half) also threw the team off and also forced the offense to start deep in its own territory. Inside linebacker Chris Orr noted some missed fits early on, along with those penalties and the pace of the Aggies’ offense that kept the defense off track for a bit.

One player out of the 11 on each respective team not doing their job can lead to a busted play, as a Badger pointed out post-game. It’s also worth watching how fast they start next Saturday after Lane Kiffin and a Florida Atlantic team that showed some flash but lost to Navy.

Game balls: Spread the love after the win

Ryan: Apart from the obvious and deserving players, such as Fumagalli, Hornibrook and company, I have to give it to Edwards—who tied for a team high seven tackles with Orr. Five of Edwards’ tackles were solo, which led all players in the game. Edwards also thwarted the Aggies’ final drive of the first half with an interception with 1:01 remaining. That allowed Wisconsin to kick the tying field goal and go into halftime, tied 10-10. Edwards also broke up two other passes in the game.

Kevin: My game ball goes to Edwards. The redshirt junior was all over the field on Friday night and had a momentum shifting interception at the end of the first half that allowed the Badgers to tie the game at 10-10. Edwards also seemed to make at least four open field tackles and was a force on third downs for Jim Leonhard’s defense.

Jake: I gave mine out on Saturday (there were several), but I’ll call out two freshmen here in Taylor and Davis. Taylor’s 41-yard run set the trend going forward in the second half, and he showed why he’s not going to redshirt in 2017.

Davis drew a couple defensive penalties being aggressive and attacking the ball on passing plays, and along with his definitive block that knocked two, if not three (I called it three), defenders, he showed how plays not scored on stat sheets can make a huge impact.

Week 2: Florida Atlantic. What are your early keys to the game against Lane Kiffin and the Owls?

Ryan: I think one of the main keys defensively will be to thwart off deep passes. It has been a staple of Kiffin’s offenses the past few years, and while he doesn’t have the talent at FAU, that he did at Alabama or USC, FAU was still able to complete three passes of 25 yards or more in their loss to Navy, include a 95-yard touchdown reception by Willie Wright. Another key, as always for Wisconsin will be to pound the rock. FAU allowed quite a bit of real estate to Navy on the ground, allowing 416 rushing yards and five rushing scores. While Wisconsin doesn’t have the option attack that that the Midshipmen do, look for Wisconsin to put up respectable numbers against the Owls, on the ground.

Kevin: I think the game plan will be very run-heavy next weekend against FAU. The Owls finished in the bottom ten in rushing yards allowed last season (245 yards per game), and surrendered 416 rushing yards to Navy’s wishbone attack in week one. Running backs Shaw and Taylor should see the bulk of the carries, but this game could also be an opportunity for Chris James to bounce back after a less-than-stellar performance against Utah State.

Jake: Let’s go with setting the tone early against the Owls. There is some talent on the FAU roster, and Ryan noted the passing attack that included that long strike from quarterback Daniel Parr to Wright. How they use Parr and former Florida State/Last Chance U quarterback De’Andre Johnson will be something to watch in how Leonhard and his defense adapt throughout the game.

Honestly, it comes down to what was seen on Friday night. They can’t play the sloppy football they did in the first quarter and a half/two quarters. There are some areas they need to clean up, as head coach Paul Chryst noted, but everyone saw the potential of this team. With the Owls allowing so much yardage against Navy, Wisconsin’s offensive line and running backs could be salivating for a big afternoon.