It wasn’t always pretty, but a win’s a win.
The No. 9 Wisconsin Badgers grabbed another early-season victory Saturday, knocking off the Florida Atlantic Owls 31–14 at Camp Randall Stadium. The Badgers were powered by true freshman running back Jonathan Taylor, who ran for 226 yards and three touchdowns, and junior Chris James, who added 101 yards and a touchdown of his own.
Let’s take a look at the grades:
For the first quarter-and-a-half, it looked like Wisconsin was going to run away with the game—literally. After Taylor’s second touchdown, the Big Ten Network started airing “Wisconsin All-Time Rushing Game Record” graphics.
The Badgers’ offense sagged a bit at times, however, and what felt like a blowout settled into a good but not great win. Sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook looked poised in the pocket for long stretches, but was undone late in the first half with a really terrible interception where he missed FAU defensive end Leighton McCarthy dropping back into coverage.
Wisconsin’s receivers looked solid, if not spectacular. Tight end Troy Fumagalli finished the game with 92 yards and a touchdown. Quintez Cephus had only two catches, one of which was a monster 34-yarder that he ripped away from two FAU defenders. Jazz Peavy and Fumagalli had a couple of drops that would have been painful had the game been closer.
The running backs were the star of the show, however, and the Taylor hype train will undoubtably pick up steam after the freshman ripped through the Owls’ defense on several runs, including a 64-yard touchdown.
Wisconsin’s defense looked solid throughout, holding FAU to 14 points and only 50 total yards in the second half. The Badgers grabbed five sacks against FAU but did not manage a turnover. Owls quarterback Daniel Parr (filling in for De’Andre Johnson, who did not travel with the team due to an unspecified injury) only managed to complete nine of 19 passes for 142 yards.
Of concern, though, was the secondary’s vulnerability over the top. Wide receiver DeAndre McNeal scored FAU’s first touchdown on a 63-yard catch off of blown coverage and there were several times where it felt like FAU was close to taking the top off of the Badgers’ secondary. Wisconsin was burned on big plays by athletic wideouts last year in losses to Michigan and Penn State and it was concerning to see a lesser (though quite athletic) team like FAU find some holes. It bodes watching in the future.
ICYMI: Parr hits a wide open DeAndre McNeal for 63 yard TD. pic.twitter.com/yABErObhCk— FAU Football (@FAU_Football) September 9, 2017
Special Teams: B
Punter Anthony Lotti had two nice punts downed inside the five-yard line that pinned the Owls back in critical moments, though there were a couple of low-hangtime kicks that had “trouble” written all over them. Natrell Jamerson was a beast on punt coverage. Kicker Rafael Gaglianone was 1-of-2 on field goal tries. The return game was consistent but did not make any notable returns.
The Badgers avoided the early mental mistakes that plagued them against Utah State last week.
Wisconsin jumped out quickly, but sputtered a bit when FAU brought more men inside against the run. The Badgers missed a huge opportunity in the first half when they were stopped at the goal line after repeated inside runs. A play-action pass or running play to stretch the defense wide might have loosened things up in the middle.
The issues over the top in the secondary must be tightened up before Wisconsin begins Big Ten play. Having lost depth in the front seven due to injuries and graduations, the Badgers will not always be able to rely on pressure up front to disrupt the quarterback, and we saw what can happen in games against the Wolverines and Nittany Lions last year.
This was a good but not great game against a not-at-all-great opponent. A 17-point win is nice, but Wisconsin should have hung 50 on Lane Kiffin’s crew.
The growth on offense is positive. The offensive line is looking more like a Badgers line than any since the Gary Andersen era. Taylor was fantastic and James improved greatly on his less-than-stellar Badgers debut. Despite the interception and a handful of errant throws, Hornibrook appeared much more confident than he did in his freshman season and Fumagalli looks like an All-American.
Problems with the big play aside, Wisconsin’s defense looked stout against an FAU team that has talent at the skill positions. It remains to be seen, though, how this group stands up against a strong offense. Owen Riese thinks the defense can carry the team—I hope he’s right.