It has been just about a week since the No. 6 Wisconsin Badgers completed their historic season with a 34–24 victory over the No. 10 Miami Hurricanes in the 2017 Capital One Orange Bowl back on Dec. 30.
That capped off a 13-win season for head coach Paul Chryst, his coaching staff, and players, the most ever in a single season for the program. After all that Wisconsin accomplished this season, five of our writers reminisced and broke down who and what stood out most in 2017.
In the coming day or two, we will also look ahead to 2018 and what stands in Wisconsin’s way of another successful season.
What moment or game defined the Badgers’ 2017 season?
Owen Riese: The game that defined the season in my opinion was the Michigan game. The Badgers beat a real opponent in a tough game with their defense and quarterback play. That game embodies what is to come from this football program.
Andrew Rosin: The Orange Bowl was their best moment. A team that was disrespected all season because clearly they played nobody got a road game against a team that was supposed to run them off the field. And yes, Miami got off to a bang-up start, but the Badgers played tough defense and Alex Hornibrook had himself a night and they got themselves a reason to believe that 2018 will be more of the same.
The worst moment of the season was any game Gus Johnson called. He’s a human mute button.
Ryan Mellenthin: Apart from the Orange Bowl, which was the citrus-flavored icing on the cake of the 2017 season, I have to go with the Iowa game. It was Wisconsin’s first against a ranked opponent and Iowa was a week removed from a 55–24 curb-stomping of Ohio State. In their win over the Buckeyes, the Hawkeyes tallied 487 total yards. Against Wisconsin, Iowa managed a measly 66 and was 0-for-13 on third downs. In my opinion, it was Wisconsin’s first statement win of the season. The worst moment of the season was when Wisconsin came one score shy of beating Ohio State for a shot at playing in the College Football Playoff.
Kevin O’Connell: I agree with Owen; the Michigan game for me was Wisconsin’s defining moment of the season. The Wolverines were the Badgers’ first real challenge of the year and things looked shaky in the first half. Outside of a punt-return touchdown from Nick Nelson, the Badgers were stagnant on offense and started the second half with three punts and an interception. With Michigan leading 10–7 and Wisconsin’s CFP hopes on the line, Hornibrook led the Badgers on a 7-play, 77-yard touchdown drive that put them ahead for good. That response to adversity proved that this Wisconsin team was special.
Bob Wiedenhoeft: Wisconsin had dominated Nebraska on the road at night through the first 28.5 minutes of the game, yet only had a 10–0 lead to show for it. Then, a breakdown in coverage led to an 80-yard touchdown by Nebraska. Was Nebraska going to pull off the upset? Was Wisconsin going to falter? Nope! One play later, Jonathan Taylor goes 75 yards to regain the lead. Young players stepped up in critical moments throughout the season to make big plays, and this moment exemplifies the resilience of this Badgers team.
Besides Taylor, which Badger is your breakout player of the year?
Owen: I think you’ve got to go with Nelson, right? He transferred in from Hawaii and he’s leaving as a likely second-round pick. He added an extra element to the defense that helped it be more aggressive.
Andrew: You forget because of the injury, and the fact that the position stepped up to replace the production, but Quintez Cephus was an absolute breakout. As a true sophomore, he finished second in receptions, receiving yards, and still led the team in touchdowns—and he did that in just nine games. For someone who was all set to play college basketball just three years ago, he might be back in this conversation again next year.
Ryan: Apart from the likes of Taylor and Cephus, I have to go with T.J. Edwards. The junior was second on the team in tackles and tackles for loss, not to mention he tied for the team lead in interceptions (four), as an inside linebacker. With him returning for a senior season, the Wisconsin defense is sure to be one of the best in the country once again.
Kevin: I’ll go with another wide receiver: true freshman Danny Davis. When Davis signed with Wisconsin back in February, expectations were high for his career in Madison (he was the highest-rated wide receiver to commit to the Badgers in eight years). But I don’t think anyone expected Davis to be this good as a freshman. The Springfield, Ohio, native was Wisconsin’s most dangerous deep threat, averaging 16.1 yards per reception, and capped off the year with a three-touchdown performance in the Orange Bowl. This may be a semi-hot take, but with his combination of size, speed, and hands, I think Davis has the chance to become one the best wide receivers in program history when it’s all said and done.
Bob: Nelson’s off the board, so I’m going with outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel. He ended the season with 6.5 sacks and a pair of resuscitating interceptions in the post-season. It will be very exciting to see him return next year knowing he has a knack for the big moment.
UW picked all 13 seniors to be its collective team MVP. Who’s yours?
Owen: Michael Deiter. He took one for the team, potentially hurting his draft stock by playing out of position (left tackle) and played pretty well all year. He took his lumps against some elite competition, but held up well.
Andrew: On a team like this there’s a lot of ways you can go, but when you have yourself a running back fall just 23 yards short of 2,000 and be a Heisman candidate as a true freshman in an offense where the passing game had its share of misadventure, that’s where I’m going. Taylor was an undeniable force and the steady part of a backfield that had a lot of injuries and churn behind him.
Ryan: Taylor, without a doubt. The true freshman broke the NCAA record for rushing yards as a freshman and will only get better next year given that Wisconsin has an ever-improving pass offense that will keep defenses honest and hopefully give him more opportunities.
Kevin: My MVP is head coach Paul Chryst. His quiet, laid-back demeanor perfectly suits this program and his ability to have this team ready to play every week with the pressures of a perfect record was something to behold. Chryst has turned Wisconsin into a well-oiled machine in his first three seasons and with wins over USC, LSU, Michigan, and Miami, he has slowly but surely begun to erase the narrative that the Badgers can’t hang with the most elite of programs. Chryst is one of the 10 best coaches in college football and the main reason why it’s suddenly not unrealistic to expect a national championship during his career in Madison.
Bob: This team would not have been the same without Edwards anchoring the linebackers. Before the season, linebacker was considered a position of unlimited depth, but with injury after injury, the depth began to whittle away. Edwards was a constant this year on one of the best defenses in the country.
How will you remember this 2017 team?
Owen: The team that nearly did it. They came up a drive short in the Big Ten Championship Game but set the precedent for what this team can achieve under Chryst. They were a team facing high expectations and they lived up to them.
Andrew: Fondly. Having to listen to the single-worst college football announcer (look in your heart, you know it to be true), Gus Johnson, call another Big Ten Championship loss will always sting, but this is a team I expected to trip along the way. They never did. They just didn’t have enough when facing a team at their level in that title game. If over the next few years they go back to merely being good, I’ll live with it.
Ryan: I will remember this season as the start of something better. Wisconsin has had many seasons where they have been good but not good enough to hang with the “more athletic teams.” This year, they proved they could not just hang with a more athletic team in Miami, but they proved they were better and more athletic. Wisconsin is getting faster on the outside and appears to be on an upward trend. Chryst proves to be the coach that Wisconsin needs, a mild-mannered Wisconsin man who truly cares not only about the team’s performance, but about the players themselves.
Kevin: This team handled pressure extremely well. In years past, Wisconsin was always solid but they often would slip up in close, hard-fought games (i.e. B1G Championship in 2016, Iowa in 2015, Northwestern in 2014, three straight Rose Bowls, etc.). This year felt different. The Badgers brought it week in and week out and nearly ran the table to the College Football Playoff. Even when the Badgers seemed down and out against Ohio State, they never wavered and were in position to win the game. The sky is the limit going forward, and we’ll look back on the 2017 Wisconsin Badgers as the team that finally vaulted the program into the national spotlight.
Bob: I have no idea. They went on a great ride, and it seems they’ve burst into a new era with two straight New Year’s Six Bowl wins. If they recede to a couple of 9-to-10-win seasons, perhaps I will be more frustrated with the missed opportunity of a potential playoff berth. If they can make it to the playoffs soon, though, this will be the year that cemented their role in the college football ranks.