Yes, the annual Wisconsin vs. Purdue boat race lived up to the billing.
What looked like a game more in the manner of the Badgers’ 17–9 victory over the Boilermakers a year ago couldn’t have ended up further away. Wisconsin was down 27–13 with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter in what looked to be another disappointing loss and performance from a team seemingly in a rut. An underperforming offense and a defense hanging on by a thread that couldn’t find a way to play inter-dependently.
Then, all of a sudden, it clicked. Jack Coan threw two touchdowns to Danny Davis to force overtime. Jonathan Taylor ended up with over 320 rushing yards and three touchdowns, and the defense held just as much as it had to, forcing Purdue to a field goal in the third overtime and giving the offense all it needed: two chances to hand it off to Taylor.
The Badgers came away with a 47–44 victory in West Lafayette, which was widely predicted by everyone!
Here’s what we learned.
1. It’s still there, somewhere
I don’t mean to be a downer here, but you ever see athletes that were once transcendent and age has caught up with them and they’re really not what they once were? They’re still around and fan favorites, but admittedly they’re not the threat they used to be and, for the most part, are a shell of their former selves.
But sometimes, they’ll make a play that will seemingly take them back to their former glory. They’ll make a crazy pitch, or a contested corner three, or other sports cliché, and you’ll see glimpses of the ability that was there.
That’s what I saw in the Wisconsin offense the last six minutes of the fourth quarter and overtimes. Now, clearly, is some of this hyperbole? Yes. But the point remains that an offense that has struggled mightily this season to match the success it enjoyed a year ago captured that magic for a short amount of time on Saturday evening.
Now, this isn’t to insinuate that this ability isn’t there all of the time, and clearly this wasn’t meant to be some morbid metaphor regarding 18-to-22-year-old athletes, but the Wisconsin offense that fans enjoyed in 2017 is there. It’s in there somewhere, just waiting to be unlocked. I don’t think this is a good week to be a Minnesota Golden Gopher—they may be walking into a sleeping giant beginning to wake up.
2. Jim Leonhard is worth every penny he’s getting paid (and more)
Now, folks are gonna see the final score and say, “Are you kidding me?! Fourty-four points is unacceptable!” They’re right, mostly. What Jim Leonhard is managing to do, with a patchwork defensive line, a secondary filled with first-year players and true freshmen, is incredible.
Leonhard’s ability to manufacture pressures despite far-from-ideal personnel has been admirable. While Purdue did score 44 points, 27 were in regulation. For the most part, the Purdue rushing attack was contained. D.J. Knox is going to play in the NFL and was held to 39 yards on 11 carries. What the real “issue” was is that Purdue has a fourth-year starter (not four full years) at quarterback and he took advantage of the Badger corners: a redshirt sophomore (Caesar Williams), sophomore (Madison Cone), redshirt freshman (Faion Hicks), redshirt freshman (Deron Harrell), true freshman (Donte Burton), and true freshman (Rachad Wildgoose). Not great!
Also, Wildgoose got chewed up a bit, but Rondale Moore is probably going to be an All-American as a true freshman, and having another true freshman shadow him all game is less than optimal. Wildgoose put himself in a position to compete all day (with the exception of getting dusted on the seam-route touchdown).
3. Jack Coan stepped up
Nearly everyone has been critical to some extent of Jack Coan, the sophomore quarterback who has stepped in and struggled in place of Alex Hornibrook. And through most of Saturday’s game, it looked like a lot of the same.
While Coan started well with a nice slot fade to A.J. Taylor, he was a bit erratic, missing Kendric Pryor on a crosser and over-throwing Jake Ferguson on a couple of occasions.
However, it honestly looked like Coan just decided to let it rip late in the game, and it showed. Giving Danny Davis III two 50/50 opportunities to make plays in the end zone shows not only confidence in his receiver to make the catch, but also confidence in himself to sling it and put it where it needed to be.
Hornibrook’s health will determine who plays quarterback next weekend, but Coan finally showed what the Badger coaching staff saw enough of to give him the back-up job.
4. BONUS: JONATHAN TAYLOR IS INCREDIBLE
So, it’s not hard to figure out that Jonathan Taylor is a spectacular talent.
However, like when Melvin Gordon was in Madison, I hope Badger fans appreciate how special he is. He’s like, objectively, a top-two running back in the country. He’s been a huge win for UW, but also he’s a special kid and isn’t someone to be taken for granted.
NO, this is not a point to be used for “Wisconsin is wasting Jonathan Taylor” or anything of that nature. Enjoy him being in Madison. He’s a treat to watch.