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A game of firsts for, connections between freshmen Taj Mustapha, Danny Vanden Boom

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Insight into the late Saturday touchdown and the development of two Badgers.

Matt Fleming

For freshmen Taj Mustapha and Danny Vanden Boom, the two will forever be linked with their performances during Saturday’s 45-14 win over New Mexico.

On a 3rd-and-Goal with less than a minute to go, Vanden Boom found Mustapha for a three-yard touchdown pass to cap the scoring for Wisconsin in what became a comfortable win.

For Vanden Boom, the redshirt freshman and Wisconsin legacy, it was his first collegiate game, first career passing attempt, completion and subsequent touchdown pass.

“It was pretty special,” Vanden Boom told B5Q on Tuesday. “The offensive line and the backs marched us right down the field and I was kind of lucked into that situation a little bit, giving me a pass call on third down from the three[-yard line]. So really, it was a credit to the guys for driving us right down the field, and when we got an opportunity down low [in] the red zone, we took advantage of it.”

For Mustapha, a true freshman who enrolled early during the spring semester, the catch became his first career collegiate reception and touchdown.

“Man, it’s amazing,” Mustapha told B5Q on Tuesday. “It’s what you dream of, you know?”

Wisconsin lined up with two true freshmen receivers in Mustapha and Aron Cruickshank to the right side of the line of scrimmage. Redshirt freshman tight end Jake Ferguson was split out off the line as well but on the inside of Mustapha, who was inside of Cruickshank.

“Well, the play call we had, it was just we had two digs from the outside receivers, so I had the inside dig, and I just ran my dig,” Mustapha said. “Me knowing the coverage of the defense, I was thinking, ‘OK, I might be up, so let me run my route hard’—not to say that I wouldn’t run my route hard anyway. I was just saying, ‘OK, it could be go time, so I was just ready for it if it came to me.”

Quarterback Danny Vanden Boom during fall camp
Jake Kocorowski

Vanden Boom, entered the game late in the fourth quarter after Madison Cone’s first interception of his career. Rather than sophomore Jack Coan coming in, the son of former Wisconsin walk-on safety Matt Vanden Boom entered the game.

Coan performed well during fall camp, drawing praise from redshirt senior Michael Deiter, but as previously noted after the game, Vanden Boom knew he was going in. He reiterated that to B5Q on Tuesday, though he knows both signal callers need to be primed to go if called upon.

“Coach Chryst talked to me a little bit about it like a week or two back, but at the end of the day both Jack and I are going to be ready to go,” Vanden Boom said. “Whatever happens thorughout the rest of the season, we’ll both be ready when our number’s called, and that’s the way it’s got to be because everything’s really unpredictable.”

As Vanden Boom pointed out, one snap and your role can change.

“You just never know so you got to prepare.”

On Tuesday, starting quarterback Alex Hornibrook recalled his first game time action back during the 2016 season against Akron, noting he was “pretty nervous.”

Fast forward to last Saturday’s game, the redshirt junior signal caller said he was happy for Vanden Boom to throw a touchdown on his first collegiate pass, also complimenting the development of the in-state product.

“He’s progressed a lot,” Hornibrook said. “He’s done a lot of things just in the film room in getting ready, and I think it’s definitely worked out for him on the field.”

When asked prior to Hornibrook’s comments this week, that theme also arose from Vanden Boom, along with others, regarding his progression.

“Just been continuing to try to work on my footwork, my strength and also the filmwork,” Vanden Boom said. “No matter how smart you are, the best guys in that area still need to put time in the filmroom and really master the game and the opponent, so there’s always work to be done, whether physical or mental.”

Mustapha enrolled back in January as one of five true freshmen to do so —joining Cruickshank, nose tackle Bryson Williams, cornerback Donte Burton and safety Reggie Pearson—with four of those five have played this year already. Pearson sat out the first two games again due to injury, though he has been listed in the two-deep on Wisconsin’s depth chart. Six true freshmen in all—including defensive backs Travian Blaylock and Rachad Wildgoose—have seen time on the field early on this year.

The freshman receiver mentioned coming in a semester early helped in learning the playbook so he could have the opportunity to “even try to play early.”

Offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph told reporters on Tuesday that he didn’t think Mustapha would be out on the field if he did not arrive early for spring ball. The Wisconsin assistant explained that the staff tries to keep the formations, the plays simple during that stretch from March to April, but then in fall camp “you want to get everything in that you’re going to use.”

“In spring, you’re trying to train the techniques. You’re trying to train the details,” Rudolph said. “You’re coaching, technique is everything, and really it doesn’t change for fall camp, but there are a lot more plays. So then it’s like, ‘Oh holy smokes, there’s such a volume here,’ and you’re trying to catch up with it. Now you go back in the game plan where it gets smaller again, so I think he’s finding the comfort in that over these first few weeks, and it was good to see him out there. It was good for him having an opportunity and he made some blunders. Then, he did some good things, and I think that’s being young so you gotta grow from those things and kind of sure them up, but it was good. Him and Aron being out there will be good for us.”

When asked about Vanden Boom, who threw for 56 touchdowns to only five interceptions in his junior and senior years at in-state powerhouse Kimberly, Rudolph complemented his young quarterback and the group of reserves as a whole who drove down the field for the final score of the game.

“I thought he did good, man,” Rudolph said. “It was neat seeing that group out there at the end and seeing kids compete and sustain a drive and finish a drive off. I think that’s great growth for them.”

When and in what situations the two young Badgers—both former first-team all-state selections in high school—will be utilized on offense remains to be seen. However, both complimented one another earlier this week.

“He came in with great leadership in the huddle,” said Mustapha. “Me and Danny in the spring, we just had a connection, so me and Danny have a good relationship.”

According to Vanden Boom, Mustapha—who hauled in nearly 2,500 receiving yards and 25 touchdowns during his Michigan prep career—is a “special athlete.”

“You watch him play and he stands out as an athlete, and he’s really put in a lot of work getting to know the playbook and running precise routes, and he’s really become a force out there. He looks really good, pretty routinely creating separation, and he’s fun to throw to.”