Biggest surprise and disappointment for each AFC team

Through three weeks, the NFL season is very much up for grabs. Many teams are still figuring out their identities, with plenty of surprises and disappointments. We take a look today at each team’s biggest surprise and biggest dissapointment.

AFC East

Buffalo Bills (1-2)

Surprise: Linebackers

There haven’t been many bright spots for the Bills so far (a home win against the Cardinals aside), but their linebackers have been compiling impressive numbers. ILB Zach Brown is 2nd in the NFL in tackles with 34, and his counterpart Preston Brown isn’t too far behind with 29. Veteran free agent signing OLB Lorenzo Alexander has been posting the best numbers of his career in his 10th season, totaling 15 tackles, 3 sacks, and 2 forced fumbles in just 3 games.

Disappointment: Coaching Staff

QB Tyrod Taylor made his case for being the Bills’ biggest disappointment by spearheading the NFL’s worst passing attack after receiving a monster extension, but the fact that Sammy Watkins has been injured will spare him from this distinction. The dubious honor falls upon the coaching staff, as offensive coordinator Greg Roman was fired after Week 2 and head coach Rex Ryan could follow quickly.

Miami Dolphins (1-2)

Surprise: CB Xavien Howard

After missing the first three preseason games due to injury, the rookie out of Baylor stepped into a starting role immediately and has produced continuously. Howard has racked up 22 tackles, three passes defensed, and forced a fumble through the first three games, establishing himself as a Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate.

Disappointment: Running Backs

The Dolphins were expecting to have a threatening rushing attack after former rushing leader Arian Foster and 3rd-round pick Kenyan Drake were added to a backfield with promising lead back Jay Ajayi. Injuries have stunted the production of Foster and Ajayi, though their numbers were unspectacular to begin with. As a result, QB Ryan Tannehill is the team’s leading rusher with a measly 54 yards.

New England Patriots (3-0)

Surprise: RB LeGarrette Blount

There has been little continuity at running back over the last decade in New England, as Tom Terrific has minimized the need at the position with his aerial prowess. However, after Dion Lewis required a second offseason knee surgery, Blount has become the primary offensive weapon in New England, posting a league-leading 298 rushing yards and four scores.

Disappointment: TE Rob Gronkowski

There haven’t been any real disappointments thus far in New England, as the Patriots been dominant in all facets of the game without their future Hall-of-Fame QB. Having the best tight end in the game back would be an added bonus, as Gronkowski has only seen action in Week 3, where he didn’t receive a target. Also, the franchise brass would have liked to have seen how their superstar tight end would have connected with Brissett and Garoppolo as that could influence their decision about the QB of the future.

New York Jets (1-2)

Surprise: RB Matt Forte

A legend in Chicago, Forte was not supposed to have much gas left in the tank when he left for the Big Apple in his age-31 season. Instead, Forte has the 5th most scrimmage yards among running backs with 347, and has scored 3 touchdowns as well.

Disappointment: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick

Coming off the best season of his career, Fitzpatrick is looking closer to the Buffalo Bills version of himself now. After a long contract dispute, the journeyman passer has thrown only 3 touchdowns but has been picked off a league-leading 7 times. Fitzpatrick is currently the 41st-ranked quarterback in the league with a 59.3 passer rating.

AFC North

Baltimore Ravens (3-0)

Surprise: Defense

Despite a relatively starless defensive unit, this year’s Ravens squad is reminiscent of the 2001 Super Bowl champion team. CJ Mosley, Zachary Orr and company have let up 44 points (4th-least in the NFL), 763 yards (2nd), and a paltry 4.4 yards per play (2nd).

Disappointment: Running Backs

Usually in order for a defensively strong team to go far in the playoffs, they will need a strong rushing attack. Unfortunately for the Ravens, the run game is their biggest weakness, averaging just 3.25 yards per carry. Justin Forsett has looked far from his usual self, Terrance West has been mediocre, and Kenneth Dixon and Buck Allen have been sidelined with injuries.

Cincinnati Bengals (1-2)

Surprise: CB Adam Jones

The leader of a Bengals defense that has held quarterbacks to a completion percentage of just 57%, the volatile veteran who typically makes his biggest impact on special teams has been a revelation at corner. Pacman has compiled 17 tackles, three passes defensed, an interception, and a fumble recovery thus far.

Disappointment: Defensive Line

While the Bengals have a strong stable of cornerbacks, the defensive line has to create more pressure. Though they have established stars such as Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins, Cincinnati has amassed only four sacks on the season, a weakness that could get exposed later in the season.

Cleveland Browns (0-3)

Surprise: Wide Receivers

While Isaiah Crowell has undoubtedly been one of the best rushers in the NFL, he has been known to go on spurts throughout his career. The young receiver corps of Terrelle Pryor and Corey Coleman has been giving defenders fits, and if Josh Gordon returns to his 2014 form, Cleveland would be a tough team to defend in the air.

Disappointment: Quarterbacks

It is a shame that the Browns don’t have an adequate QB to get the ball to their stud receivers. Robert Griffin III showed flashes of brilliance in the presence, but in typical RG3 fashion, injured his shoulder Week 1. Backup quarterback Josh McCown promptly fractured his clavicle, placing Cleveland’s hopes on the rookie Cody Kessler, who was mediocre against Miami.

Pittsburgh Steelers (2-1)

Surprise: LB Ryan Shazier

In his 3rd season in the NFL, Shazier has emerged as the player the Steelers envisioned when they took him in the first round of the 2014 Draft. The linebacker who beat Antonio Brown and all his teammates in the 40 yard dash during Steelers training camp is always around the ball. Shazier has totaled 20 tackles, picked off a pass, and forced a fumble.

Disappointment: Passing Defense

The Steelers currently rank 31st in the NFL in passing defense, having let up 996 yards passing and an average quarterback rating of 105.8. The Steelers tried to address their weak secondary by taking CB Artie Burns in the first round of the draft, but still rely too heavily on aging William Gay.

AFC South

Houston Texans (2-1)

Surprise: Passing Defense

Even with JJ Watt’s struggles (see below), the Texans have been manhandling opponents through the air. They are leading or near the top of almost every defensive category against the pass, such as completions (1st), completion percentage (1st), yards (1st), touchdowns (3rd), and sacks (4th). Despite these impressive stats, the Texans biggest surprise could still be rookie WR Will Fuller, who is out-gaining resident All-Pro DeAndre Hopkins.

Disappointment: DE JJ Watt

It turns out JJ Watt is mortal after all, as he is reportedly heading to the IR. Despite an offseason spent recovering from surgery, Watt insisted on playing Week 1, and hurt himself even more.

Indianapolis Colts (1-2)

Surprise: TE Jack Doyle

After the departure of Coby Fleener, the Colts turned to Doyle to take their TE2 spot. The Western Kentucky product has been a reliable target for Andrew Luck, catching 13 of his 15 targets, as well as gaining 137 yards and scoring twice.

Disappointment: Defense

It was well-known entering the season that the Colts would have to score a lot of points in order to win games, but this defense might be worse than previously thought. They have conceded 95 points (31st), 1,207 yards (26th), 69 first downs (26th) despite a relatively easy schedule. Outside of ILB Sio Moore, opposing offenses have little fear when they travel to LucasOil Stadium.

Jacksonville Jaguars (0-3)

Surprise: WR Marqise Lee

The Jaguars were thought to be an up-and-coming team on the cusp of the playoffs prior to the start of the season, but find themselves in the cellar of a weak AFC South. The improvement of the formerly underwhelming Lee, who is already close to his yardage total from last year, has been one of the few bright spots and gives the Jags a strong #3 wideout.

Disappointment: Running Backs

When the Jags added former 1,000 yard power rusher Chris Ivory, they looked to balance out an offensive attack that relied too heavily on Blake Bortles. However, Ivory has played sparsely due to injury, and incumbent TJ Yeldon has averaged just 2.5 yards per carry. As a team, they have averaged just 2.8 yards per rush, 31st in the league.

Tennessee Titans (1-2)

Surprise: RB DeMarco Murray

Despite lots of preseason hype surrounding 2nd round pick Derrick Henry, Murray has been the bell cow back in Nashville. Murray is third in the NFL with 377 scrimmage yards, as he is being involved in the passing game like never before. The free agent signee by way of Philadelphia has also hit paydirt three times, twice through the air.

Disappointment: DT Jurrell Casey

The linchpin of the Titans defense, Casey is not putting up the numbers he has in the past. The big nose tackle out of Southern Cal has just five solo tackles and half a sack through the first 3 games. While nose tackles can make a significant impact without posting tremendous statistics, Casey is Tennessee’s best pass rusher and needs to get to the quarterback.

AFC West

Denver Broncos (3-0)

Surprise: QB Trevor Siemian

Many pundits (myself included) did not give the Broncos much of a chance entering this season after losing Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler. However, the former 7th-rounder has beaten the Panthers, Colts, and Bengals, and has looked more than capable of keeping Denver in the championship mix. Siemian was flawless in a 312 yard, four touchdown performance in Cincinnati.

Disappointment: Defensive Penalties

There isn’t much wrong up in Mile High, but sloppiness can mean the difference when the playoffs roll around. Denver has committed 25 penalties (4th in NFL) for 248 yards (2nd), which is not something one would expect out of a Super Bowl champion. Giving away yards is never good, but that bad habit must be cut out before the postseason if the Broncos wish to contend.

Kansas City Chiefs (2-1)

Surprise: RB Spencer Ware

Over a large portion of the past decade, the Chiefs have run a ground-and-pound attack behind the offensive force named Jamaal Charles. With Charles still on the mend from a torn ACL, Ware won the temporary starting job over Charcandrick West and never looked back. Ware has totaled a league-leading 387 scrimmage yards thus far, which could spell an expanded role for him even when Charles returns.

Disappointment: Wide Receivers

After an improvement last year, the Chiefs receivers this year are more reminiscent of the 2014 group that failed to catch a touchdown. Kansas City’s leading receivers at this writing are tight end Travis Kelce and Ware, though ageless veteran Jeremy Maclin isn’t too far behind. Chris Conley has been serviceable so far, but the Chiefs have next to nothing in the vertical threat department.

Oakland Raiders (2-1)

Surprise: Rushing Attack

Prior to the start of the season, Oakland was perceived to be a pass-first team and that the front office doesn’t see Latavius Murray as a legitimate starting running back. Murray still may not be receiving his due, but from top to bottom the Raiders are running the football at a ridiculous clip. The Silver and Black are rushing for nearly 6 yards per rush, and have found diamonds in the rough in Jalen Richard (163 scrimmage yards, 8.6 ypc) and DeAndre Washington (138 scrimmage yards, 6.5 ypc).

Disappointment: Pass Rush

With the league’s most promising pass rusher in Khalil Mack and the addition of specialist Bruce Irvin, Coliseum should be a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks. Somehow, the Raiders have managed just three sacks, with none coming from Mack, the first player in NFL history to be named All-Pro at two positions in one year. The Raiders were exposed by Drew Brees and Matt Ryan in the first two weeks, and will need to generate pressure if they want to contend.

San Diego Chargers (1-2)

Surprise: WR Tyrell Williams

An unknown prior to this season, the Western Oregon alum established himself as a serious threat in an offense that has been surprisingly effective after losing Keenan Allen. Williams has gained 201 receiving yards and hit paydirt once, but the statistic that best displays his status as an emerging star is his 108 yards after the catch, tops among receivers.

Disappointment: TE Antonio Gates

While Gates is entering the twilight of his career, solid production was still expected from the surefire Hall-of-Famer. Inactive against the Colts in Week 3 due to a hamstring injury, Gates amassed just 35 yards over the first two games, though he did score. Despite a costly fumble against Indianapolis, rookie Hunter Henry has stepped up as Philip Rivers 3rd option.


Image courtesy of Texas Monthly


Wisconsin football: Offensive line’s ongoing improvements making a difference

MADISON, Wis. — Last season saw something Wisconsin fans were not used to: an offensive line that was not opening holes for the run game and was not giving the quarterback time to pass.

In summer camp, there were serious concerns about how the front line would rebound after a down year. Then, the group was hit with news that star lineman Dan Voltz was retiring. Luckily for Wisconsin, Voltz decided to stay on the sidelines.

“Dan has definitely been a big help for us,” starting left tackle Ryan Ramczyk said. “You know if coach is busy at all you can always go to Dan. He knows what he’s talking about and it’s nice to have that.”

The play of the offensive line has greatly improved. Any coach will tell you it starts in the trenches, but with Wisconsin’s tough schedule, that cannot be emphasized enough. Voltz’s knowledge of the game, such as techniques and when is best to use them, has improved the offensive line even without him on the field. Just ask Michael Deiter, who has moved already from center to left guard on the first line with Brett Connors starting at center.

“He [Voltz]’s been so helpful; he helped me a ton when I was at center and he’s still helping me at guard,” starting left guard Michael Deiter said. “He helps me get things right schematically, seeing defenses and he’s got a bunch of great knowledge when it comes to using certain techniques in certain situations.”

So far this season, Wisconsin has beaten two top ten ranked opponents, and the offensive line has been one of the reasons why Wisconsin have been able to play past everyone’s expectations.

Through the first four games, Wisconsin’s front line has given up eight sacks and the run game has improved from last year. Something clicked in the unit from this summer coming into the fall and regular season.

“I think as an offensive line, as a group, we’ve come together closer on and off the field and really have gotten more trust in each other,” Ramczyk said. “Just feeling a little bit more comfortable next to each guy.”

When you’re fighting in the trenches, trust is crucial. Having to worry about the assignment in front of you, whether it is a linebacker or a defensive lineman, is quite the task in of itself. When an offensive line lacks trust, the unit starts to worry about the guy next to them and their assignment too.

“You see it in that guys are more confident now and just going out there and trust their talent and letting it go,” Deiter said. “We’re not so worried about getting beat anymore.”

An often overlooked aspect in the blocking schemes, from a fan perspective, is the role of the tight end.

“We try to be as much as we can,” starting tight end Troy Fumagalli said. “We take pride in trying to be an all around tight end and putting that responsibility on us, being able to both block and catch.”

Being able to trust the tight end to be an effective blocker opens up the offense just as if there is another offensive lineman playing.

“He’s basically the last O-lineman on the edge when it comes to blocking,” Deiter explained. “He makes plays go just like the rest of us make plays go. If we have a good block at the tight end it changes the run game tremendously.”

Having all around tight ends is not new to Wisconsin football. Owen Daniels, Garrett Graham, Lance Kendricks, and Travis Beckum were all-around tight ends who helped create holes for running backs like John Clay and Montee Ball.

“In this offense, you have to be complete at the tight end position and their as important as anyone of the five offensive lineman, fullback, second tight end, who ever is in there,” offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Joe Rudolph said.

Fans, though, are not the only ones looking back to the days of dominant offensive line units from Wisconsin, that often rivaled NFL offensive lines in size.

“I grew up watching the 2010 and 2011 teams and those guys were just studs and when I was offered to come here; that’s what Wisconsin is about and the offensive line and how strong they’ve always been historically,” starting right guard Beau Benzschawel said. “It’s just that tradition part of things where you wanna kind of show those guys that we haven’t dropped off and we wanna take those team values that they had to keep excelling.”

But they still have given up eight sacks through four games and the running game still is not to the point it was back in the days of Montee Ball and Melvin Gordon.

All that counts at the end of the day are wins and losses. Fans do not remember a slight screw up in technique or a missed block on the back-end of a play. Being 4-0 to start the year, fans will assume the play is right where it needs to be. But you know who does not think that? Any of the Wisconsin offensive linemen.

“I still feel like we’re not where we could be,” Deiter said. “We could be a lot better we have a lot of things we could clean up. But it’s pretty encouraging to be having some success but knowing we could be a lot better.”

If that mentality holds true and this unit keeps cleaning up the small mistakes that still plague them, Wisconsin might not just be on the cusp of regaining form as a dominant offensive line program, but could be on the cusp of breaking through the Big Ten Conference.

Wisconsin kicks off against Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich. on Saturday. Kickoff is set for 2:30pm CT on ABC.

Photo courtesy of Al Goldis/Associated Press.


NFL Power Rankings: Week 4

1. New England Patriots (3-0; Last Ranking: 1)

The Patriots are simply the best team in the NFL right now, and it isn’t even close. Without Brady and effectively without Gronk, this team dominated a good Houston Texans team. They are the overwhelming Super Bowl favorites right now.

2. Denver Broncos (3-0; Last Ranking: 2)

We are used to Denver winning with stout defense and low scores. However, someone decided that it was time we let Trevor Siemian loose and have him throw the ball downfield. One four-touchdown day and a victory over the Bengals might change the way this team operates moving forward.

3. Minnesota Vikings (3-0; Last Ranking: 6)

After victories over the Packers and Titans, many expected the Vikings to come back to earth in Week 3. However, Mike Zimmer is proving to be one of the elite head coaches in the NFL already. This defense might also be the best in the NFL and reminds a lot of people of the 2000 Ravens and the 2015 Broncos.

4. Philadelphia Eagles (3-0; Last Ranking: 15)

The Eagles’ defensive line completely dominated the Steelers’ offensive line (one of the better OLs in the league), and Carson Wentz looked like a 10-year veteran. The combination of Wentz, their OL and DL, and their ability to get after the quarterback makes this team really scary.

5. Green Bay Packers (2-1; Last Ranking: 8)

The Packers looked phenomenal in the first half of last week’s game. Aaron Rodgers threw four touchdowns, Lacy looked good, Jordy had a big game, and the defense played well early (they gave up some garbage time points). The Packers will take a much-needed early bye week to get healthy on defense.

6. Baltimore Ravens (3-0; Last Ranking: 12)

The Ravens have won three games by a combined 13 points, and those three wins have come against the Browns, the Jaguars, and the Bills who are a combined 1-8. While 3-0 is certainly impressive, those three teams aren’t exactly elite competition. This week against the Redskins doesn’t get much tougher.

7. Pittsburgh Steelers (2-1; Last Ranking: 3)

Pittsburgh is a Super Bowl contender and last Sunday doesn’t change that. However, that performance was simply embarrassing and they were completely dominated by the Eagles. This team did not look like they were ready to play on Sunday. That won’t work against the Chiefs this week, but having Le’Veon Bell back will help.

8. Carolina Panthers (1-2; Last Ranking: 4)

The Panthers now sit at 1-2, with their only win coming against the lowly 49ers. Carolina doesn’t seem to have that same energy and swagger as they did last year. Cam Newton looks human, the defense isn’t striking fear into anyone, and this secondary really needs some work.

9. Arizona Cardinals (1-2; Last Ranking: 5)

The Cardinals didn’t show up in Buffalo, and now they are sitting at 1-2 with their only win coming over a Buccaneers team that has struggled this year. If the Cardinals are going to turn it around, it starts with more consistent quarterback play from veteran Carson Palmer and stopping the run on defense.

10. Kansas City Chiefs (2-1; Last Ranking: 13)

The Chiefs defense is among the best in the NFL, and no one could argue against that after last Sunday. They forced eight turnovers, held the Jets to three points on offense, and controlled the game from the beginning. This team has a winning formula, and they’ve been doing it without Jamaal Charles.

11. Seattle Seahawks (2-1; Last Ranking: 14)

Some are saying that the Seahawks offense is back. However, almost any team in the NFL could score 30+ points again the 49ers. Furthermore, Russell Wilson’s knee injury isn’t serious, but it will hamper him and keep him out of a couple games.

12. Houston Texans (2-1; Last Ranking: 7)

After a nice 2-0 start, the Texans looked ready to go 3-0 against a rookie quarterback on a short week. Instead, they didn’t even belong on that field on Thursday as the Patriots completely dominated them on offense, defense, and special teams. The Texans are still good, just not New England good. Losing JJ Watt, though, will hurt.

13. Cincinnati Bengals (1-2; Last Ranking: 9)

After a disappointing loss to the Steelers last week, they Bengals came out flat against the Broncos on Sunday. A week after holding Ben Roethlisberger in check, they let Trevor Siemian throw it all over the field. They are going to need to get better this week when they play the Dolphins on Thursday night.

14. New York Jets (1-2; Last Ranking: 10)

The Jets might have had the worst day of any NFL team on Sunday. They turned the ball over eight times, including six Fitzpatrick interceptions. That was a tough loss, because their upcoming schedule is brutal: Seahawks at home, then at Pittsburgh, and at Arizona.

15. Atlanta Falcons (2-1; Last Ranking: 17)

When deciding who would make the playoffs this year, a lot of people picked the Falcons by default as the last wild card when Bridgewater got hurt. As we can all see, the Falcons have great weapons on offense. If Matty Ice can keep playing well, and the defense can hold people under 24 points, this team will win a lot.

16. Oakland Raiders (2-1; Last Ranking: 16)

Cross-country travel, coupled with an early start time usually means bad things for teams from the west coast. However, the Raiders lucked out by playing Tennessee. Their defense was able to compete for the first time this season, and now they are sitting pretty at 2-1.

17. New York Giants (2-1; Last Ranking: 11)

The Giants had a great chance to knock the Redskins out of the division race with a win on Sunday. However, Eli proved that he will always have a couple bad games a year and it will be tough for New York to win those games. This team is clearly way more talented than last year and that bodes well moving forward.

18. Indianapolis Colts (1-2; Last Ranking: 19)

The Colts are a weird team to figure out. With Andrew Luck at quarterback, this team can win any game they play in. However, outside of the quarterback position, this is one of the 10 worst rosters in the NFL. Until this roster gets overhauled with talent, they won’t be the perennial division champs like they were under The Sheriff. 

19. Los Angeles Rams (2-1; Last Ranking: 20)

Guess who enters this week in first place of the NFC West? The Los Angeles Rams. Just like the 49ers, the Rams have proved their Week 1 performance to be a fluke. Since then they have defeated the Seahawks and the Buccaneers. Last week they more than tripled their offensive scoring output for the season.

20. Dallas Cowboys (2-1; Last Ranking: 21)

The Cowboys are stuck without Tony Romo, but luckily they found Dak Prescott to lead them. In case you can’t remember last year, the Cowboys could not win a game without Romo. With their rookie quarterback, rookie running back, and revitalized defense, the Cowboys looks like NFC East contenders already.

21. Washington Redskins (1-2; Last Ranking: 23)

Dead in the water last week, now the Redskins are right back in the NFC East mix. Their victory over the Giants in MetLife Stadium shows why this division will be unpredictable until the end. Division match ups are often slug-fests, and the undefeated team (Philly) is the only one to not play an NFC East game yet.

22. Detroit Lions (1-2; Last Ranking: 18)

After one week, the Lions looked like a potential playoff team. Since then they have simply looked like the Lions. The score yesterday is not indicative of the game that the Lions played. Green Bay pounced on them in the first half and barely threw the ball in the second half.

23. San Diego Chargers (1-2; Last Ranking: 22)

Many expected the Chargers to be largely noncompetitive this season, but they have played solid football through the first three weeks of the season. Even though they are 1-2, they should still feel good about the way they have played. Phillip Rivers is one of the most underrated NFL players of this generation.

24. Buffalo Bills (1-2; Last Ranking: 26)

A week after being declared one of the biggest disappointments in the NFL, the Bills came back and absolutely slaughtered the Cardinals at home. In all three phases of the game, the Bills dominated the game and never gave the Cardinals a chance. This week they travel to Foxborough.

25. Miami Dolphins (1-2; Last Ranking: 24)

A road win that goes into overtime is usually not a bad thing. However, when it is against a 3rd round draft pick, and (arguably) the worst team in the NFL, you would hope for a better result. In fact, had the Browns’ kicker Cody Parkey made his field goal attempt (or the other two he missed) as time expired, the Dolphins would have lost.

26. Tennessee Titans (1-2; Last Ranking: 25)

In Week 2, the Titans had a huge emotional victory against a surging Detroit team on the road. This past week, they struggled offensively against a Raiders defense that had been porous the two weeks before. Unlike other young teams like Jacksonville and Tampa Bay, Tennessee needs to add a lot more talent to their roster before being contenders.

27. Jacksonville Jaguars (0-3; Last Ranking: 27)

Even with a tall task going against a Ravens team that hadn’t lost yet, you were still hoping the Jaguars would avoid an 0-3 start. A trendy playoff pick in August, this team has dashed those hopes in September. The focus for this season should be about experimenting with different combinations of players, and developing their young guys.

28. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-3; Last Ranking: 28)

While many were excited to see the Buccaneers take a big leap this season, it is obvious that they just are not there yet. It is no surprise to see why this team finished 2-14 a couple years ago. As these young guys get older and they round out the roster, this team will be competitive.

29. New Orleans Saints 0-3; (Last Ranking: 29)

There is a legitimate case to be made that the Saints are the worst team in the NFL. Yes they have Drew Brees and some really good pieces on offense, but to call this defense bad would be an understatement. They aren’t going to win many games giving up 200 yards rushing.

30. Chicago Bears (0-3; Last Ranking: 30)

This could be the year that the Bears get the high draft pick you need to draft a franchise quarterback. It is clear (and has been for years) that the people of Chicago don’t want Jay Cutler to be their quarterback. With the worst point differential in the NFL, it is not hard to see why.

31. San Francisco 49ers (1-2; Last Ranking: 31)

Remember Week 1 when they won by four touchdowns? Well now they are sitting at 1-2, and have been outscored by 48 points in the first three quarters of their last two games. Even though this team has a couple of elite level talents on their roster, this team is filled with holes throughout the roster.

32. Cleveland Browns (0-3; Last Ranking: 32)

The Browns are on their third quarterback, but they are still competitive and have Terrelle Pryor to play every position on offense.

Photo courtesy of the New York Daily News.


Wisconsin men’s hockey: Badgers hungry, determined under new coaching staff 

As the Badgers’s men’s hockey season opener is rapidly approaching, one thing is clear: the players are hungry for a winning season.

On Monday, the leadership team of captain Luke Kunin and alternate captains Grant Besse and Cameron Hughes met with the media to discuss the upcoming season and the implications of the new coaching staff.

“I think we got some great coaches, obviously,” Kunin said. “I think we have the best coaches in college hockey now and I think that’s only for the better.”

When asked whether the new coaching staff had any influence on Kunin staying another year with the Badgers, Kunin made it clear that it was one of the things he took into consideration.

“Yeah, I think that was definitely a part of it,” Kunin said. “These coaches have obviously all coached pro at some point, and Tony [Granato] played and coached in the NHL for a while and that’s where I want to be and to play for him here… everything about it makes me want to stay here.”

Kunin was drafted 15th overall to the Minnesota Wild in the 2016 NHL Draft.

Hughes had a similar outlook, stating that the team is excited to have a fresh start with a new coaching staff.

“[With] the new coaches in, it’s a fresh start and everyone is kinda looking forward to that—getting off on a new foot and kinda getting into our own kinda chapter with new coaches,” Hughes said.

“Some guys were having some issues with their confidence and that doesn’t make for a good player or a good team,” Besse said. “To play this game you have to have confidence in yourself and the organization and the coaching staff… When coach Granato came in we know he’s gonna give us 100% effort so we have to match that.

“[Granato]’s  a hard-nosed player, got to the net, he wasn’t afraid to go to the hard areas, that’s something I think he’s gonna try to instil in us and something that will help us win some games.”

With the possibility of a new, more aggressive style of play, the Badgers are also taking a more aggressive approach at how to win more games.

“The energy is good now. When I came in I didn’t expect to go through some of the things we did but I think it was beneficial for myself and the other guys because we’re hungry to get back at it and kinda change the script,” Hughes said.

When asked about the Badgers being ranked fifth within the Big Ten conference, Hughes shrugged the rankings off.

“For us, we’re gonna earn everything we’re gonna get,” Hughes said. “I think it’s a good thing for us that we can not look too much into those rankings at all and earn everything we get. So, if they want to put us there it’s awesome, whatever, we’ll just make our own rankings.”

Besse, on the other hand, felt differently.

“On a personal level I would put us higher, but based on the last two years I can understand why maybe that ranking is where it’s at,” Besse said. “So I wouldn’t say I’m necessarily surprised but I would say I disagree with it.”

Frustrated with how the last two years have ended, Kunin is determined to make a change.

“We’re hungry to win and hungry to make a difference,” Kunin explained. “You know, these past two years have been unacceptable for Wisconsin hockey. We’re a winning program and we’re hungry to turn that around and win.”

As the captain of the team this year, Kunin feels prepared and is humbled to take on this new role.

“I’m very humbled and honored [to be named the captain]… for me it doesn’t change anything. I still gotta go out and do the things I did last year and compete every night,” Kunin said. “I thought I was a leader last year… I’ll just do the same things I’ve been doing my whole career.”

The Badgers are a team predominantly made up of underclassmen, with 15 of the 26-man roster being sophomores and freshmen, but to Hughes this doesn’t make a difference.

“I think you just go into every weekend trying to win and you work hard throughout the week. I don’t think being young is really an excuse anymore,” Hughes said. “It’s time to just start putting some good weekends together… we’re just excited to get going”

The Badgers will be hosting a luncheon with coach Tony Granato and Badger Men’s Hockey alumnus Adam Burish on Wednesday at the Kohl Center. The Badgers have their first home exhibition game on October 1st at 7:00 against the University of Victoria.

Click here for the Wisconsin men’s hockey schedule.

The team’s first regular-season game is on October 7th against Northern Michigan University in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and the first regular-season home game will take place on October 14th at 7:00 against Boston College.

For full interviews of Kunin, Besse and Hughes, watch the videos below courtesy of Badger Broadcast Television.

Luke Kunin

Cameron Hughes

Grant Besse


Wisconsin football: October schedule way more important than first four wins

Just a few short weeks ago, the Badgers were heavy underdogs against #5 LSU.

Now, for the time being at least, the Badgers are in the national conversation with two top ten wins.

For an undefeated top ten team, the Badgers have had an odd road. An upset win over LSU, an ugly game that was too close for comfort against Georgia State, and then a statement win in East Lansing last Saturday. Even more odd, the Badgers have been rolling, but it seems as if the offense is just now getting set.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in Saturday’s win, especially with the way redshirt freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook played in his first collegiate start. Hornibrook finished 16/26, 195 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. Hornibrook’s interception was a heave to the end zone at the end of the second quarter, essentially making it irrelevant. He only made one real mistake, fumbling in the first quarter because he was unaware of the pocket collapsing around him and held the ball too low.

In all reality, however, it was just one game. The Badgers don’t truly know what they have in Hornibrook – not yet.

The one thing Badgers fans and coaches know for sure, however, was the moment wasn’t too big for Hornibrook. His first start was a clash of two top 15 teams and on the road, and Hornibrook was calm and collected. He never looked scared or rattled, which is important because the Badgers have plenty of tough tests still left, including this week at #4 Michigan. Wisconsin is going to need that same demeanor in Ann Arbor from their young quarterback to pull of the upset. Hornibrook led the Badgers to a win in East Lansing, a place they haven’t won in since 2002.

Jazz Peavy is the number two reciever, but he’s playing more like the number one. Peavy has 16 receptions for 274 yards along with two TD’s. Troy Fumagali was a key member in the LSU win at Lambeau Field, and that has continued throughout the first four games. In fact, the tight end crew has done a great job of being a security blanket for the inexperienced quarterbacks. Both of Hornibrook’s collegiate touchdowns have went to tight ends, Kyle Penniston and Eric Steffes.

The receivers have gotten better with every week, dropping less and less balls and even making more plays. If Hornibrook is able to stabalize the quarterback position for the long run, the production out of the recievers should continue to progress.

Traditionally, the Badgers are going to lineup and wear you down with the run game, featuring NFL linemen and running backs. The shocking part of the Badgers undefeated start is that it’s been done largely without a run game, or at least an explosive run game. Corey Clement is only averaging 3.9 yards per carry, and only totaled 54 yards on 23 carries against MSU (and 22 of those 54 yards came on one carry). Dare Ogunbowale has played well as the second running back, but is averaging less than 50 yards per game. Taiwan Deal has only carried the rock 20 times.

Corey Clement was a dark horse for the Heisman race in the preseason. If you told me the Badgers would start the season 4-0 with LSU and MSU on the schedule, I would have bet that Clement leaped up into the top tier of Heisman candidates. With Michigan and Ohio State on the schedule, the Badgers are going to need Clement to deliver. The offensive line hasn’t been great, but it hasn’t been bad either. The longest carry of the year for the Badgers is only 35 yards. The running backs have to do a better job of making medium gains go the distance, something that Melvin Gordon was special at.

Of course, I don’t need to tell you about the strength of the Badgers to this point, but let’s talk about it anyway. There was a lot of uncertainty on defense coming into the season with a new defensive coordinator, but Justin Wilcox has the defense on Dave Arranda’s level. The Badgers have only allowed 11.8 points per game, ranking them 11th in the country.

The linebacker core has been outstanding, and that’s even without Chris Orr. T.J. Edwards is finally healthy and picked off a ball against MSU. Cichy and Biegel have been everything the Badgers need them to be. Ryan Connolly was a surprise performer against LSU, and T.J. Watt had a breakout game against MSU.

The secondary has made plenty of plays already as well. D’Cota Dixon had the game sealing interception against LSU. Safety Leo Musso returned a fumble to the house against MSU. Sojourn Shelton also had an interception against MSU, making a beautiful break on a hitch route.

With the way the defense is playing, the Badgers are going to be in every game, and it’s going to come down to the offense most nights. On the bright side, the offense has made enough plays against two really tough teams. However, the Badgers haven’t even played the two toughest teams on their schedule.

The Badgers are in the thick of the College Football Playoff conversation for right now. As every week goes by, however, the LSU win is becoming less and less significant. With three top 15 ranked opponents still on the schedule (Michigan, OSU, Nebraska), there is still plenty of time for the Badgers to bolster their resume.

Photo courtesy of


Bucks: How will Milwaukee replace Middleton?

Khris Middleton, the Bucks’ leading scorer last season, tore his his hamstring and is scheduled to undergo surgery on Wednesday, per reports. The injury is expected to sideline him for six months, meaning he may very well miss the entire season.

How will the Bucks deal with this injury?

“We’ll rely on our overall roster depth to help us while Khris is out for a significant period of the season,” Bucks general manager Jon Hammond said in the team’s release about Middleton’s injury.

Middleton’s absence will be felt most in three areas: scoring, perimeter defense, and team chemistry.

The scoring will be the most difficult to replace. Middleton was not only the team’s leading scorer, but also one of its most dynamic shooters. The Bucks’ Achilles heel last season was an inability to shoot from beyond the arc, but Middleton was one of the brightest spots. Middleton shot a shade under 40% from three-point range, despite shooting almost 100 more three’s than the previous season.

It’s not just that Middleton can put the ball through the net, it’s that he did it efficiently. Middleton made the most of his opportunities, which opened up the door for younger players like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker to get more shots for themselves.

Middleton was good for 18 points per game on just 14.5 attempts per game last season, and the burden of replacing that will fall squarely on the two franchise cornerstones. Giannis and Jabari, are both good scorers, but will be forced to make a leap.

Parker’s scoring increased by nearly 8 points per game to just under 19 after the All-Star break, and he will have to not only match that, but build on it. Similarly, Giannis also averaged just under 19 points a game in the second half of the season. The problem is that neither is even an average level three-point shooter, so the Bucks will really struggle to stretch the floor.

Even if each of them can increase their scoring output by a realistic margin of four more points per game, the rest of the team would still need to find another 10 points, just to match Middleton’s production.

This is where some of their offseason moves could pay dividends. Matthew Dellavedova and Mirza Teletovic should slot in as the team’s threats from beyond the arc. One silver lining of Middleton’s injury is that there will be nearly 15 more shots a game to go around. This means more shots for Delly and Teletovic, which can help both establish a rhythm early in the season.

However, the key to the Bucks’ scoring will be their latest addition, Michael Beasley. For his career, the former second overall pick has averaged 13 points per game. Beasley’s career has been dogged by questions about consistent effort, especially on defense, but as a combo forward he does create a number of scoring mismatches that he can take advantage of.

Defensively, it will be up to Dellavedova to fill in for Middleton. Middleton was in the upper echelon of NBA defenders, but Dellavedova has shown that he can be a frustrating matchup, most notably in the Finals against Stephen Curry. However, Dellavedova has never been a starter for an entire season, and will need to be able to maintain his defensive intensity in extended minutes.

Also, expect to see Giannis guard opposing shooting guards more, especially when Beasley is on the court. Giannis is a freak athlete, and his combination of length and speed means that he could be asked to guard the elite two guards much more often, while Delly handles the opposing point guard.

Lastly, Middleton’s absence could really affect the Point Giannis experiment. Part of the reason the team felt, so comfortable handing the reigns over to Giannis was that they felt that Middleton’s ability to stretch the floor could open up driving lanes for Giannis, especially in the pick and roll. In fact, Giannis and Khris passed the ball to each other 16 times a game with Middleton’s ability to sink threes a dangerous weapon, once the defense collapsed on Giannis.

Without Middleton in the mix, defenses may be able to really affect Giannis’ ability to finish at the rim, and it is incumbent on the combination of Dellavedova, Teletovic, and Rashad Vaughn to demonstrate an ability early in the season to punish defenses by hitting the long ball.

There’s no way to completely replace Middleton, but as Hammond said the team will have to rely on a number of players to help fill in the gaps. No single player is going to put up the 18-4-4 that Middleton provided last season, but a more diverse and flexible offensive attack could help the Bucks in the long run, as the core continues to develop.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images.


Wisconsin football: Quick hits from Monday’s press conference

Following Wisconsin’s 30-6 win over Michigan State in East Lansing this past weekend, head coach Paul Chryst and players met with the media Monday to discuss their most recent win and the next challenge against #4 Michigan this weekend in Ann Arbor.

Hornibrook praised for his performance.

Against Michigan State, Alex Hornibrook started his first game, in which he proved his ability to win and potentially the starting job as he is listed as the starting quarterback in Wisconsin’s official depth chart.

Click here to view Wisconsin’s updated depth chart.

“He did a great job with his first start, and he got us the win,” wide receiver Jazz Peavy said of his quarterback.

Peavy said Hornibrook appeared calm in the huddle, and that stems from his preparation throughout the week and his positive mentality going into every game.

“He’s a very goofy guy. He’s a character,” Peavy said. “[But] he puts in a lot of work, and he understands the position he is in now.”

Chryst stressed all last week that the team needed to improve on red zone efficiency and third downs. In the red zone, the Wisconsin offense produced a touchdown on every attempt. Hornibrook also felt the team showed greater success on third down conversions, though there is still room for improvement.

“I think one of the big things was there were a couple of situations where we were able to convert those third and longs and that definitely helped us out,” Hornibrook said. “At the same time, you can’t bank on that. We’ve got to do better on first and second down, not put that stress on our offense.”

Wisconsin’s elite defense reflects on dominating performance.

The Wisconsin defense garnered the most attention against Michigan State, especially outside linebacker T.J. Watt who had 3.5 tackles for a loss and 2.5 sacks on Michigan State’s quarterback. Watt stressed on Monday the importance of just having fun with the game, and the success will come from that.

“It’s hard to make a play in college, so after the play, you go with your buddy and pat him on the back and say ‘heck of a play man’ and have fun with it,” Watt said. “You’re only doing this for so long, so have fun with it.”

Head coach Chryst said that the defensive’s performance and their big plays allowed for a more successful overall team performance.

“It certainly has been really good when we are getting some takeaways or when you can have a short field.”

“I think when we are playing good defense, it’s because every guy is doing their 1/11th,” Chryst continued.

Click here to view the updated injury report.

Michigan will be a true test.

Wisconsin will travel to Ann Arbor to play Michigan this Saturday at 2:30 p.m. Wisconsin has not played Michigan since 2010, a game that Wisconsin won 48-28. Badger players are excited to take on such a high-ranked team at their prolific stadium that will pose a challenge because of the electric atmosphere of Wolverines fans.

“We’re looking forward to the opportunity to play in the ‘big house,’’’ outside linebacker Vince Biegel said.

The #4 Michigan Wolverines pose a big challenge to Wisconsin’s defense. The number of skilled positions will be an obvious challenge, but Biegel remains confident in his defensive teammates.

“They’re very talented,” Biegel said of Michigan. “I can already tell on film they are well coached. They have some tight ends who are strong, and I can already tell Jim Harbaugh’s done a really great job of tailoring and coaching up the quarterback position. They’ve got multiple running backs that can run the ball.”

“They’ve got a historic football program,” Hornibrook said. “And we see their stadium gets a lot of attention.”

Chryst affirmed that Harbaugh has done a good job of turning this Michigan team around since he became the head coach.

“Jim is a good football coach and has got a good staff and good players,” Chryst said.

One Michigan player that has received a lot of media attention, and for good reason, is Jabrill Peppers, Michigan’s linebacker, safety and punt returner, who can play all three sides of football.

“He’s got to be the best player in college football right now,” Chryst said.

Wisconsin as always is poised to prove themselves as contenders. In high profile games such as LSU and Michigan State, Wisconsin has been the underdog, and it appears that streak will continue going into Michigan this weekend.

The team’s underdog status even as they enter Michigan this week 4-0 is something that motivates wide receiver Jazz Peavy and allows the team to continuously prove the disbelievers wrong.

“The fact that we are overlooked,” Peavy. “I feel like we are always overlooked, that people are always sleeping on us.”

Though Wisconsin is confident in their own abilities, Michigan will definitely be a challenge this Saturday on the road.

“Every unit is going to be tested and is going to be challenged,” Chryst said.


Packers: Offense gets back on track in win over Lions

At least offensively speaking, this was the R-E-L-A-X game that Packers fans were waiting for. In a game that wasn’t as close as the score indicates, Green Bay defeated the Detroit Lions 34-27, feeding off the strength of a first half aerial explosion reminiscent of 2014. Though the points and the win were much needed (especially with Minnesota throttling the Panthers on the road), the Packers still have plenty to get figured out as the season progresses. As I’ll address below, next week’s bye is sorely needed, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.

Offense, Rodgers get back on track at home

Green Bay stormed out to a quick lead in the first quarter, as Rodgers threw for touchdowns on the team’s first three drives. First Davante Adams won a one-on-one slant route for a 14-yard score on third and seven, then on the next drive Jordy found a soft spot in the coverage and Rodgers zipped it in for an 8-yard touchdown. #12 would go on to find Richard Rodgers on a 2-yard bootleg set up by a massive pass interference call on rookie speedster Trevor Davis, and Jordy and Rodgers would connect again for a vintage touchdown before halftime.

The big 28-3 first half lead meant Rodgers only threw the ball 24 times in the win, completing 15 passes to 8 different receivers along the way. The highlight was watching his rekindled connection with Jordy – who now has four touchdowns through three games – which has always been the most important part of this offense. As Jordy continues to get his game legs back, it creates more ways for Green Bay to stretch a defense vertically and to be successful in the red zone. It also seems to make everyone have a little bit more fun out on the field.

Remember that 14-game streak where Rodgers didn’t have a passer rating over 100? That came to an abrupt end on Sunday, as he ended with a 129 passer rating and made all the throws fans are accustomed to seeing. McCarthy frustratingly took his foot off the gas in the second half, letting the Lions slowly creep back into the game. But when it mattered most, Rodgers used his legs in that casual I’m-going-to-run-for-the-first-down-and-it-doesn’t-look-like-I’m-trying style of his, essentially icing the game with a big third down conversion scramble.

Eddie Lacy has quietly looked pretty solid this season, running for 103 yards on 17 carries to raise his yards per carry to a healthy 4.98 on the season. He ran with a mature  combination of burst and patience, bouncing off would-be Lions tacklers throughout the day. He too iced the game with his legs, converting a big first down that allowed Rodgers to kneel the ball to end it.

Though it was mostly smiles in Green Bay on Sunday, there’s still plenty of work to do in the clubhouse. For one, Detroit was missing pass rusher Ziggy Ansah and middle linebacker DeAndre Levy, who are the team’s most effective players against the pass and run, respectively. Let’s not pretend that beating an average defense without its two best players – and at home – means the offense is fixed. It would still be nice to see James Starks be more effective with his touches, and McCarthy needs to find ways to get Randall Cobb much more involved. But after I called for a more up-tempo offense with quick throws and a more fluid personnel approach after last week’s loss, McCarthy responded with that and more, installing an effective offensive gameplan that harkened back to 2014. Rodgers got in a rhythm right away on some quick slants, which eventually opened up some deeper seem routes to Jordy, and Ty Montgomery and Trevor Davis were finally given more snaps. In the end, it was an effective day for the offense in need of a boost, and the upcoming bye week will give McCarthy and co. plenty of time to scheme for the Giants in two weeks.

Injuries pile up for defense

Speaking of the bye week, it couldn’t come any sooner for Green Bay’s defense. Coming into the game, Dom Campers’ unit was without outside linebacker Clay Matthews, safety and captain Morgan Burnett, cornerback Sam Shields, nose tackle Letroy Guion and outside linebacker Datone Jones to various injuries. These are all veteran playmakers who play key roles at nearly every level of the defense, and their presences were undoubtedly missed yesterday.

This defense is never the same without Clay’s wreckless playmaking, and it’s never ideal to play without a vocal captain that’s played in the system for many years. But the most significant injury appears to be Shields, as Damarious Randall has now been torched in consecutive weeks by Stefon Diggs and Marvin Jones. After Jones’ 205-yard two-touchdown explosion, Randall has now allowed over 300 yards and two touchdowns between the last two games (Jones’ 73-yard catch-and-run touchdown belonged to Josh Hawkins, not Randall). Shields is simply quicker than the young Randall, a converted safety, and has better technique that doesn’t get fooled as easily by double moves.

Randall’s technique will still improve in time, but the longer Shields is out the longer this becomes a serious position of weakness for the Packers. At defensive back alone, Green Bay gave significant playing time to two undrafted rookie free agents in Josh Hawkins and Kentrell Brice, with a third, Marwin Evans, sprinkled in as well. That’s in addition to the three starting cornerbacks (Randall, Quinten Rollins and LaDarius Gunter) that are all sophomores, not to mention the three rookie linebackers who all logged plenty of snaps. As the offense took its foot off the gas, Matthew Stafford was able to lead a formidable comeback through the air. He hit Jones deep and outside the numbers for chunk gains, found tight end Eric Ebron up the seam for 69 yards, and Theo Riddick, Golden Tate, and Anquan Boldin were all effective on short and intermediate routes. Here’s to hoping Shields and the rest of the gang are able to get healthy over the bye with Odell Beckham Jr. and company knocking at the door.

Run defense continues excellent season

No need to cover much here, as it’s been a main takeaway from every game so far. This team’s run defense, a huge question mark coming into the season, has been the most consistent and best performer across three games. Even without run stuffer Guion, and Matthews and Burnett who typically make plays in the running game, Detroit had practically nowhere to run, gaining only 51 yards on 23 carries. Those numbers, inflated by a seven-yard Stafford scramble, don’t even tell the entire story, as Lions lead back Theo Riddick was continuously stuffed at the line throughout the game.

The unheralded linebacker trio of Joe Thomas, Jake Ryan and Blake Martinez continue to be quick at the point of attack and stuff holes before they appear, and it helps to have Mike Daniels continually winning his individual battles. Through two weeks Green Bay ranked first in’s comprehensive DVOA metric, and that rank is likely to stay put after swallowing up Detroit’s running game. Now through three weeks, opponents are only averaging a meager 1.8 yards per carry on the ground.

All of this comes without mentioning Nick Perry, who stepped up in Matthews’ absence and was Green Bay’s best defensive player yesterday. A former first round draft pick, Perry has never lived up to the bill thus far, with flashes of potential often marred by inconsistency and a slew of injuries. Finally healthy and in his contract season, Perry seems to be putting it all together at the perfect time. Perry stuffed Riddick in the backfield multiple times, batted a pass down at the line and recorded two of Green Bay’s three sacks. He finished the day with seven total tackles, two for loss, and was even held by Detroit’s rookie tackle Taylor Decker on a crucial holding penalty. Perry has quietly had a great start to the season and will be a key player to watch when the Giants come to Lambeau in two weeks.

Game Notes

  • Green Bay didn’t punt until the fourth quarter.
  • Ty Montgomery made an incredible heads up play on a kickoff, establishing his feet out of bounds while fielding the ball on the two yard line. The ball is considered out of bounds on the kickoff, resulting in a penalty that allows the offense to start its drive from the forty yard line. Montgomery continues to excel on special teams and has earned a larger snap percentage on offense.
  • Lacy rushed for 100 yards for the first time since December 13th (7 games including playoffs). Green Bay is now 8-2-1 when Lacy runs for 100 yards or more.
  • According to Bob McGinn of the Journal Sentinal, Green Bay’s 128 rushing yards allowed is the lowest franchise total since the stat started being recorded in 1933.
  • Randall Cobb didn’t line up in the backfield a single time.
  • Tight end Jared Cook left the game early with an ankle injury; Full back Aaron Ripkowski saw his snaps increase before leaving the game with a back injury. Did I mention the bye is needed?

Photo courtesy of Getty Images.


Wisconsin football: What we learned from big win in East Lansing

The Wisconsin Badgers once again silenced the doubters when they beat Michigan State 30-6 this weekend in East Lansing. Before the now-#8 ranked Wisconsin team goes to Ann Arbor to take on the #4-ranked Michigan Wolverines, here are some takeaways from Wisconsin’s big win to start their Big Ten series play.

1. Alex Hornibrook’s first start was a huge success.

Redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook played his first game as Wisconsin’s starting quarterback with great success. Coming off a second half comeback against Georgia State where Hornibrook went in for senior Bart Houston, he was announced as the starting quarterback against Michigan State. Head coach Paul Chryst stressed that both quarterbacks could play on Saturday though that did not occur with Hornibrook playing all four quarters in East Lansing.

At Michigan State, Hornibrook went 9-13 for 195 yards while adding a touchdown and a meaningless interception. He once again showed great chemistry with receivers. Wide receiver Jazz Peavy and tight end Troy Fumagalli each had four catches for 96 and 42 yards respectively. Hornibrook’s only touchdown pass of the day was in the first quarter to tight end Eric Steffes.

Hornibrook’s performance on Saturday may have sealed his starting position for the rest of the season. As a redshirt freshman, Hornibrook not only possesses natural talent and poise in the huddle, but also the youth to continue with the program for another three seasons.

2. Wisconsin’s defense is elite.

While Hornibrook excelled in his first start and the offense worked well with the young quarterback, it was the defense that really solidified the win on Saturday. Outside linebacker T.J. Watt was a key leader and playmaker against Michigan State. Watt had 3.5 tackles for a loss and 2.5 sacks on Michigan State quarterback Tyler O’Connor.

Safety Leo Musso also showed his lightning-fast speed when he recovered a Michigan State fumble for 66 yards and a touchdown in the third quarter. Musso played running back in high school where he ran for 5,531 yards and 87 touchdowns. Despite switching to the defense, he showed his offensive background in his big second half play.

In the first half, cornerback Sojourn Shelton had a key interception that led to a one-yard touchdown run by Corey Clement. T.J. Edwards intercepted O’Connor in the third quarter and Derrick Tindal intercepted O’Connor in the fourth quarter.

Wisconsin’s defense time and time again has proved its physicality against tough teams and strong offenses. Against Michigan State, the defense forced four turnovers and made four sacks on O’Connor. This was also the first game since 2012 and the second game since 2000 that Michigan State was held to no touchdowns at home.

“It was a good plan by our defensive coaches because our kids understood it and they were able to execute it,” Chryst said in the post-game press conference.

To win against Michigan this weekend on the road again, Wisconsin’s defense will need to continue putting a stronghold on the offense and coming up with big plays to force turnovers and stop plays.

3. The play-calling was aggressive, but necessary.

A normally-conservative play caller, Chryst made some more risky calls on Saturday that lead to increased production for the team. Some may debate changing his starting quarterback in the fourth game of the season was in itself a risky call, but Chryst dismissed naysayers and proved them wrong with Hornibrook’s performance.

He also made the call to go for it on fourth-and-one on the Michigan State three-yard line. The fourth down play, a run by Alec Ingold, led to a first down followed by a touchdown from Hornibrook to Steffes in the first quarter.

While Wisconsin thrives at the traditional offense, more gutsy plays by Chryst would be useful against a high-ranked team in Michigan and a series of high-ranked teams going into the rest of Wisconsin’s Big Ten series.

4. The Badgers’ red zone efficiency was back up to Chryst’s expectations.

During this past week of practice, Chryst stressed the importance of red zone efficiency after less than stellar production these past few weeks.

“It drives me nuts,” Chryst said in his Monday press conference before Michigan State.

The team acted on Chryst’s words Saturday when they came away with points in every red zone attempt. Hornibrook delivered six third down conversions for the Badgers as well.

“In the end it comes back to execution. We’re just talking about pass protection. Then you’ve got to be able to throw it in the right spot, and then the guy’s got to be able to finish it,” Chryst said in his post-game press conference.

“There’s no magic to this,” he continued. “If it goes well, it’s because all 11 guys are executing and doing their part.”

5. Road warriors.

This was the Badgers second game away from Camp Randall and the first that felt like a true road game as the season opener at Lambeau Field had a large majority of Wisconsin fans in attendance. Not only was the team able to start Big Ten play on the road against a high-ranked Michigan State team, but they also did it with an injury-ridden roster including the loss of their kicker Rafael Gaglianone and with a redshirt freshman starting for the first time at quarterback.

“It was one of those [games] where guys just kept playing,” Chryst said.

The win against Michigan State also made Wisconsin football history. It was the first time since 1962 where Wisconsin beat two top-8 teams (LSU and Michigan State) in the same season. These games were both played away from Camp Randall.

Wisconsin will have one more road game against #4-ranked Michigan this weekend in Ann Arbor before their bye week. They will then return home to play Ohio State in their only night game of the season. Their last three road games will be at Iowa, Nebraska and Purdue. Chryst and his players remain confident in their ability to go on the road and play at home and win. Despite a daunting schedule, players have only spoken of the excitement at playing such high-profile and the realization that this was why they decided to play for Wisconsin.

Photo Courtesy of AP Photos.


Wisconsin volleyball: Badgers sweep first two Big Ten matches

MADISON, Wis. — After two weekends on the road, the No. 3 Wisconsin Badgers returned home and swept No. 17 Ohio State and Maryland 3-0 during the first weekend of Big Ten play.

In the first match on Friday night, Wisconsin faced Ohio State. Wisconsin took the lead quickly in the first set. The Badgers were very aggressive towards the ball. There were many long rallies. Wisconsin kept its composure throughout these long rallies, and ultimately won those points. Wisconsin had very few errors, kept the ball moving, and didn’t let its few bad passes affect the game. Wisconsin’s defense contributed four blocks to help the team win the first set 26-16.

Ohio State challenged Wisconsin’s domination of the first set in the beginning of the second. Both teams were playing at equal levels in the first half of the set. However, when Wisconsin committed an error, the team moved on to the next point. Ohio State seemed to unravel when things went awry. Wisconsin’s defense forced 11 errors for the Buckeyes in the set. Wisconsin won the set 25-19 after a service error from Ohio State’s Taylor Hughes.

Wisconsin was fired up for the third set. They came out after the break and took a 5-0 lead from the start. Wisconsin’s Kelli Bates had two service aces in a row, and Ohio State couldn’t defend Wisconsin’s aggressive offense. There were many net violations on both sides of the net. Wisconsin unraveled a bit after misjudging whether the ball was inbounds. However, Wisconsin took a strong lead and won the set 25-17. The Badgers swept the match 3-0.

Ohio State lacked the confidence on the court that Wisconsin exhibited. Wisconsin coach Kelly Sheffield said the Wisconsin defense was what won the game for the Badgers. The Badgers’ defense had 15 blocks on the match, opposed to the Buckeyes’ 2 blocks. “You really have to have your eyes on them because this is a team that changes a lot. I thought we did a really good job defensively,” Sheffield said. Kelli Bates lead the Badgers with seven blocks on the night.

Wisconsin faced Maryland on Saturday night. From the start, Wisconsin dominated the match. Wisconsin took the lead 7-1 in the first set. Maryland couldn’t set up a play on offense. Wisconsin’s Lauren Carlini had four service aces in a row before Maryland was forced to call a timeout. Maryland had too many wild passes and errors controlling their offense, and Wisconsin capitalized on Maryland’s mistakes. Wisconsin won the first set 25-12.

The second set followed the first. Maryland could not get a good first pass to set up a play. Wisconsin made more mistakes in the start of the second set, but bounced back after every mistake. Wisconsin committed 10 errors in the set, but Maryland was unable to capitalize. Maryland found its groove at the 20-15 mark of the set, however Wisconsin maintained its lead the rest of the way and won 25-18. The difference in the second set was Wisconsin’s ability to move on after lost points or errors made.

Wisconsin started slow in the third set. The Badger fans’ enthusiasm helped get the Badgers more fired up on the court. This set was much more even, though Wisconsin was still clearly dominating the court. Wisconsin’s lead was tight by only 2 or 3 points throughout, yet Molly Haggerty’s perfectly-targeted kills helped give the Badgers the momentum it needed to maintain its lead. The Badgers’ defense gave Wisconsin a 22-18 lead after a block from Romana Kriskova and Haleigh Nelson. The Badgers won the set 25-21 thanks to a block from Lauren Carlini and Tionna Williams.

The Badgers dominated Maryland and swept the Terrapins 3-0. Wisconsin continued playing with the confidence it has exhibited all season. Even when the Badgers’ lead was challenged, Wisconsin relied on its confidence and home field advantage to pull through. “The fanbase is awesome, it was half-full by the time we got out there,” Lauren Carlini said. “Having that support, having everyone here and being back in the Field House, it’s a great feeling.”

“It was so loud that I almost couldn’t hear anything because everyone was screaming and running around and it was so crazy,” Kelli Bates said. “But those kind of momentum shifts make it so much easier for us in terms of keeping the momentum going and keeping everything in line and intact. The Field House makes a huge difference.”

Wisconsin is continuing to prove that it is a national powerhouse by sweeping the weekend, and the first of its Big Ten competition, 6-0. The team is playing its best volleyball. This confidence-booster for the team will be huge as the Badgers travel to No. 14 Purdue, Indiana, and Rutgers in the next week and a half.

Photo courtesy of UW Athletics.