The #11 Wisconsin Badgers are on the road this weekend as they take on the #8 ranked Michigan State Spartans in their first Big Ten game of the season. Kickoff is set for 11:00am CT on Big Ten Network.
Wisconsin fans were already preparing for a difficult series of games as Wisconsin plays nine straight Big Ten games including two on the road. Following the injury report before Thursday’s practice, fans may have more than just talented teams to be concerns about.
Wisconsin reported four key playmakers as out against Michigan State. Most notably was starting kicker Rafael Gaglianone with a reported back injury. Wisconsin’s kickoff specialist, senior Andrew Endicott, will replace Gaglianone on Saturday.
Gaglianone’s role on the Wisconsin special teams unit has been vital in Wisconsin’s three wins to start the season. On Saturday against Georgia State, he kicked three field goals to help Wisconsin win 23-17 in a surprisingly close game at Camp Randall.
Losing the starting kicker will put a greater role on the offense to make the plays they missed last week and become more efficient in the red zone—something Coach Chryst stressed in Monday’s press conference.
“It drives me nuts,” Chryst said of red zone inefficiency. “Those are opportunities, and you don’t know when you get them or how you get them. You appreciate the points when you can get them, but you’ve got to get touchdowns. That’s an obvious area where we’ve got to get better.”
A key adjustment in the offense’s starting lineup may help Wisconsin improve their red zone efficiency—Alex Hornibrook.
Hornibrook was named the starter going into this Saturday’s game against Michigan State. After a stellar performance in the second half against Georgia State that helped Wisconsin win the game, Hornibrook earned the right to start this week. Teammates stressed their confidence in both quarterbacks, emphasizing Bart Houston’s knowledge of the game or Hornibrook’s poise in the huddle.
Ultimately Chryst said, while Hornibrook will start, having both quarterbacks ready is, as always, necessary and an obvious advantage for his team.
“I think he’s [Hornibrook] done a good job in practice, in games, and he’s earned the right to play. And Bart also earned the right, and he will play. We’re going to need both of them,” Chryst said on Thursday.
Whether that means Houston will see significant game time on Saturday is uncertain, but as with Georgia State, there could always be a quarterback adjustment to improve offensive momentum.
The receiving corps openly supports both quarterbacks, expressing confidence and assurance in both Houston and Hornibrook’s ability to lead the team and produce a win. On Saturday Wisconsin will have to demonstrate the connection between quarterback and receiver facing a touch Michigan State secondary.
“They’re very well-coached, a very talent group athletically, very physical group,” wide receiver coach Ted Gilmore said. “We’re going to have to be ready to play a physical game. Run and pass. We can’t flinch. We’ve got to face it head on, welcome the challenge and compete.”
Gilmore, like Chryst, addressed the offense’s red zone inefficiency, which must improve this week against Michigan State.
“Obviously as we move forward, the lesson too is we can’t play that kind of football,” he said. “We’ve got to play our kind of football. We’ve got to play smart. We’ve got to play with the details.”
The Wisconsin run offense was looking a little thin this week with several key players on the injury report. On Thursday’s official injury report, Bradrick Shaw was listed as out with a shoulder injury and Clement (left leg) and Deal (right leg) were both listed as questionable for Saturday’s game, leaving senior running back Dare Ogunbowale as the only healthy running back.
Chryst said on Thursday that Clement was able to do a little more in practice this week, which gives the coach some optimism about a quick return. That is yet to be determined, however.
On the defensive side of the ball, players are hoping to start Saturday’s game strong and continue that momentum throughout the game. Against Georgia State, the defense struggled to contain Georgia State’s offense in the third quarter when they started to control the clock and make some big plays down the field.
“Last week we definitely didn’t play up to our potential, but we got in the film room, we fixed our corrections and we’re coming out this week feeling better than ever,” outside linebacker T.J. Watt said after Wednesday’ practice.
While the defense did have a period of stagnation last weekend, they were able to pick up the tempo in the fourth quarter and make the big stops against Georgia State when it was most needed. As Watt said, “The defense took it upon ourselves to get the energy going.”
“We just have got to keep working on not letting one big play turn into two and turn into three,” inside linebacker Jack Cichy said, “We really improved as a unit, and I think we matured a lot because of it.”
This week the defense will face an offense more similar to that of LSU than of their last two games against Akron State and Georgia State. That being said, Michigan State can do it all in terms of offensive production.
“They run ball real hard and then they can spread you out and run jet sweeps and then they have a good quarterback who’s going to throw to some talented receivers as well. I feel like we are just going to have to stay true to our basics and stop the run and then adjust to the pass,” Watt said.
On both offense and defense Chryst has drilled into his players the need to focus on execution more than anything else. He said on Monday that the focus has to be on “executing and doing the little things.”
“If you want to win consistently,” Chryst said. “I think you have to be consistent in red zone offense, red zone defense, third down and takeaways or turnovers.”