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.