While Wisconsin’s loss moved them to 4-1 and 1-1 in the Big Ten, the Badgers’ 14-7 defeat in Ann Arbor was what many would consider a “good loss.”
Wisconsin is currently second in the Big Ten West behind 5-0 Nebraska. Only four teams are undefeated in conference heading into the sixth week of the season: Michigan, Maryland, Ohio State and Nebraska. Wisconsin will face both #2 Ohio State and #12 Nebraska at Camp Randall in two night games later in October.
With the Badgers having a bye this weekend, head coach Paul Chryst and his team will be able to focus in on problem areas from this Saturday’s loss and give a roster riddled with injuries a chance to recuperate before they play Ohio State on Oct. 15. Here are some key takeaways from Wisconsin’s first loss of the season in Ann Arbor.
Wisconsin’s defense is one of the best in the country, even down Biegel and Orr.
Though Wisconsin was without captain and starting outside linebacker Vince Biegel due to a foot injury, the defense played as they have been doing since the start of the season—cohesively, aggressively, and eager to make plays. They held a Michigan team that previously averaged 52 points a game to only 14 points on Saturday.
On third downs, Michigan only converted 3 of 15 times (20%). Previously the team was ranked seventh for third down conversions, making 54.4% of third downs.
Wisconsin was able to pressure on Michigan’s quarterback Wilton Speight several times with outside linebacker T.J. Watt adding to his lead in team sacks and tackles for a loss. To date, Watt has 5.5 sacks and 7.5 tackles for a loss. Against Michigan, he had a career-best 11 tackles and two tackles for a loss.
Inside linebacker Jack Cichy also played well against Michigan. He tipped of Speight in the third quarter, which caused cornerback Derrick Tindal’s 46-yard interception and reutrn that ultimately would set the Badgers offense for their first and only touchdown of the game. Cichy also had a career-high 12 tackles in Saturday’s game.
Junior outside linebacker Garret Dooley also played well in his first career start, going in for the injured Biegel. He had a career-high seven tackles and his first career sack.
Even without their team leader in Biegel, the linebacking corps looked confident against a well-balanced Michigan offense. The team’s bye week also does not come at a more convenient time as Biegel is expected to have between 2-4 weeks of recovery, making it possible for him to play against Ohio State in less than two weeks.
Wisconsin’s defense is not to be passed aside within the Big Ten. Even without a leader in Biegel, defensive players were able to not only hold a Michigan offense but even make plays against them. The linebacking unit’s cohesiveness and humility allows for pressure against quarterbacks from all angles, and Wisconsin’s backfield, led by defensive backs coach Jim Leonhard, has been making critical, momentum-changing plays throughout the season with leaders in safety Leo Musso and cornerbacks Sojourn Shelton and Derrick Tindal.
The Badgers will need way more offense to beat Ohio State.
It was a true battle of defenses on Saturday in who could stop the other team’s offense more quickly and more efficiently. While Wisconsin did put up big numbers and made some key players, Michigan’s defense was able to completely stifle the Wisconsin offense, creating inconsistency in the movement of the ball and a lack of confidence in redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook.
Against Michigan State, Hornibrook appeared as both Chryst and teammates frequently describe him, poised and confident in his abilities. Against Michigan, however, Hornibrook’s performance reflected his young age and perhaps a falter in confidence against a stingy defense. Hornibrook finished 9-25 with only one touchdown to three interceptions and 88 yards.
Overall, Wisconsin had only eight first downs and four of 15 third down conversions. Not only did Hornibrook struggle, but the run offense also couldn’t make the place and pick up the tempo to carry the ball. Wisconsin had only 159 yards of total offense, and senior running back Corey Clement was held to 68 yards on 17 carries.
Hornibrook and his offense struggled to make the necessary plays to win the game. While there were many times Hornibrook’s view of the field was obscured with pressure, there were also several clear misses that could have resulted in a Wisconsin touchdown, including a missed pass to wide receiver Jazz Peavy in the second half.
“They [Michigan] found a way to make more plays to win this game,” Chryst said of his team’s performance on Saturday.
“We didn’t convert, and we didn’t get anything consistently going in the run game.”
While this was certainly not Hornibrook’s best game, his performance Saturday should not necessarily result in another quarterback adjustment going into Ohio State. With two weeks to watch film, review mistakes and prepare for the first night game of the season, Hornibrook still has demonstrated the confidence to lead this Wisconsin team going into their next game.
This bye week is vital for Wisconsin’s roster and health.
The Wisconsin depth chart appears to change every week either due to coaching adjustments such as the switch from Houston to Hornibrook at quarterback or the injuries piling up. This bye week will give players who have suffered a recurring injuries the past few games or recent injuries such as Biegel the chance to heal and recover before Ohio State. Chryst and the coaching staff will have the time to make the necessary adjustments and work with teammates to adjust to players with long-term injuries such as with kicker Rafael Gaglianone.
A note about Wisconsin special teams: While most expected Wisconsin to struggle with the loss of Gaglianone, Andrew Endicott made the extra point in Wisconsin’s one touchdown of the game whereas Michigan missed three field goals that could have brought the game up much higher than just one touchdown separating the teams.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Wisconsin’s loss against Michigan is twofold. The Badgers have the reassurance of a solid, top-ranked defense even amidst injuries that is able to put up big numbers and make plays. For what to work on going into Ohio State in less than two weeks is continuously developing the balanced offense, finding ways to get Clement open more, working with communication between the offensive line and quarterback and creating both the ability for receivers to make plays and the confidence for Hornibrook to execute them.