They said it couldn’t be done. They said the Badgers couldn’t survive their schedule this year, and most figured this team would have four losses by this point in the season. But this Wisconsin team, led by defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and that top-notch defense, has defied all odds and find themselves sitting at 5-2 overall, and 2-2 in the Big Ten. Now while the 2-2 Big Ten record seems like nothing to cheer about, both losses came to top teams in Michigan and Ohio state. The Badgers need to win out in order to reach Indianapolis, including a showdown in Madison on Saturday that could ultimately decide the Big Ten West representative in the Big Ten Championship game. After a solid half-season, let’s take a look at how the Badgers have fared by position thus far.
Through seven games, we have seen both Alex Hornibrook and Bart Houston start for the Badgers. Houston took the starting position at the start of the season, and led Wisconsin to two wins, including a huge victory in Lambeau over LSU. However, in the game against Georgia State, a game that shouldn’t have even been close, Houston lost his confidence and the offense stalled. So Chryst was forced to call upon the redshirt freshman from Malvern, PA to lead a comeback win. Hornibrook has had the starting job ever since, but his starts have not come without ups and downs. With questionable moments also come the moments when we say to ourselves “how did he fit that pass into that window?” So it’s safe to say the quarterback play has been inconsistent at times this year, but for the most part it is just enough to give the Badgers what they need to come out with a win.
Corey Clement has come to play for his senior season, folks. He got out to a fast start the first two games, but then was rested in the close victory over Georgia State, and took a couple of weeks to shake off the rust, struggling against the Michigan teams. However, over the past two weeks, he has been able to break out these 30, 40+ yard runs that have given the Badgers the big play element they’ve been lacking all season. One play in particular stood out in the Iowa game, and it was a 34 yard burst where Clement took the handoff to the left on 3rd and 1, and it looked like he would be stopped behind the line, but he shook off the defender and exploded down the field. It wasn’t just how much he gained, but how he gained it. He ran angry, fighting for every last yard, determined to move the ball downfield, and that’s the kind of fight we’ve been looking for from Clement. Ogunbowale has proved to be a formidable backup for Clement, and been a solid contributor in the passing game of late. Even freshman Bradrick Shaw has shown promise when given the opportunity. There are time when the backs have trouble finding holes, but overall a solid job from this group through seven games.
This receiving core has been an interesting group. They don’t have a true playmaker like an Abbrederis, but each receiver brings a different element to this offense. Jazz Peavy has shown us he can do it all – from running routes to catching passes to using his speed for that signature jet sweep. Wheelwright has been a solid outside receiver, although he has somewhat disappeared the past few games. And big Troy Fumagalli has been a great target for Hornibrook and Houston over the middle. The biggest problem with this core has been dropped passes, and for the Badgers to keep winning that has to be eliminated. As the season progresses, look for the player who can step up and become a deep threat for Hornibrook.
This offensive line is unlike the Badger offensive lines we’re used to, creating these big holes for 7-8 yards a carry every down for the backs. But considering the unexpected retirement of Dan Voltz back in August, this group has performed quite well under the circumstances. They’ve given up 14 sacks thus far, which is tied for 56th in sacks allowed, but keep in mind, not all of those fall squarely on their shoulders, given that Hornibrook is not exactly a mobile quarterback. Nonetheless, Wisconsin is known for producing solid, gigantic linemen, and that didn’t change this year.
No JJ Watt on this D-line, but this group is severely underrated. The linebacking core is often given the most credit for this stout defense, but the boys up front do a lot of the dirty work. Led by Obasih, Sheehy, and Sagapolu, Wisconsin has held opponents to 720 yards on the ground, and only four rushing touchdowns. One criticism of this crew is in the pass rush. They seem to struggle reaching the opposing quarterback when Wilcox only sends 3 or 4. But the line is strong, and will only get better next year, as most of the cast will be returning.
If Wisconsin was a factory, linebackers would be the number one item of production. It’s a good thing too, because this group has suffered injury after injury this year. Chris Orr gets hurt against LSU, Biegel misses a few weeks, and now Jack Cichy go down. But the beauty of this linebacking core is its depth, and they have been able to make up for the production brought to the table by Orr, perhaps not in the same way, but enough to continue to win games. The positive of these injury situations is the fact that if these linebackers are performing at this level without Orr, Biegel and Cichy, imagine how scary-good they could be next season. We will see how the Cichy impacts the defense for the rest of the year, but as one of the best corps in the country already, this group will only get better.
Though not considered the strongest piece of this defense, the secondary has still performed fairly well over the course of the season. Shelton and Tindal have been solid on the outside, though not without their mistakes. Musso is one of the most reliable players on this defense, adding a crazy fumble return for a touchdown against Michigan State to his highlight reel, and in my opinion D’Cota Dixon is one of the most improved players on this team. He makes big plays, including the game-sealing interception against LSU. While not free of flaws, this is a solid group that anchors the back end of the defense.
It has been an up and down rollercoaster on special teams this year for the Badgers. They have performed well in kickoff and punt coverage, only conceding a punt return TD to Akron, and the kick return game has been decent. But as far as the foot coming in contact with the ball, Wisconsin has had some serious troubles. Hopes were high at the start of the season when Rafael Gaglianone was kicking, making huge field goals to give the Badgers the win against LSU. But after his back surgery, the kicking duties were left to Andrew Endicott, a senior who hadn’t kicked since high school. And thus far, he’s been very inconsistent. Another area of struggles is punting-Wisconsin ranks 124th in the country in average punt distance with 36 yards per kick, a number that must improve. Wisconsin opponents have it easy right now with the starting field position they’re getting, and if the Badgers want a shot at the Big Ten title, Lotti is going to have to start pinning them deep.