The ancient adage of not judging a book by its cover could not have been more appropriate early Friday night in Madison. Mindless penalties, dropped passes, stifled rushes, and quarterback pressure characterized a Wisconsin offense that was desperately needed early. After the second half whistle however, the Badgers reinvented themselves, absolutely dominating both sides of the ball, crushing any memory of that nerve-wracking first half.
Here are some key takeaways from an unexpectedly stressful season opener.
The offensive line gave the offense very little room to perform early on
Without solid protection for Alex Hornibrook, and poor lead blocking and hole-creating for Bradrick Shaw, Chris James, and Joanthan Taylor, the Wisconsin offense sputtered to an atrocious start. Early drives consisted of mostly short, gritty plays, with the exception of a few long pass attempts that were dropped. Hornibrook was hit with multiple blind side hits while not having enough time to see plays develop while in the pocket. Albeit Hornibrook could’ve been more reactive and adapted to a broken play, those types of situations should have been limited, especially against a weaker non-conference opponent. Netting 26 yards of total offense in the first quarter was wildly unexpected, but equally avoidable.
Moving forward, the offensive line needs to adapt to defensive schemes with aggressive play calls, one’s which revolve around the blitz and sending extra pass rushers. If that adjustment can be made, Hornibrook and the backfield’s ability to run effectively drawn up plays will ideally increase.
The defense looked characteristically dominant, forcing TOs and putting pressure on the QB throughout
The trademark Wisconsin Badgers defense never left. High-octane, physically dominant and cunning defense was sustained through the game. Frequently, Utah State QB Kent Myers couldn’t stay comfortable in the pocket due to pressure, and would make ill-advised passes, resulting in two interceptions.
Utah State never pumped the brakes, calling a play around 10 seconds after their most recent, but that didn’t put a damper on the Badgers’ focus. A high rate of play calls only meant a quicker possession for Utah State as the Badgers consistently smothered drives.
Active hands played a huge role both from the line and the secondary, as blocked vision for the QB and broken up passes respectively derailed Utah State scoring efforts.
Paul Chryst gives one hell of a halftime pep talk
While not all credit can be given to Chryst, the Badgers pulled a Freaky Friday and looked completely different out of the locker room in the second half. The defense was even more disruptive, passes were sailing downfield and connecting, while Bradrick Shaw and Jonathan Taylor put an end to Wisconsin’s early rushing struggles.
Call it what you will, season opener jitters, underestimation of the opponent. Regardless, the Badgers epitomized a message their coach has been preaching throughout his time in Madison: put the past behind you, and take things one play at a time.
Every cliché in the book was thought during the first half, wild conclusions were jumped to, seemingly the entire Wisconsin season felt in the balance before it had even begun. In times like those, it’s challenging to get into the mindset where you can believe things will improve. However, through belief in the game plan and their ability to overcome adversity, not to mention 59 points unanswered, the Badgers proved the legitimacy of that message.
At game’s end, a crowd-silencing first quarter was a long forgotten memory, with the Badgers totaling more than double the Aggies total yards. Hornibrook overcame early challenges and persevered through a porous offensive line to rack up 15/23, 244 yards, and 3 TDs. Jonathan Taylor, a presumed third string RB, also stood out as a surprise star, leading the team in rushing with 87 yards on 9 carries including a TD. Looking forward, the Badgers take on Florida Atlantic at home next Saturday the 9th.