The doom and gloom of Saturday morning seemed to completely avoid the three square blocks of Camp Randall Stadium, where energy was at an all time high, and the stakes even higher.
Saturday was the clearest manifestation of Big Ten football I’ve ever seen. If you weren’t feeling lucky and were in search of a safe bet, gambling on whether or not Michigan or Wisconsin would run the ball was the safest wager out there.
Sound defense, conservative offense and scattered big plays characterized the effort Saturday. Here are three takeaways from a vintage Wisconsin win.
Wisconsin can rely entirely on their defense to win games
Wisconsin’s defense is elite, arguably the best in the country. Michigan coughed up only 41 yards of total offense through the first quarter, never making it past the Wisconsin 35. It was a shutout effort early, something that shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s watched even one quarter of Wisconsin football this season.
What’s more, Wisconsin only mustered 35 yards of offense through one, putting even more pressure on the defense to not let the game get away from them.
The only Wisconsin score until late in the third came from a Nick Nelson punt return, a special teams score.
Furthermore, after Michigan broke free for a 35-yard pickup that put them at first and goal. Excellent pass coverage nullified a game-tying score, and one play later, a forced fumble from Leon Jacobs on the 3 yard-line gave Wisconsin the ball in a desperate time.
It’s not that Wisconsin wants to rely solely on their defense, but the simple fact of the matter is the offense is far from potent, so the natural progression of games comes down to how well the defense plays.
Therefore, while Wisconsin obviously doesn’t want to rely only on one side of the ball, there’s comfort in knowing your defense will make it close to impossible for the other team to score.
Even when limiting turnovers, the offense still stunk
Turnovers had been Wisconsin’s achilles heel in recent history, often giving the defense a short field to protect. Saturday, however, Wisconsin committed zero turnovers at the half, which is a huge positive. But even so, the performance was incredibly weak.
Mustering just 99 yards of total offense, including just four first downs, the offense was not making it easy for the defense to keep Michigan at bay. Even without the most deprecating trait of the offense, Wisconsin still couldn’t get anything going.
Granted, Michigan boasts a top five defense that prides itself on limiting the run, a central tenant of the Wisconsin offense. Even so, how can Wisconsin expect to take down top five teams if the can’t score? While brash, there’s elegantly simple truth to this. There are innumerable positives to extrapolate from the defensive performance, but this is a team sport and everyone must be held accountable.
Moving forward, offensive effectiveness needs to be priority number one, because Saturday was as dismal an offensive performance Wisconsin has posted all year.
The onus is on Hornibrook
Like it or not, the offense runs through Hornibrook’s decision making skills. If pressure’s coming, don’t force it. If coverage is tight, work through your reads. If Hornibrook is struggling, so is the offense. If Hornibrook is on his game, the offense soars.
Positively or negatively, an evaluation of the offensive performance can be consistently traced back to Hornibrook’s day.
After a first half of the sloppiest offensive football Wisconsin had played all year, Hornibrook finally found his stuff, and once he did, the offense was revitalized, looking truly like a top five team.
Players feed off the energy of their leader, so it’s far from surprising that the offense, as a result of Hornibrook’s struggles, played poorly in the first half. Even further, it’s far from surprising that as he began to find his rhythm, the offensive production trended up.
This was a signature win for Wisconsin, and one that keeps their hopes for the College Football Playoff burning bright.
Photo courtesy of foxsports.com