MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin has opened its season with four consecutive wins and stands exactly where many believed the Badgers would be at this stage. They have outscored opponents by 109 points, are ranked in the top 10 and harbor realistic visions of a College Football Playoff spot.
And yet, the manner in which Wisconsin has attained some of its early victories still leaves plenty of questions about who the Badgers really are. Wisconsin’s 33-24 victory against Northwestern on Saturday offered another prime example of the team’s head-scratching inconsistency, particularly on offense.
Wisconsin committed 3 turnovers and trailed Northwestern, 10-7, at halftime. Wide receiver Jazz Peavy fumbled on the team’s first play, which led to a Wildcats field goal. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook completed 5 of 11 passes in the first half for 48 yards with no touchdowns and 2 interceptions. The only saving grace was a 7-play, 47-yard touchdown drive that featured 6 running plays.
Here’s what the Badgers’ offensive drives looked like in the first half: fumble, punt, touchdown, interception, punt, interception, punt. It was a dismal enough start to leave some fans on social media questioning whether Wisconsin really deserved to be a top-10 team this season.
Afterward, Wisconsin players mostly stressed the importance of their second-half response rather than what transpired in the first 30 minutes.
“It is concerning, but I have confidence that it’s not going to be something that we always have to battle,” Badgers left tackle Michael Deiter said. “I don’t know why we started slow. I think confidence was an issue [Saturday], just playing fast, cutting it loose. Trusting everything. But it’s nothing that I’m overly concerned with. We’ll have a good week of practice. We’ll get things right.”
Wisconsin did not have the services of tight end Troy Fumagalli, who missed the game with a left leg injury. It’s difficult to discern how much of an impact his absence had on the offense, but he had been Hornibrook’s No. 1 target this season. Fumagalli led the team in receptions (15), receiving yards (236) and was tied for the team lead with 3 touchdown catches. On Saturday, the only catch from a Wisconsin tight end was a 14-yarder to Kyle Penniston.
Badgers coach Paul Chryst said afterward that the offense “didn’t change as much as maybe people would have thought” without Fumagalli. Still, without the Badgers’ top safety valve, the offense stalled.
Hornibrook misfired on 2 passes, but Wisconsin’s defense didn’t allow a point on either turnover. He was intercepted near midfield by JR Pace on a third-and-16. Later, Hornibrook lofted the ball too high downfield for Penniston, which allowed Godwin Igwebuike to slide in front of it and pick off the pass.
“I think that’s just something that we have to focus on in practice,” said Wisconsin safety D’Cota Dixon, who led the team with 12 tackles. “It was an early game, and any time you’ve got an early game, you can’t come out flat, whether the offense is doing well and the defense is doing bad, it doesn’t matter. We’re all units. We all have to do our 1/11th. We might have been flat on one side and may have been up the other side. That’s OK. That’s what a team is for. Just something we’ve got to correct.”
Hornibrook said he needed to make his reads more simple and go through his progressions quicker. He appeared to do a better job in both areas after halftime.
Wisconsin players cited a fiery halftime speech from linebacker Jack Cichy, a captain who is out for the season with a torn ACL. Perhaps that speech served as the impetus for a stronger second half. Hornibrook connected with receiver Quintez Cephus on a 61-yard pass in the third quarter. One play later, tailback Jonathan Taylor scored an 11-yard touchdown to give Wisconsin a 14-10 lead. The Badgers did not trail again. In the second half, Hornibrook completed 6 of 9 passes for 149 yards with 1 touchdown and no interceptions.
“We should be doing that in the first half every game,” Hornibrook said. “I think it’s either we’re starting off a little slow, not executing on some stuff. But I don’t know. I guess once we get a fire lit under us, we come back from behind and start playing better. We’ve got to come out and bring energy like that in the first half.”
Added Badgers safety Natrell Jamerson: “Once we get that motivational talk from our coaches or a player in the locker room, it just seems to click in everybody’s mind that it’s time to stop playing around, just go ahead and handle our business.”
Of course, it shouldn’t take a motivational speech at halftime to rile Wisconsin from its slumber. Saturday marked the second time in four games that Wisconsin has entered halftime without a lead. Wisconsin was tied against Utah State, 10-10, in the season opener and led Florida Atlantic, 24-14, in a closer-than-expected affair.
Wisconsin has outscored opponents, 98-14, in the second half, while the first half score is 65-40. Those first-half miscues haven’t caused irreparable harm on the season. But the Badgers recognize they must perform better. The competition in Big Ten play will demand it.
“It comes down to good football and executing, and we knew this was going to be the best team that we’ve played to this point,” Chryst said. “It’s the fundamentals. It’s the little things. What’s empowering is those are the things that we can control.”
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