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Badger Thoughts 2017: Game 1 Win Versus Utah State

The Wisconsin Badgers visited the end zone frequently in the second half against Utah State. (Dylan Buell/Getty Images North America)

Badger Thoughts 2017: Game 1 Win     Versus Utah State

The Wisconsin Badgers opened the season with an emphatic 59-10 victory over Utah State. While it was not very attractive in the first half, the ninth ranked Badgers cruised to an easy win with a suffocating second half performance. Below are some thoughts, and observations noticed in the Friday night win.

1. The offense starts slow – If you happened to read this column in 2016, one of the constant worries was the offense starting slow. Well, 2017 started no different as the offense needed nearly 2 full quarters to even get points on the board. There were fumbles, drops, penalties, sacks, and mistakes that are not typical of Wisconsin. That begs several questions:

Was this performance just first game jitters? Did the Friday night lights play a role? Is the offense too predictable in the early stage of games?

We are leaning to the fact it was the first game where timing can be an a bit off. It is unwise to make a conclusion based on a single game, but this is worth keeping an eye on to see if this trend becomes a mainstay as it did in 2016.

2. Jonathan Taylor has a breakout game – He is only a freshman, but a good one at that if this game was any indication. Taylor showed speed and the ability to keep the legs churning. He finished with 87 yards on 9 carries and a touchdown.

It was an impressive showing and it never hurts to be running behind an offensive line that the Badgers typically employ. Continue to watch the progression of Taylor as he splits carries with Bradrick Shaw (84 yards and 1 TD on 18 carries) and Chris James (5 carries for 16 yards).

3. Scoring production was evenly spread out – The Badgers had 8 touchdowns against the Aggies. And 8 different players scored a touchdown. How about that for spreading the production around? Shaw, Taylor, Garrett Groshek, and Austin Ramesh provided the rushing scores. Troy Fumagalli, Quintez Cephus, and Zander Neuville had receiving scores as Alex Hornibrook had a highly efficient passing game going 15 for 23 with 244 yards and the 3 touchdown passes.

The penultimate score was probably the most fitting. Joe Ferguson, grandson of current Wisconsin Athletic Director Barry Alvarez, returned an interception 99 yards for a touchdown.

4. The defense rose to the occasion – Utah State had a strong start with 88 yards on offense and a 10-0 through one quarter. After that, the Badgers defense imposed their will. While many will point to the ejection of Utah State’s Jalen Davis as the turning point, this defense was hitting their stride about the same time and it is usually devastating for opponents when that happens.

While the Badgers gave up 304 yards (219 passing and 85 rushing), nearly half of those came on the final three Utah State drives when the game was no longer in doubt. The Badgers forced 4 turnovers including interceptions on back-to-back Utah State drives to end the first half and start the second half. That led to a tie game at halftime and then a two touchdown lead early in the third.

The most noticeable part of the defense was their hunger to keep the Aggies to only 10 points. They stopped the Aggies once on downs in the third quarter, then they had the pick six midway through the fourth quarter, and finally ended the game with a pass breakup in the end zone.

This Badgers defense, despite the loss of Jack Cichy for the season, looks just as good as the defenses of the previous few seasons. Keep in mind that the Badgers are on their third defensive coordinator (Jim Leonhard) in as many seasons.

Wisconsin will play at home next Saturday against Florida Atlantic. The game is scheduled for 12 PM Eastern Time on the Big Ten Network.

Wisconsin Badgers 2016-17 Football Season Report Card

T.J. Watt had a big 2017 finishing with a double digit sack total. (Tom Pennington/Getty Images North America)

Wisconsin Badgers 2016-17 Football Season Report Card

The Wisconsin Badgers have finished the 2016-17 season with a 24-16 win over the Western Michigan Broncos to end at 11-3 overall. It was another double digit win season for the Badgers as 2016 marked the sixth time in the last 8 years they have won at least 10 games.

We will give a grade to each unit on the team as well as an overall team grade and a grade for head coach Paul Chryst. For a measuring stick, here is the midseason report card and we will include the midseason grade for each unit below. Let’s start with a quick glance at the results of each game for the Badgers.

Wisconsin Results

Week 1 (9/3) – Defeated #5 LSU 16-14 (Green Bay, Wisconsin)

Week 2 (9/10) – Defeated Akron 54-10 (Home)

Week 3 (9/17) – Defeated Georgia State 23-17 (Home)

Week 4 (9/24) – Defeated Michigan State 30-6 (Away)

Week 5 (10/1) – Lost to Michigan 14-7 (Away)

Week 6 (10/8) – Bye

Week 7 (10/15) – Lost to Ohio State 30-23 in 1 OT (Home)

Week 8 (10/22) – Defeated Iowa 17-9 (Away)

Week 9 (10/29) – Defeated Nebraska 23-17 in 1 OT (Home)

Week 10 (11/5) – Defeated Northwestern 21-7 (Away)

Week 11 (11/12) – Defeated Illinois 48-3 (Home)

Week 12 (11/19) – Defeated Purdue 49-20 (Away)

Week 13 (11/26) – Defeated Minnesota 31-17 (Home)

Week 14 (12/3) – Lost to Penn State 38-31 (Big 10 Championship)

Bowl (1/2/17) – Defeated Western Michigan 24-16 (Cotton Bowl)

Head Coach Paul Chryst

Midseason Grade: B+

2016 was not an easy year for Paul Chryst in his second season. He had to juggle two quarterbacks, a new defensive coordinator, and what looked like a daunting schedule. Looking at the entire season, he did well switching between Bart Houston (began the season as the starter) and Alex Hornibrook.

The hire of Justin Wilcox as the defensive coordinator already looks like a steal. The Badgers allowed 13.7 points per game in 2015 and saw that increase only marginally to 15.6. The yardage allowed per game do go up from from 268.5 in 2015 to 301.4 yards per game. Still, the defense played well this year, but Wilcox has departed for the California Golden Bears’ head coaching vacancy. The Badgers will have their third defensive coordinator in three years for the 2017 season.

The schedule before the season looked imposing. They had LSU, Michigan State (away), Michigan (away), Ohio State, Nebraska, and the potential for a Big 10 Championship Game. The Badgers ended up facing 7 teams that were ranked in the top 15 at the time of the game for the 2016-17 and went 4-3 in those games. Granted, some of those teams were far from being top 25 material by season’s end, but the Badgers navigated the season well under Chryst.

Final Grade: B+

Quarterbacks

Midseason Grade: C-

Bart Houston began the season as starter, but was replaced in the Georgia State contest by Hornibrook. After that game, the duo split time behind center though Hornibrook was injured versus Minnesota and subsequently missed the Big 10 Championship game. Many pundits lament the two quarterback system, but these two actually worked pretty well though they were far from game changers.

We noted that on the midseason report card that Hornibrook had looked like the better of the two quarterbacks after five games. By the end of the season it was far more even as Houston gained confidence and was more efficient. Houston finished the year with 1,245 yards (68.1%) with 5 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. After being benched versus Georgia State and not playing the next three games, Houston threw 70 passes and completing 52 of those (74%) for 718 yards with 3 touchdowns and 1 pick.

Hornibrook finished the season with 1,262 yards (58.6%) with 9 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. In the Badgers’ final eight games, he went 52 of 85 (61%) with 4 touchdowns against 1 interception (remember he missed the Big 10 Championship). He has some things to work on like his reads, throwing the ball into coverage, etc., but he has a bright future as long as he continues to improve.

Final Grade: C+

Running Backs

Midseason Grade: B

It is not hard to see how the running game changed over the Badgers’ season. Over the first five games Wisconsin averaged 161.6 yards per game on the ground. In the final 9 games the Badgers averaged 226.1 yards rushing per game. Corey Clement easily led the team in rushing with 1,375 yards (4.4 yards per carry) with 15 touchdowns. In addition, the final 9 games saw Clement have at least 100 yard performances 7 times.

Dare Ogunbowale had a few big games against Nebraska (120 yards and a touchdown) and Illinois (103 yards) to finish with 506 yards (5.6 YPC) and five touchdowns. He also played a big role in the passing game with 24 catches for 208 yards and a touchdown, but it felt like he was a go to receiver on third down for much of the year.

Both Clement and Ogunbowale are seniors, which means that freshman Bradrick Shaw could feature prominently in the future. He had 457 yards and 5 touchdowns on 88 carries (5.2 YPC). He did have some fumble issues, but his strength, power, and quickness could make for a scary sight in the next few seasons. He could be in a backfield with Taiwan Deal (164 yards rushing) and Pittsburgh transfer Chris James (690 yards rushing in two seasons) in 2017.

Wide receiver Jazz Peavy had a big impact in the rushing game as well. He was used almost exclusively on the end around to finish the season with 318 yards rushing and a touchdown on just 21 carries (15.1 YPC). He came up big throughout the season when called upon and he could see a familiar role in 2017.

Final Grade: A-

Wide Receivers

Midseason Grade: B-

As with any run-heavy Badger offense, the wide receivers are not likely to put up big numbers. There were some stars that emerged in Jazz Peavy and Troy Fumagalli. Peavy finished as the leading receiver with 43 catches for 635 yards and 5 touchdowns (along with the aforementioned rushing impact). Fumagalli had 47 catches for 580 yards and 2 touchdowns, but bookended his season with very good performances against LSU (7 catches for 100 yards) and Western Michigan (6 catches for 83 yards and a touchdown). Both players are juniors and if either of them leave for the NFL, that would create a big void in the passing attack.

Ogunbowale was instrumental in the passing game, but he will move on as a senior. Robert Wheelwright caught 34 passes for 448 yards and 1 touchdown, but is a senior. George Rushing had just 12 catches for 136 yards and was spotty throughout the season. With more consistency he could be a possible #2 opposite of Peavy, but he has a ways to go to fill that void.

Three freshmen who saw some playing time in 2016 and worth keeping an eye on in their development were Kyle Penniston (6 catches for 102 yards and 2 touchdowns), Quintez Cephus (135 total offensive yards), and A.J. Taylor (72 total offensive yards).

Final Grade: B-

Offensive Line

Midseason Grade: C+

The offensive line had a slow start this season. Injuries and new quarterbacks hurt them. It took until after the Michigan game for the line to assert itself. The first five games saw the Badgers average just 3.8 yards per carry while that number shot up to 4.6 yards per carry over the final nine games. For the season, the Badgers averaged 4.3 yards per carry, which was better than 2015’s number of 3.8, but still less than the lowest output between 2009 and 2014 of 4.6. Tackle Ryan Ramczyk was named as a first team All-American. Ramczyk will move on to the NFL creating a massive void to refill.

The offensive line had allowed 8 sacks in the first five games, but gave up another 16 the final 9 games to make it 24 on the season. To be fair, the sacks are not always the fault of the line and both Houston and Hornibrook had a tendency to hold on to the ball too long from time to time. In 2015, the Badgers allowed 23 sacks. The offensive line did make good progress over the course of the season particularly in the running game.

Final Grade: B

Overall Offensive Grade

Midseason Grade: C+

There was a clear change in the offense between the Michigan and Ohio State games. It is worth mentioning that between those games was the Wisconsin bye week, which probably allowed them to re-focus the offense. The running game came alive after the bye week while Houston looked more efficient. The Badgers averaged 28.4 points, 382.1 yards, 203.1 rushing yards, and 179.1 passing yards per game. The total yardage was similar to 2015 (378.6 per game), but the emphasis was more on the run (150.3 yards rushing per game), which was not surprising given a new quarterback.

The offense will need to work on being far more efficient in the red zone. They had 58 red zone trips and converted 49 of those into points (84.4%), which ranked 63rd in the country. However, only 37 of those trips resulted in a touchdown (63.8%). This is a big area of improvement for the Badgers in 2017.

Final Grade: B

Defensive Line/Linebackers

Midseason Grade: A+

The linebackers had a great year in 2016 led by the T.J. duo. T.J. Watt led the team in sacks (11.5) and tackles-for-loss (15.5). His partner T.J. Edwards led the team in total tackles with 89 while also recording 3 sacks and 8.5 tackles-for-loss. Jack Cichy was on his way to a stellar year after 7 games before a torn pectoral ruled him out the rest of the season. Cichy recorded 60 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 7.5 tackles-for-loss. Ryan Connelly (59 tackles and 7 TFL), Garret Dooley (40 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and 6.5 TFL), and Vince Biegel (44 tackles, 4 sacks, and 6 TFL) were big contributors to an incredible linebacker group.

Only Biegel is a senior though Watt (a second team All-American) or Edwards could bolt for the NFL after stellar campaigns. Chris Orr will also return after missing 2016 with a torn ACL.

Defensive ends Connor Sheehy and Alec James, both juniors, had similar seasons on the stat line. Sheehy had 27 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and 4 tackles-for-loss while James finished with 23 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and 3.5 tackles-for-loss. Also returning on the defensive line are Chikwe Obasih (31 career starts along with 22 tackles in 2016), and Olive Sagapolu (14 tackles and 1 sack).

The possibility of everyone outside of Biegel returning is tantalizing, but the NFL is a loud call this time of year. Still, the front seven should be a deep and talented group for the Badgers next season.

Final Grade: A+

Defensive Backs

Midseason Grade: A-

One clear area of regression as the season went on was in the secondary. Perhaps the Georgia State game was a sign of things to come for the final few games, particularly the Big 10 Championship. The Panthers were able to put up 269 yards through the air that day and a few other teams had some success as well. Northwestern threw for 277 (they played from behind the whole game), Purdue had going deep, and then Penn State gashed the back four with ease in the second half.

Sojourn Shelton had 4 picks and 12 pass breakups (most on the team) while Leo Musso recorded 74 tackles and 5 interceptions (led the team). Derrick Tindal had 3 picks and 11 pass breakups and Lubern Figaro finished with 7 pass breakups.

Tindall and Figaro will both be seniors in 2017 as will D’Cota Dixon (60 tackles and 4 interceptions) and Natrell Jamerson (mainly a return guy, but he did have 19 tackles and 4 pass breakups). Those four, along with others, will need to step up to replace Shelton and Musso. This group faltered down the stretch and in the pivotal second half of the Big 10 Championship Game versus Penn State. Look out to see if the secondary plays with a chip on their shoulder in the next year after how they finished the season.

Final Grade: B

Overall Defensive Grade

Midseason Grade: A

The defense did play very well for most of the season. The secondary had documented struggles, but they did play well for stretches of the season. The linebackers led the way for this side of the ball and there were some stars we hope return in 2017 to make this another top defense in the nation.

Final Grade: A-

Special Teams Grade

Midseason Grade: B

The loss of Rafael Gaglianone in late September really hurt then, but after seeing the season play out, that is even more evident now. Gaglianone went 7 of 8 on his field goals and was a perfect 10 for 10 on extra points. Andrew Endicott replaced him and from the start was uneasy. He finished the season 13 of 19 with a long of 46 yards. He made 35 of 37 extra points, but even a few of those were barely inside the uprights. Gaglianone will be back in 2017, which will be a boost to the kicking game.

The punting game left some room for improvement. Anthony Lotti averaged 37.7 yards per punt and put 25 punts inside the opponent’s 20 yard line, but he had a few games where he struggled (see the Michigan game). P.J. Rosowski averaged 36.7 yards per punt and also handled kickoff duties. He had 79 kickoffs with 51 touchbacks and just one kick go out of bounds. Lotti was only a freshman in 2016 so he will have a few seasons left as Badgers to get better.

Natrell Jamerson had 12 kick returns for an average of 21.1 yards per return while Dare Ogunbowale had 10 returns for an average of 21.3 yards per return. Jamerson had a long of 39 and Ogunbowale had a long of 41 and neither had a touchdown. Jazz Peavy returned punts for the Badgers and averaged a paltry 5.8 yards per return on 17 returns. The Badgers can afford to work on the return game going into the 2017 season.

Final Grade: C+

Overall Team Grade

Midseason Grade: B+

2016 was a very good year for the Wisconsin Badgers. Expectations were subdued with the loss of Joel Stave, Alex Erickson, Michael Caputo, and Tanner McEvoy among others. A new starting quarterback turned into two new starters at that position and both players handled it well.

The running game got off to a slow start, but turned it on after the bye week. In turn, the quarterbacks performed more efficiently and the team was able to shake off back-to-back losses to Michigan and Ohio State to claim the Big 10 West. The defense had breakout stars in T.J. Watt and T.J. Edwards under new defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox while Corey Clement remained healthy to have a solid season.

Overall, it is hard to argue with the results produced by the Badgers. Many (including this author) thought 10 wins were out of the question, but the Badgers did one better than that and won their first Cotton Bowl.

Final Grade: A

Thoughts On Wisconsin’s Win Over The Iowa Hawkeyes

Corey Clement carried the ball 35 times against Iowa for 134 yards, but he earned every yard in this physical win for the Badgers. (Bobby Ellis/Getty Images North America)
Corey Clement carried the ball 35 times against Iowa for 134 yards, but he earned every yard in this physical win for the Badgers. (Bobby Ellis/Getty Images North America)

Thoughts On Wisconsin’s Win Over The Iowa Hawkeyes

The battle for the Heartland Trophy ended with the #10 Wisconsin Badgers winning 17-9 over the Iowa Hawkeyes on the road. It marks the fourth win in the last five games over Iowa with all four wins coming on the road at Iowa. The game was very physical and defensive as expected for these two teams. The Badgers looked good in some areas while others are a continuing concern. Let’s take a look at some thoughts on the Badgers’ victory:

1. The Special Teams were horrendous – It was not a good game for the Badgers’ special teams unit. Andrew Endicott went 1 for 3 on his field goal attempts including a terrible 32 yard miss on the first drive of the game. His 52 yard miss was more forgivable that was pushed just to the right of the post while his 36 yard make was just inside the post. He entered the game 4 for 4 on the season.

The punting game was very poor as well. The Badgers had 5 punts and averaged only 30.2 yards per punt between Anthony Lotti and P.J. Rosowski. There was also the kickoff to Desmond King in the final 90 seconds of the game that was returned 77 yards and gave the Hawkeyes a chance to make it an uncomfortable finish.

Special teams are where the hidden yards can be found and have a profound impact on the game in terms of field position. Let’s see how this unit improves against Nebraska next week.

2. Bart Houston makes a surprise appearance – This probably was the most surprising part of the game, but the reasoning for his appearance is more of a mystery. Houston came in for the Badgers’ third drive of the game and let them to a touchdown when he connected with Troy Fumagalli from 17 yards out. Hornibrook did take a big hit on the second drive of the game, but Houston also came back in for the first drive of the fourth quarter, which the Badgers did not score on. Houston did play well in his limited action…

3. Is there another quarterback switch on the horizon? – This is a fair question because Hornibrook had some struggles. Early in the game he had a couple of questionable throws in the flat and did not always look comfortable. However, Hornibrook did not have a bad game and Houston played well in his limited action.  Is Paul Chryst trying to throw a wrinkle for opposing teams? Or is there a real chance that he might switch quarterbacks?

4. Red Zone inefficiencies continue – The Badgers have struggled all year getting touchdowns in the red zone and the game versus Iowa offered plenty of chances to correct that. Sure, the Badgers scored 2 touchdowns, but they could have made this game a lot more comfortable had they converted more of them. Coming into the game, Wisconsin had 23 red zone opportunities, but only 13 touchdowns (56.5%)

Against Iowa, the Badgers started off with a missed 31 yard field goal. Late in the second quarter, Corey Clement fumbled on the doorstep of the end zone that ended up resulting in a touchback, which Iowa converted into a field goal to make it a 7-6 game at halftime. The finished with a field goal late in the game to finish 2 of 5 on red zone touchdowns. The Badgers are now 15 of 28 (53.5%) in scoring red zone touchdowns and that percentage has only been going down the last few weeks.

5. The offense was both good and bad – We mentioned part of the bad with the red zone issues, but there was also the running game. The Badgers were not good running the ball. As a team they had 48 carries for 167 yards to produce a 3.5 yards per carry average. The offense was averaging 2.9 yards per carry until Corey Clement broke 34 yard run late in the game. Clement finished the game with 35 carries for 134 yards and a touchdown (plus that fumble on the goal line). This still is not the type of Badger rushing attack that we are accustomed to seeing. The receiving duo of Jazz Peavy (3 catches for 26 yards) and Troy Fumagalli (2 catches for 38 yards and a touchdown) were held in check for most of this game, but others did step up.

The good part of the offense was the passing attack and it did not really matter if it was Bart Houston of Alex Hornibrook throwing the ball. Hornibrook hit Kyle Penniston for 54 yards thanks to a missed tackle, but he also had a nice ball over the top to Quintez Cephus for 57 yards. Houston went 4 of 6 for 59 yards and a touchdown while he looked crisp running the offense. There was also Dare Ogunbowale out of the backfield converting three big third downs through the air. He finished with 4 catches for 51 yards and only 2 rushes for 10 yards. All those small yardage runs helped the passing game to get open, but did it really feel like a typical Badger offense?

6. The defense gets back to Badger Ball – The defense has been really good at not allowing touchdowns. They have given up only 8 touchdowns all year and the red zone defense has seen them give up only 7 touchdowns on 16 attempts. Against Iowa they were stout again giving up just three field goals including one that was pushed out of the red zone. The defense allowed only 2 of 13 conversions on third down for the Iowa offense and 83 yards rushing (3.1 yards per carry for Iowa’s rushing attack). This bend, but do not break philosophy has been the backbone of the defense and propelled the team to their 5-2 record.

7. Defense misses out on possible turnovers – The defense played a very good game, but we can still lament about the missed turnovers. On Iowa’s first two drives of the second half there were three fumbles by the Hawkeyes. Yet, the Badgers failed to recover any of them. This is the only real gripe against a unit that is continually leaned on to carry the team.

Wisconsin is now 5-2 overall and 2-2 in Big Ten play. They have a massive game at home next week against the Big Ten West leading Nebraska Cornhuskers. The Badgers need a win next week as well as another Nebraska loss to take control of the division. Below are previous columns providing thoughts on each Wisconsin game this season.

Wisconsin versus LSU

Wisconsin versus Akron

Wisconsin versus Georgia State

Wisconsin versus Michigan State

Wisconsin versus Michigan

Wisconsin versus Ohio State