Grades for Wisconsin at the quarter pole of the season

These types of articles are normally reserved for the middle of the season when you’ve likely got six or more games to judge a team on. But with Wisconsin’s bye coming after just three weeks — and no other break in the action until the first or second week of December — we decided to undertake an effort to grade what we’ve seen so far in a 3-0 start for the Badgers. Is it fair to do so with such a small sample size? Probably not. But here we go.

Quarterback: B+

Save for a rough outing late in the second quarter and most of the second half against Florida Atlantic, Alex Hornibrook has been fantastic in his second year as a starter. After throwing nine touchdowns all of last year, the sophomore has thrown eight already and is on pace to break Russell Wilson’s single-season school record of 33. And perhaps even more importantly, he’s got just one interception.

The competition will certainly pick up in Big Ten play, but Hornibrook looks like the quarterback many envisioned coming into the year.

Running back: A-

If we were grading this based on Jonathan Taylor alone, it would have easily been an A+. The New Jersey native has been terrific in averaging 146 yards per game — tops for any freshman in the country. He’s still learning and isn’t perfect, but his blend of power, speed and balance make him a terror for defenses.

The rest of the running back group has been up and down. Junior Chris James was anxious and struggled in his debut against Utah State, before bouncing back with a 100-yard outing in a win over Florida Atlantic. Sophomore Bradrick Shaw looked solid as the starter in the opener, but an injury kept him out in Week 2, and it seems unlikely he’ll get his job back this season considering what Taylor has done.

The freshman is the lead dog here and is the reason for such a high grade.

Wide receiver: B

All of the wide receivers have taken a significant leap from a year ago, especially Quintez Cephus. The sophomore already has three touchdowns and has become Wisconsin’s No. 1 option on the outside.

A.J. Taylor, Danny Davis and Jazz Peavy have all been involved and looked solid, but the overall grade suffers due to the drops in the first two weeks. Still, this group has the makings of being the deepest Wisconsin has had in recent memory. Their final grade figures to be much higher.

Tight ends: A-

Troy Fumagalli was outstanding in the first two games, gaining nearly 100 yards each week. He caught his third touchdown of the year against BYU in what was an otherwise quiet game for the preseason All-American. The senior has also been part of a strong rushing attack that is currently second in the Big Ten.

Outside of junior Zander Neuville’s impressive touchdown catch against Utah State, he and sophomore Kyle Penniston have not really been heavily involved in the passing game, combining for five catches through three games. They, like Fumagalli, still play a vital role in the run game.

LISTEN: The latest edition of our Wisconsin podcast ‘The Camp’

Offensive line: B

The numbers would suggest Wisconsin has been off the charts good along the line, as the Badgers rank 14th in the country in rushing at 275 yards per game and are giving up about one sack per game. But while they’ve been pretty good, in only one game — against BYU — were they the dominating unit many thought they would be. While the game was still in doubt, they opened huge running holes and allowed Hornibrook to have all day to pass. If they can get that kind of effort on a week-to-week basis, their end of the of season grade will jump significantly.

Defensive line: B+

Wisconsin’s defense isn’t designed for the linemen to have big numbers, and that has certainly played out for the group in the first three games as they’ve combined for just one tackle for loss. But they’ve played a role in helping the Badgers limit opponents to 90.6 yards per game on the ground, good enough for 15th in the nation.

They’ve done it largely without senior Chikwe Obasih (knee), who remains sidelined indefinitely . While it’s been a challenge without him, redshirt freshman Isaiahh Loudermilk has filled in nicely behind senior starters Alec James and Conor Sheehy.

Linebackers: A-

Teams have been able to run the ball early in games against Wisconsin, but that’s been more about scheme than anything physical. Once they’ve had a chance to digest what they’re seeing, it’s been lights out for opposing offenses.

At inside linebacker, sophomore Chris Orr leads the team in tackles coming off a missed season with a torn ACL, while junior T.J. Edwards has continued to evolve as a playmaker, coming up with three tackles for loss and two interceptions. Junior Ryan Connelly has been solid, too.

On the outside, senior Leon Jacobs leads Wisconsin with four tackles for loss, senior Garret Dooley has been solid on the edge, and junior Andrew Van Ginkel has proven to be the pass rusher the Badgers needed with his two sacks.

Secondary: B

Wisconsin has been up in its games, so the passing numbers for the opposition aren’t great indicators of how well the secondary is playing — and they are playing well. The only concern here is the issues they had in communication in the first two games, including on a play that resulted in a long touchdown for Florida Atlantic. But none of those things showed up against BYU, and it’s possible they just needed time to adjust with several new faces seeing the field for the first time.

Special teams: B+

The Badgers have been solid here, with kicker Rafael Gaglianone going 3 of 4 on field goals, while Anthony Lotti has dropped four of his 10 punts inside the 20-yard line. With kickoffs split between Zach Hintze and P.J. Rosowski, Wisconsin is allowing opponents to start — on average — at their own 22-yard line.

The return units with Nick Nelson and Taylor, especially the latter on kickoff, have been one or two blocks away from taking one back for a score.

Overall: A-

After an uneven first two weeks, Wisconsin showed against BYU what it can be and what many believe it will be. That’s reflected in the overall grade, as we add in the promise shown and the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately factor.

Wisconsin QB Alex Hornibrook earns B1G honor

MADISON — As expected, Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook earned his first career Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors on Monday.

The sophomore picked up the award after going 18 of 19 for 256 yards and four touchdowns in the Badgers’ 40-6 whipping of BYU. Hornibrook set the school record for completion percentage (94.7 percent) in a single game, while also setting career highs in yards, touchdowns and pass efficiency rating.

The lone incompletion on the day came on a dropped pass and Hornibrook has now topped 200 yards in each of his first three games this year after doing it just once in nine starts a year ago.

Hornibrook becomes the second Wisconsin player to earn the award this year, joining freshman running back Jonathan Taylor, who ran for 225 yards against Florida Atlantic last week.

Wisconsin is off this week. The 9th-ranked Badgers will return to the field Sept. 30 when they open Big Ten play against Northwestern.

(9) Wisconsin 31, Florida Atlantic 14: 2-minute drill

MADISON — No. 9 Wisconsin (2-0) got 223 yards and three touchdowns from Jonathan Taylor on its way to a 31-14 win over Florida Atlantic (0-2) on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.

Play of the Game

On their second drive of the game, the Badgers faced a second-and-9 from their 36-yard line. Taylor got the ball going to his left, broke one tackle and saw a crease, which he exploded through for a 64-yard touchdown. It was a sign of what was to come as the Badgers rolled up 357 yards on the ground.

Game Balls

Offense: RB Jonathan Taylor

The true freshman made a really good first impression against Utah State in the opener, and followed that up with an even more impressive showing in Week 2. Taylor scored on runs of 64 and 29 yards in the first half, showing off his burst and balance on both touchdowns. He added a third score in the second half and finished the game with 223 yards to become just the fourth true freshman at Wisconsin to top 200 yards in a game and the first since Zach Brown in 2007.

Defense: LB Leon Jacobs

The senior continues to show outside linebacker is the position he should have been at his entire career. Jacobs finished with six tackles, two tackles for loss and his first sack of the season. He was part of a defense that tallied 10 tackles for loss and five sacks on the day, limiting the Owls to 282 yards, including just 50 after halftime.

Special Teams: Anthony Lotti

Lotti averaged just 38.2 yards per punt, but the sophomore dropped a pair inside the 20, including one at the 4-yard line.

Video of the Game

In their own words

LISTEN: RB Jonathan Taylor meets the media after the game

In Case You Missed It

— Wisconsin’s captains for the day were defensive end Alec James, tight end Troy Fumagalli, safety Natrell Jamerson and wide receiver Jazz Peavy. The honorary captain was former quarterback Matt Schabert.

— A pair of true freshmen — wide receiver Danny Davis and Taylor — earned their first career starts. Davis caught the first pass of his career, a 35-yard reception from quarterback Alex Hornibrook.

— Starting right guard Beau Benzschawel sustained a right leg injury in the second quarter and did not return. Junior Micah Kapoi replaced him.

— Safety Patrick Johnson was ruled out in the second half with an arm injury. It’s the second game in a row that he left with an injury.

— Quarterback Jack Coan completed the first pass of his career, hitting running back Garrett Groshek for six yards and a first down.

Inside the Numbers

101 — That’s the number of yards rushing that junior Chris James put up — the second 100-yard game of his career and the first at Wisconsin.

3 — That’s the number of times quarterback Alex Hornibrook has thrown for at least 200 yards in his career. Two of the three have come this year.

1 — That’s the number of penalties Wisconsin had on Saturday, eight fewer than the Badgers had in the opener against Utah State.

15-0 — That’s Wisconsin’s record when gaining 500 yards or more on offense dating back to the start of the 2012 season. The Badgers had 564 yards of offense on Saturday.

8 — That’s the number of catches tight end Troy Fumagalli had — a career-high. He finished with 92 yards receiving and a touchdown.

What’s Next

Wisconsin (2-0) will hit the road for the first time this season as they visit BYU (1-1) next Saturday.

Preview: (9) Wisconsin vs Florida Atlantic

THE BASICS

The teams: The No. 9 Wisconsin Badgers (1-0) vs the Florida Atlantic Owls (0-1)

The time: 11 a.m. CDT, Saturday

The place: Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, Wis.

The TV coverage: BTN with Kevin Kugler and Matt Millen in the booth, and Lisa Byington on the sideline.

The last time: This is the first ever meeting between the two schools

The series: N/A

The line: Wisconsin -33

The Badgers injury report:

QUESTIONABLE

RB Bradrick Shaw (leg)

OUT

Game:

RB Taiwan Deal (leg)
DE Chikwe Obasih (knee)
WR Kendric Pryor (face)
WR George Rushing (leg)
FB Jake Whalen (head)

Season:

LB Jack Cichy (knee)
LB Zack Baun (foot)
RB Sam Brodner (knee)
LB Mason Stokke (leg)

THE BREAKDOWN: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH

1) A one-time thing or a pattern?

After the way Wisconsin stumbled through much of the first half against Utah State in its opener, the Badgers need to show that it was a one-time thing and not something that will haunt them all year. If forced to choose what we might see on Saturday, we’d say it wasn’t something fans should worry about. But the anxiety will grow significantly if they struggle early against a Florida Atlantic team that Navy beat by 23 points last week.

2) See some improvement

Coach Paul Chryst doesn’t put much stock in the notion of team’s make their biggest jumps from the first game to the second, but he’s certainly looking for significant improvement in a number of areas, perhaps most notably when it comes to penalties. One of the most disciplined teams in the country in 2016, Wisconsin was called for nine penalties against Utah State — more than in any game a year ago. The Badgers need to clean it up, especially those happening before the play starts.

3) Time to dominate

One of the more surprising aspects of the Badgers slow start against Utah State was the inability of the offensive line to create running lanes and keep pressure off of quarterback Alex Hornibrook. Communication issues played a role, for sure, but the size and talent of the line is too great to not move teams like the Aggies and Florida Atlantic off the ball. While Wisconsin ended up rushing for 233 yards, the Badgers still need to show they can do it from the jump, especially against a Owls defense that allowed Navy to run for more than 400 yards in their opener.

4) More Jonathan Taylor

Nearly every player that made their debut a week ago lived up to the hype, but none more so than running back Jonathan Taylor. He showed off his speed, vision, balance and explosiveness in running for 87 yards and a touchdown. Now, with sophomore Bradrick Shaw a little dinged up, we could see a whole lot more of Taylor on Saturday. And if he capitalizes on it, he could stake his claim to being Wisconsin’s lead back moving forward.

5) Hurricane Irma

While five of the seven FBS teams that call Florida home cancelled their games this weekend due to Hurricane Irma, the storm bearing down on South Florida did not deter the Owls from making the trip to Madison. How will what’s happening back home impact the play of 18-to-23-year-old college students who left homes that may not be there when they get back?

And what about the eight players from the state of Florida on the Wisconsin roster? How focused can anyone expect them to be when their families are dealing with a storm of this magnitude?

The debate over whether the game should be played is pointless — it’s obviously going to happen. But the storm’s impact mentally for players on both sides is relevant and something to watch.

NUMBERS TO CONSIDER

Wisconsin is 16-1 under coach Paul Chryst when holding teams to 100 yards or less on the ground.

Alex Hornibrook has thrown 73 passes since his last interception, a stretch that covers seven games. The quarterback’s last interception came in the fourth quarter of Wisconsin’s win over Nebraska last October.

Wisconsin’s 59 points against Utah State were the most under Chryst since he returned as coach in 2015, and the most they’ve put up when he’s been calling plays since hanging 62 on Purdue on Nov. 5, 2011.

After taking the ball away from Utah State four times in the opener, the Badgers are averaging three turnovers forced per game over their last six contests.

PREDICTIONS

Zach Heilprin’s prediction: Wisconsin 52, Florida Atlantic 13 (1-0 on the season, 1-0 against the spread)
Ebo’s prediction: Wisconsin 53, Florida Atlantic 14 (1-0 on the season, 1-0 against the spread)
Joe Miller’s prediction: Wisconsin 56, Florida Atlantic 10 (1-0 on the season, 1-0 against the spread)

No. 9 Wisconsin overcomes a slow start to whip Utah State 59-10

MADISON — It took nearly 29 minutes, but No. 9 Wisconsin finally woke up. And once it did, the Badgers turned into a steamroller, scoring 59 unanswered points, including 49 in the second half, to beat Utah State 59-10 on Friday night at Camp Randall Stadium.

Play of the Game

Utah State led 10-7 with 1:01 left in the first half and had a first-and-10 at its own 18-yard line. The Badgers had just gotten their first points of the game, so it would have made sense for the Aggies to be satisfied with their lead and head into halftime. They apparently weren’t satisfied, as quarterback Kent Myers came out throwing and it turned into a disaster. His short toss to Carson Terrell on first down went off the receiver’s hands and right into the waiting arms of linebacker T.J. Edwards.

“That was huge,” safety D’Cota Dixon said afterwards. “It was the hammer and the nail. That’s exactly what you need, especially when you’re down. It was exactly what we needed.”

The interception only led to a field goal, but it was the first of many mistakes the rest of the way for Utah State, which would go on to turn the ball over four times.

Game Balls

Offense: TE Troy Fumagalli

Others were flashier, but the senior posted a career-high 105 yards receiving, picking up where he left off in Wisconsin’s Cotton Bowl victory last January.

His 15-yard catch on third-and-12 in the second quarter kept the Badgers first scoring drive of the game going, and then quarterback Alex Hornibrook found him wide open on third-and-2 early in the third quarter for a 23-yard touchdown.

With his big night, Fumagalli now sits fifth all-time in receiving yards for a tight end at Wisconsin, and will likely end up with the second-most by the time his career is over.

Defense: ILB T.J. Edwards

The junior was everywhere on Friday night, collecting seven tackles, one tackle for loss, picking off one pass and breaking up two more throws. His interception late in the second quarter proved to be the turning point in a game that Utah State led at that point.

But it wasn’t just the numbers for Edwards. It was the passion he played with, finishing off tackles with an emphasis. It was everything you’d expect out of one of the best linebackers in the Big Ten.

Special Teams: K Rafael Gaglianone

He only kicked one field goal — from just 29 yards — but Gaglianone gets the game ball because it was his first time on the field since suffering a season-ending back injury last September.

Wisconsin didn’t need his leg to win on Friday night, but history would suggest they’ll need it at some point this season.

Video of the Game

In their own words

Jonathan Taylor describes his first career touchdown, a 13-yard scamper in the third quarter.

Quote of the Day

“I always describe Coach Chryst as a dad away from home. He’s just the same guy. He’s very smooth, very calm, very collected. But, as a father would when a child needs to be disciplined and needs to be talked to, he will discipline us. He just honestly told us the truth. We were beating ourselves a lot.”

— Dixon on the loud and direct message that coach Paul Chryst gave the team at halftime on Friday night.

In Case You Missed It

— Wisconsin’s captains were defensive end Alec James, wide receiver Jazz Peavy, tight end Troy Fumagalli and safety Natrell Jamerson. The honorary captain was Al Toon, a member of UW’s Athletic Hall of Fame.

— Several true freshmen made their debuts on Friday, including running back Jonathan Taylor, wide receiver Danny Davis, quarterback Jack Coan, cornerback Madison Cone and long snapper Adam Bay.

— Fumagalli wore No. 48 in honor of senior linebacker Jack Cichy, who will miss the year with a torn ACL. Fumagalli said it was just a one time thing, but that he really wanted to do it to show Cichy how much he meant to the team.

— Junior Zander Neuville’s first career catch turned into his first career touchdown, as he tightroped down the sideline for the 28-yard score early in the third quarter. But it wouldn’t have been possible without the extra effort of Danny Davis, who managed to block three different guys to help get the tight end into the end zone.

— Wisconsin trailed 10-0 in the first half. It was the first time the Badgers had trailed by double digits in a non-conference home game since 2012 against — you guessed it — Utah State. The Badgers won that game 16-14.

Inside the Numbers

15:19 — That’s how long it took for Wisconsin to go from down 10-0 to up 38-10.

87 — That’s the number of rushing yards for freshman Jonathan Taylor in his first career game. It included a pretty 41-yard run on the first play of the second half to jump start the offense.

99 — That was the length of Joe Ferguson’s interception return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter, the longest return in school history.

3 — That’s the number of touchdowns Alex Hornibrook threw on Friday night, a career high and 1/3 of what he threw all of last year.

478 — That’s the number of yards Wisconsin’s offense rolled up. It’s the third-highest total since Chryst took over as coach in 2015.

What’s Next

Wisconsin (1-0) will host Florida Atlantic next Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium. The Owls, in their first game under new coach Lane Kiffin, lost 42-19 to Navy on Friday.