Wisconsin's Offense Knows It Can Reach Another Level

Wisconsin's Offense Knows It Can Reach Another Level

Football

Wisconsin's Offense Knows It Can Reach Another Level

MADISON, Wis. –The situation the University of Wisconsin found itself in Saturday appeared to be the right kind of get-well elixir.

Still licking its wounds from a 25-point whipping the previous week at Michigan, No.23 Wisconsin returned to Big Ten West Division play, a series of games in which they have won 15 straight, against an Illinois team that hasn’t won in Madison since 2002.

The results were what many expected, the Badgers led wire-to-wire for a 49-20 victory that kept them on pace in the divisional race for Indianapolis, but how that final score came to be was misleading and somewhat frustrating for members of the victorious squad.

UW (5-2, 3-1 Big Ten) scored its most points in a Big Ten game in two years but the Badgers’ offense still hasn’t delivered a performance worthy of being labeled first rate. Encouraging that they know there’s still room to grow or discouraging to the fact that the experience offensive personnel still aren’t there with over half the season played?

“It’s like a movie, you’re just waiting for that song to hit, everyone is rolling, everything is going great,” said senior fullback Alec Ingold, who did his part by generating 60 total yards and two touchdowns on his five touches. “You’re just waiting for it to happen. You know you can elevate that level just a little bit more. We’re just waiting for it to click.”

The Badgers dominated in virtually every category on the stat sheet, namely rolling up 545 yards of offense and controlling the clock for 37 minutes, 52 seconds, but they can’t deny the feeling that more success was left on the field. After all, the thing that got most social media buzzing in the first half was the game’s weather.

Starting under cloudy skies and a stiff wind turned into a full-on blizzard midway through the first quarter, only to revert back to sunshine by the second half kickoff. The only thing more schizophrenic than the weather was Wisconsin’s offense.

For as good as UW’s running game continues to be and how it exploited the nation’s 106th run defense (357 yards, 6.3 yards per carry, four touchdowns), the passing game still has problems. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook threw some perfect passes, like his 27-yard strike to tight end Jake Ferguson for a touchdown in the second quarter, but also missed receivers in stride and threw a pair of interceptions that led to 10 Illinois points.

“There’s little spurts of it that shows what we can do, and it’s really nice seeing that,” Ferguson said, “but at the same time we’ve got a (long) ways to go.”

UW’s defense – a shell of what the Badgers’ started the season with – held up despite safeties D’Cota Dixon, Scott Nelson and Reggie Pearson all inactive. UW held Illinois (3-4, 1-3) to 300 yards and forced five turnovers in the first half, critical considering the Badgers had forced nine total in their first six games and the Illini had committed only five of their own over the same time frame.

Illinois still found ways to make it interesting, gashing UW’s defense on an 80-yard scoring run by Reggie Corbin in the second quarter and an 18-yard run by Ravon Bonner early in the third to make it 28-17. Both runners broke tackle attempts by Eric Burrell, who was making only his second career start.

At least the defense can point to the youth. After all, the Badgers have started five different safeties in seven games. The offense doesn’t have that crutch, which was why last week’s 38-13 loss at Michigan left such a stinging feeling on the flight home.

“I thought one of the strengths of this team is responding,” head coach Paul Chryst said, whose UW teams are now 8-1 following a loss. “You’ve got to turn the page, try to learn what you can from previous plays, but go forward. I thought our guys did a good job of that.”

There were certainly bright spots for the offense to get excited about. UW received the opening kickoff and marched 75 yards into the wind, an impressive 11-play drive that mixed a few short pass plays in with power running to take the early lead. They showed off a handful of their weapons with five players getting at least three carries and seven players catching at least one pass. Perhaps a nice sign of strength is UW had five players score seven touchdowns and none were named Jonathan Taylor.

All he did was deliver a ho-hum 159 yards on 27 carries, putting him over 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons.

Of the four turnovers that Wisconsin’s defense generated in Illinois territory, the Badgers converted three of them into touchdown drives that lasted less than a minute, quick strikes that proved too much for a young, rebuilding team like Illinois to overcome.

“We’ve had our adversity,” Ingold said of the offense. “The offensive line against Michigan, in the run game, they were moving guys back. It just seems one or two guys on a certain play that can kind of hinder us and it’s just hooking a little bit in the giddy-up. As soon as we hit full stride and start working together, it’ll be scary.”

The College Football Playoffs are gone for Wisconsin, dealt a crippling blow with the surprising home loss to porous BYU and officially killed last week in Ann Arbor. Winning a Big Ten title could salvage a season that has been labeled an early disappointment for a team that started the season ranked fourth, so Saturday’s little confidence builder certainly couldn’t hurt.

But confidence can be fleeting, as UW found out after the Michigan fiasco. While not as tough on paper, UW has rarely fared well at Northwestern’s Ryan Field, having won only one game at the venue since 1999. And with UW trailing the Wildcats by a half-game in the standings, another setback will likely cause more preseason goals to fall by the wayside.

“Even after the (Michigan) game, we knew what we needed to do this week,” Ferguson said. “We needed to prepare really well and I think that’s what we did. We took a lot of good steps this week and we’ve got to do the same thing next week.”

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