Three things we learned about Wisconsin’s offense during the non-conference schedule

Author: Jacob Swanson

Photo courtesy AP/Kim Raff

Wisconsin finished up their non-conference schedule with a 40-6 win over BYU on Saturday, leaving the 3-0 Badgers with two weeks to prepare for Northwestern’s arrival in Madison on Sept. 30.  Here’s what we learned from the Badgers’ first three games.

  1. Jonathan Taylor has Wisconsin’s #1 running back job, and he’s not looking back.

True freshman running back Jonathan Taylor burst onto the scene in the first game of the season, rushing nine times for 87 yards and a score, including a 41-yard pickup.  With his name out there, he followed up that performance in as big a way as anyone expected from the true freshman.  Sophomore Bradrick Shaw, who was expected to be the starter after some solid performances to end last year, missed the Florida Atlantic game in Week 2 with a leg injury, opening the door for Taylor.

Taylor ran for 226 yards on 26 carries, finding the end zone three times, which was evidently enough to solidify his role as starter.  Shaw returned against BYU, but to limited effectiveness, rushing four times for 23 yards, juxtaposed with Taylor’s 18 carries for 128 yards.  Wisconsin fans are excited about this next Wisconsin running back, and they’ll likely see a large dose of him going forward as the Badgers quest for the NCAA College Football Playoff continues.

  1. Wisconsin fans don’t know what they have in Alex Hornibrook.

Sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook came into the season with some experience under his belt and high expectations, for better or for worse.  Those expectations looked to be for the worse in the first two games of the season as Hornibrook missed receivers behind, ahead, over and short of receivers, especially against FAU.

This led for some Badgers fans to call for true freshman Jack Coan, who came to Wisconsin as a highly-touted recruit from Sayville, New York.  These calls for a new quarterback are nothing new for Badgers fans, who called for Bart Houston to replace Joel Stave, then Alex Hornibrook to replace a struggling Houston and then vice-versa.

Hornibrook shut down the nay-sayers in Week 3, however, as he set a new Badgers record for single-game completion percentage by completing 18 of his 19 passes.  In doing so, he broke a 24-year-old record previously set by Darrell Bevell in 1993 against Northwestern, where the current Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator completed 17 of 18 passes.

Hornibrook’s 18 completions went for 256 yards and four scores, delighting Badgers fans but leaving them to wonder why the sophomore hasn’t shown that consistency every week.

Hornibrook’s talent is somewhere between his performances against FAU and BYU.  He certainly won’t go 18 for 19 every week, but let’s not call for his job just yet.

    3.  Jazz Peavy gets the Rob Wheelwright treatment

In 2015, Rob Wheelwright caught 32 passes for 416 yards and four touchdowns, despite playing just nine games.  In 2016, heading into his senior year, expectations were high for the 6’3” target man, coming off a great season where he was the Badgers #2 wide receiver, behind Alex Erickson.

Wheelwright never found his stride in 2016, catching 34 balls for 448 yards and one score.  While he increased his catches by two and his yards by 32, he played five more games, lowering his yards per game totals by 14 yards.

Current Badgers’ wide receiver Jazz Peavy appears to be living out a carbon copy of Wheelwright’s 2015 and 2016 seasons, as he has just four receptions for 56 yards this season coming off a season of 43 grabs for 635 receiving yards and another 318 yards rushing.

He hasn’t been finding the room to operate as the Badgers’ top WR, with opponents’ best cover corners following him around the field on a regular basis.  Wheelwright didn’t get worse, he just drew more attention from defensive coordinators and safeties.  The same is happening to Peavy.  He hasn’t regressed.

Unless he is able to find more room in the secondary in Big Ten play, it’ll be up to the rest of the Wisconsin receiving corps, especially senior tight end Troy Fumagalli, who already has 15 catches for 236 yards and three scores.  More room could open up for Peavy if defenses move their safeties to shut down Fumagalli, but as long as he’s having trouble getting open, other Badgers will have to step up.  The Badgers’ senior tight end appears to be the most likely beneficiary, though freshman Danny Davis and sophomore Quintez Cephus had strong performances against BYU.  Davis caught two passes for 67 yards, while Cephus added five catches for 54 yards and two touchdowns.

It’ll be up to Peavy to take the pressure off of the underclassmen, including his sophomore quarterback, by getting open down the field.