Badgers offense still confident in fulfilling potential
As the University of Wisconsin’s quarterbacks, wide receivers and tight ends began watching film during the early stages of the offseason, some began fixating on what the Badgers’ passing game could have accomplished last year if it reached its full potential.
The numbers presented 2017 as arguably one of the five best years for UW’s aerial attack in program history, and the tape told them there were still plenty of missed opportunities along the way.
That led to establishing a goal this spring of throwing 35 passing touchdowns this season, which would break the Badgers’ school record of 34 set in 2011 when Russell Wilson became a legend in Madison.
“We just saw how many more opportunities we could have had to score passing touchdowns,” UW wide receiver Kendric Pryor said. “That was our main goal for the skelly group, the 7-on-7 guys, to break the school passing touchdown record. That was kind of something we set in the spring and revisited it in the summer time, talked about it. And that’s still our goal.”
Those are the level of aspirations UW’s offense placed on itself in the lead-up to this season, not to mention the Badgers also entered the year with a Heisman Trophy candidate at running back and three returning All-Americans on the offensive line.
Internal expectations rose even higher than whatever hype media and fans could place on a unit that returned nearly every key piece from the previous season.
UW’s first three games, however, didn’t pan out as anyone anticipated.
After slow starts in their first two games, the Badgers didn’t ever quite get going offensively in their 24-21 loss to BYU. Their running game lacked consistency, quarterback Alex Hornibrook threw an interception that led to BYU’s go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter and UW didn’t come any closer to that goal of 35 passing touchdowns.
While many outside the program now have an adjusted outlook for this offense, the 16th-ranked Badgers are maintaining their optimism heading into Saturday night’s make-or-break game against Iowa at Kinnick Stadium.
“We’ve obviously got the talent,” Hornibrook said. “That’s why everybody’s always talking about it. ... I think we have higher expectations that everybody else. We know what we can do, and we’re not going to stop until we get (there).”
UW’s early-season miscues on offense have come from many different players and taken many different forms.
The offensive line hasn’t performed up to the level one would expect from a unit touted as one of the best in the country, and the Badgers’ run game could feel Zander Neuville’s absence after he exited with a right leg injury on the first drive against the Cougars. Neuville’s questionable to play Saturday and expects to be a game-time decision.
Hornibrook also suffered somewhat of an off day in the loss to BYU, completing 18-of-28 passes for 190 yards with no touchdowns and an interception. UW’s receiving corps, which took a hit with the suspension of Quintez Cephus, who’s facing criminal charges for sexual assault, underperformed so far considering the group’s talent level.
Penalties also crippled the Badgers last week, particularly when a false start against tight end Kyle Penniston on fourth-and-1 led to a turnover on downs late in the third quarter.
“We’ve had bumps in the road, but I don’t think anybody in that room is discouraged. It’s a long season,” UW right tackle David Edwards said. “I don’t think we expected to be the greatest thing since sliced bread in the first couple weeks. It is continuing to improve each week. We’re going to have good games, we’re going to have OK games and we’re going to have bad games. But as long as we keep the mentality of trying to improve and get better, I think we’ll be great.”
UW’s mistakes stood out more than usual last week, per offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph, because those mistakes weren’t made up for in other areas or by other players — a poor block that running back Jonathan Taylor negates with a missed tackle, or a defensive turnover that leads to a cheap score.
The Badgers only possessed the ball 10 times against BYU, and it often only takes one mistake — such as Penniston’s false start, Hornibrook’s interception or Rafael Gaglianone’s missed field goal — that can alter an offense’s fortunes on the scoreboard.
“Each possession is everything,” Rudolph said. “You don’t know how many times you’re going to get the ball, and when you’ve got it, it means everything that you value it and you take full advantage of having it. And that was a game where little mistakes popped up. ... It’s not getting it done seven out of 10 times. It’s getting it done every time. It’s everything, from communication to execution on a block to route depth to timing. It’s all of it.”
UW’s only played three games, leaving its offense with enough time to modify the story of its season. The Badgers, however, travel into a tough environment Saturday against a defense that ranks second nationally in scoring defense, total defense and rushing defense. Another stagnant performance and a second straight loss would give UW an uphill climb just to win the Big Ten West Division for the third straight year.
The Badgers aren’t particularly worried about preseason expectations at the moment — just that they improve enough off last week to come away from Kinnick Stadium with a victory.
“What’s great about this game is expectations or whatever’s being said, that doesn’t matter,” UW coach Paul Chryst said. “It’s about the game and how you play it and what you do now.
“This group wants to be as good as it can be, and that’s all you can ask for as a coach. Our job’s to help them get there.”