Last week’s embarrassing loss at Michigan drew a lot of negative reactions from Penn State fans. The venom is understandable. Penn State’s once-potent offense was miserably anemic. Trace McSorley, who entered the season as a Heisman Trophy candidate, looked like a shell of his former self. Finally, the guy in line to take over for McSorley next year threw one of the most mind-boggling interceptions I’ve ever seen. Penn State hasn’t looked that bad since the last time it played in Ann Arbor.
That’s kind of a reason for optimism, though. After that 2016 defeat, Penn State came alive and went on a run that ended with a Big Ten title. There will be no such title in 2018, but there’s still time for the Nittany Lions to prove that they’re a better team than the one that just got trounced by a College Football Playoff contender.
To do that, they’ll have to lay the smack down on a Wisconsin team that appears ripe for the picking. In the Badgers’ last two games, they lost to Northwestern by two touchdowns and made embattled Rutgers quarterback Artur Sitkowski look kind of decent. Plus, Wisconsin’s own quarterback, Alex Hornibrook, has been in and out of games due to a head injury.
Both teams are dealing with big question marks at quarterback, so this game could come down to how well Jonathan Taylor runs the ball and whether or not James Franklin can figure out how to fix Penn State’s offense.
For more on the Badgers, we talked to Jake Kocorowski from SB Nation’s Wisconsin blog, Bucky’s 5th Quarter. Thanks to Jake for helping us out with our game coverage!
Black Shoe Diaries: What can you tell us about Alex Hornibrook’s status for Saturday? Are Wisconsin fans confident that Jack Coan can lead the team to victory if he has to play? It looks like he has completed a high percentage of his throws over the past two games.
Bucky’s 5th Quarter: Officially, Wisconsin lists Hornibrook as questionable with a head injury (updated injury report is released mid-morning on Thursday). My colleague on the beat, Jason Galloway from the Wisconsin State Journal, reported that tight end Jake Ferguson said Hornibrook did not practice on Tuesday. It’s a gut feeling, but I feel the redshirt junior quarterback will not play on Saturday and that Jack Coan will get his second start of the season. Coan stepped up in fall camp to be someone who could manage the offense, but honestly, the key to Wisconsin having success with that unit lies with the rushing attack. We’ll touch on that in the next question a bit, but against Rutgers, the ground attack helped Coan get into a rhythm on offense (including 13 straight runs in two series). On the road two weekends ago against Northwestern, Wisconsin was inconsistent in that aspect of the game and did not help the second-year quarterback.
I think Coan can handle managing the offense and making throws when he needs to, perhaps maybe provide some upgrades in mobility compared to Hornibrook. Looking at the bigger picture, if Wisconsin can get 200 to 250 yards rushing on Saturday, that will help lead the team to victory.
BSD: Jonathan Taylor has been as advertised this year with over 100 rushing yards in eight of nine games this year. However, his touchdown totals have been inconsistent with multiple scores in four games but zero scores in five games. What’s causing Taylor to have trouble getting into the end zone in some games?
B5Q: I think it really depends on what personnel Wisconsin sets up for each game. Taylor has busted out some big explosive runs this season, but when goal-line opportunities come about, senior fullback Alec Ingold (five rushing touchdowns) has been a sure bet on running behind his pads and getting either touchdowns, or if it’s 3rd-and-short, first downs. You will surely see me tweet “#FullbackDive or #FullbackCity from the B5Q account at some point on Saturday for that reason.
Redshirt senior tailback Taiwan Deal is (finally) healthy and also is contributing this season — averaging over 6.7 yards per carry and is a great complement to Taylor.
You can also point to some inconsistencies within the offense at times this year. Again that rhythm and not moving the chains on third downs at inopportune times, that maybe has not helped him against BYU, Michigan, and Northwestern.
BSD: Wide receiver Danny Davis missed the first two games of the campaign, but lately he’s come on strong with 15 receptions in his last three games. What’s behind Davis becoming such a favored target for the Badgers?
B5Q: I think Davis, who was suspended for the first two games of the year, may finally be starting to become more comfortable again and regaining some of his true freshman form. He has not necessarily made many contested catches so far this season, unlike last year, but he now is tied for second on the team in receptions with fellow wide receiver A.J. Taylor. His yards per catch are also down from last year (11 from 16.1 in 2017), but I don’t know if he’s had that opportunity for really any deep passes so far. He has found a way to get open recently, though I wonder how much more separation the receivers can get to help Coan heading into Saturday’s game.
BSD: We’re used to Wisconsin having a fearsome pass rush, but this year the program is tied for last in the Big Ten with just 12 sacks all year. What does defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard need to do to dial up some pressure on opposing quarterbacks?
B5Q: Against Rutgers, Wisconsin hit Artur Stikowski… a lot, but did not get home for a sack (though credited with only four quarterback hurries). So yes, the numbers have not been there, but there has been more pressure recently I feel. That’s due to redshirt senior outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel becoming healthier after an injury suffered during the BYU loss. With Van Ginkel returning and also Zack Baun knocking off more rust after missing all of last season with a foot injury, that has also allowed the duo to show more flash in pass rush.
Leonhard thrived as an NFL player under Rex Ryan and Mike Pettine, and I think he’ll continue to find ways to put players in the right matchups. It’s also about new starters and new contributors (due to attrition and injuries) stepping up and getting more comfortable with their roles.
BSD: The Badgers have given up a lot of rushing yards in their three losses this season. What’s been the key to other teams moving the ball against Wisconsin’s experienced front seven?
B5Q: Against BYU, the Cougars utilized some jet sweep motions that uncharacteristically threw off UW’s defense in a way that astounded me. Michigan ran some zone read looks and quarterback runs with Shea Patterson that worked quite well. For Northwestern, the yardage looks concerning (182), but the Wildcats averaged only 3.7 yards per carry, though they did get some success with a Clayton Thorson scramble, however.
BSD: Wisconsin came into the season with great expectations, but now they need a lot of help to win the division. What’s gone wrong for the team that seemed destined for the Big Ten Championship Game?
B5Q: Really, it’s the aforementioned inconsistencies on offense and a defense trying to replace so many vital starters from a year ago. An offense that was hyped to be one of the best in school history has not lived up to those outside expectations. From the outside looking in, Hornibrook has not necessarily taken the next step we all thought he would, and Jonathan Taylor has technically lost four fumbles this season. The ground game is a top-five unit in the nation, but the passing game has not taken off as some had thought after the end of last year with Taylor, Davis, and Kendric Pryor. Wisconsin is also without junior wide receiver Quintez Cephus, who is suspended indefinitely as he currently awaits trial on two counts of sexual assault.
Defensively, there were a lot of seniors on that unit plus current NFL product Nick Nelson, a redshirt junior last year, that departed. There have also been injuries that have hit the depth of the defensive line and secondary. For the most part, the next-man-up mentality has been used a lot this season for coordinator Jim Leonhard. I do like the youth in the defensive backfield, however, especially true freshman corner Rachad Wildgoose.
BSD: The Badgers are eight-point underdogs this weekend. How do you see the game going for Wisconsin?
B5Q: If Wisconsin can get its ground game going, that will greatly help settle Coan down in a tough road environment. If it can’t against a Penn State unit giving up around 172 a game, then it will be tough sledding. For the defense, if it can contain PSU’s rushing attack but also hold on any quarterback runs, it can only help their chances with a youthful secondary that will likely start at least two freshmen.
Right now, I think being on the road and facing a likely angry Penn State squad, Wisconsin fights hard but ultimately loses 28-21.
Thanks again to Jake for taking the time to answer our questions. For more on Wisconsin sports all year round, be sure to check out Buckey’s 5th Quarter!