The University of Wisconsin has returned to being one of the most dominant running teams in the country in 2017 after a down year in 2016. With the emergence of star freshman running back Jonathan Taylor, UW’s offense has soared to new heights in the Paul Chryst era.
Taylor leads the Big Ten in rushing (1,525 yards) and is third in the nation in that category along with fourth in rushing yards per game. Not too shabby for a freshman most thought would be third of the depth chart coming in to the season.
However, there is just one problem. Taylor has really been Wisconsin’s best and only offensive weapon far too often.
Let’s just say, the Badgers have been more one-dimensional than they would’ve liked at times, especially when a big play is needed to get this offense on the scoreboard.
No player has been more maddening to watch in a Badgers uniform this season. At times he showcases the arm to get balls in to tight coverage and make the big play. Then there is the interceptions issue, as in 12 interceptions on the season and 11 of those in in just seven conference games.
We’ve lost count on the number of those that have been returned for touchdowns by the opposition, but just this past weekend the only scoring Iowa did was courtesy of two bad Alex Hornibrook throws.
It’s hard to get past those mistakes and remember that Hornibrook has been a very effective quarterback by-and-large. After all, he’s second in passer efficiency rating in the Big Ten, trailing only J.T. Barrett in that category. Hornibrook is also completing 64.1 of his passes for 1,863 yards in 10 games.
You don’t get to those numbers by being a bad quarterback.
Unless you are getting there by playing against some pretty bad defenses, and one could make an argument for exactly that when it comes to Hornibrook’s efficiency rating and his completion percentage. Wisconsin’s best opposing pass defense to date has been Utah State, which comes in 38th in the country in pass defense.
Wisconsin faces its biggest challenges to its offense over the next three weeks. That’s especially the case in the pass game, as Michigan is 2nd nationally (144.5 yards per game) and Minnesota is 19th (183.9). Meanwhile, should it be Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game then it would be the currently 31st ranked pass defense in the country (193.7).
All of them are higher than Utah State is statistically and certainly in terms of competition, and that makes the play of Hornibrook all the more important in the coming weeks.
But there is some hope for Hornibrook when looking at good pass defenses.
Hornibrook was on fire in that game against Utah State, completing 15 of 23 passes for 244 yards and three touchdowns to no interceptions. In fact, that game was one of just three on the season in which he didn’t throw an interception (the other two being against BYU and Illinois anemic defenses).
Doing it against Utah State is one thing, but can Hornibrook grow from the mistakes that he’s made all season long? That is the scary question, because evidence so far this season has been to the contrary of that hope. Hornibrook hasn’t cut down on locking in on receivers, under-throwing footballs nor not feeling pressure and stepping up in the pocket ever.
He will need to be more reliable if the Badgers are going to make a serious case for the College Football Playoff. That case is going to be made by Wisconsin winning games, and it with the teams coming up on the schedule, spotting them points while you are on offense is going to be difficult to overcome.
While we’re talking about mistakes, let’s make sure to note that Hornibrook isn’t the only culprit this season. There’s an offensive line that has made plenty of mental mistakes (5.9 penalties per game) and an offense that has turned the ball over a total of 19 times (7 of them of the fumble variety).
Even Wisconsin’s biggest star, Taylor, hasn’t been immune from mistakes himself, losing 4 of the 7 fumbles on the season and doing so at pretty inopportune times.
Yet, the Badgers defense has been able to pick up the slack of the offense so far this season.
Expecting that trend to continue as the competition level increases? That’s a high-wire act that head coach Paul Chryst and Co. would like to avoid going forward.
Can Hornibrook lead the way and stop making the mistakes that cost this team in the past? If so, the Badgers have every chance in the world to make the College Football Playoff. If not, it’s hard to see how UW gets past Michigan, let alone all the way to the biggest games of the season.