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Today is Friday, Sept. 30, and this is your Wisconsin Wake-Up Call.
This one hurts
Off to their best start since 2011, the Wisconsin football team took two significant hits Thursday as the Badgers continued preparation for a trip to play No. 4 Michigan this Saturday.
Early in the afternoon, the school announced that kicker Rafael Gaglianone would miss the rest of the season after undergoing back surgery. And if that wasn’t enough, news broke later in the day that outside linebacker Vince Biegel sustained a foot injury that would keep him out this week and, potentially, much longer.
BREAKING: Wisconsin LB Vince Biegel had surgery tonight to have a screw inserted for a cracked foot, his father told me. Out 2-4 weeks.
— Jesse Temple (@jessetemple) September 30, 2016
Obviously, both injuries sting a team ranked No. 8 in the AP Top 25 and owns two wins against top-10 teams. And while every team’s mantra is ‘next man in,’ that’s much easier said than done with both guys, especially Biegel.
In his third year as a starter, Biegel is the emotional and vocal leader of a defense that has been among the best units in the country during his tenure. His stats this season – nine tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack – don’t accurately portray what he means to Wisconsin. His non-stop motor and endless enthusiasm inspire the defense while opponents double team him, which frees his counterpart on the other side, junior T.J. Watt, to wreck offenses.
While Wisconsin will likely fill his spot with redshirt freshman Zack Baun, junior Garrett Dooley or junior Jack Cichy, there is no way to replace Biegel’s intensity and experience.
There are few players the Badgers could afford to lose more than Biegel. But that’s where they are now less than two days from the biggest regular-season game the program has seen since 2011.
Can Wisconsin ever become elite?
Much of the talk this week in the lead up to Wisconsin’s trip to Ann Arbor, Mich., has been about the lack of respect the program has received, whether from rival fans, experts or Las Vegas oddsmakers.
This, of course, isn’t a new phenomenon for Wisconsin. The team is always considered the proverbial little engine that could rather than a big dog of college football. And it’s a fair representation. That’s what happens when, as Jesse Temple of ESPN.com explains, a program continually comes up short when the national attention is at its brightest.
Be it 1998, 1999, 2004, 2005, 2010 or 2011, the Badgers have been on the fringe of historically special seasons (potential national championship runs) only to lose a game or games they desperately needed. That’s not to say the years the program won Big Ten titles were worthless, but they could have been much more.
Now, the opportunity has one again presented itself for Wisconsin to make a statement on a national stage, following a win over Michigan State with games at Michigan and at home to Ohio State.
Badgers running back Corey Clement said the longer Wisconsin can remain in the national championship picture, the more it has the potential to change preconceived notions about the Badgers’ ceiling.
“If we keep winning games, what else can you keep saying?” Clement said. “That’s all we’ve got to keep doing. More action, less talk. That’s our motto coming into every game we play. If we keep winning these games, how can you not talk about us being in the top four for the college playoffs? Coming into the season, we weren’t even in that picture at all. If we keep that in our mind, I think the sky’s the limit for this team.”
The thing is, though, no matter what Wisconsin does this year, the chances the Badgers will ever be viewed as an elite program in the country are slim to none. There are only so many blue-blood teams in the country, and those schools are conditioned into everyone’s brain. While some might exit the club – Nebraska and Penn State come to mind seemingly no program has joined. The closest any school has come in recent years is Oregon, but even an off-year for the Ducks can throw them from the heap. So, the likes of USC, Michigan, Ohio State, Alabama, Oklahoma and Texas will probably be looked upon more favorably than Wisconsin, despite Badgers program, as it stands today, being in better shape than at least two of those teams.
The reputation of Wisconsin football didn’t develop in one year, and changing the opinion of fans and others will take more than just a miracle run through this year’s gauntlet of a schedule. Even if coach Paul Chryst and his team do manage to come through unscathed or with one loss, it won’t stamp the program elite like some think it should.
Just play the games
As Wisconsin enters the second week of the Big Ten schedule that saw the Badgers open against Michigan State, followed by Michigan and Ohio State, athletic director Barry Alvarez told Jon Solomon of CBSSports.com that there needs to be a change in how the schedule is done.
“I remember when that schedule came out (in 2013) and I thought, ‘How the hell did you kick out something looking like that?” Alvarez said. “But it’s cyclical. I look around and Nebraska had a bad draw when they came in. I think maybe that’s something we’ve got to look at down the road – equity for everybody. I can’t complain about it because other people went through the same gauntlet in past years.”
But that’s exactly what Alvarez is doing. There was nary a peep the past two seasons when Wisconsin didn’t play Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State or Michigan State. They were content to beat up on Rutgers and Maryland for their crossover games, and there were no complaints from Alvarez.
At some point, Wisconsin was going to have to play these teams and there is very little the Big Ten can actually do to prevent something like this happening. Instead of complaining, be quiet and play the games that are on the schedule. Everyone else is.
Cool and calm
Alex Hornibrook is one cool customer. The redshirt freshman looked like a seasoned veteran when he made the first start of his career last Saturday against Michigan State. He didn’t get flustered or force passes, keeping his composure even after turning the
ball over early in the game. It was that sense of calm that impressed those watching around the country, as did his pinpoint passing on third down. It turns out, the maturity he showed in the pocket carried over from the week leading up to the game.
According to story by Jim Polzin of the Wisconsin State Journal, after Hornibrook told his family he’d be starting, he put his phone on airplane mode, making him essentially unreachable for the week, and went right to work in the film room.
Though his sister, Mackenzie, still thinks of him as her “goofy” little brother, Hornibrook is clearly more mature than most at his age, especially when it comes to playing quarterback. Wisconsin recruited themselves a good one, who should be around for the next three or four years.