Wisconsin (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten) is halfway to an undefeated regular season, and the quest continues with a home game against Maryland (3-3, 1-2) at 11 a.m. CT Saturday.
The Terrapins have shown they can put up some points, but their defense has not been particularly good. That could represent an opportunity for Wisconsin’s offense to find more consistency following a sluggish performance during a 17-9 victory against Purdue last week.
Here are three keys to the game for Wisconsin, as well as a final score prediction.
1. Get QB Alex Hornibrook back on track
Alex Hornibrook has not played his best football in Big Ten games against Northwestern, Nebraska and Purdue. During that stretch, he has completed 33 of 55 passes for 509 yards with 3 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. But Maryland has the worst pass defense in the Big Ten and is surrendering 264.7 yards per game. That’s 15 yards worse than any other team in the league. So if ever there were an opportunity for Hornibrook to bounce back, it’s this week.
Ohio State quarterbacks J.T. Barrett and Dwayne Haskins combined for 303 yards passing against Maryland, while Northwestern QB Clayton Thorson threw for 293 yards last week against the Terrapins. Hornibrook doesn’t need a monster yardage performance, but more consistency would go a long way for the offense, particularly as the tougher games loom in November.
Badgers wide receiver Jazz Peavy is out this week with a right leg injury, and Danny Davis is questionable with a left leg injury. But Hornibrook should have enough weapons to make Maryland pay. We’ll likely see more targets for tight end Troy Fumagalli, as well as receivers Quintez Cephus, A.J. Taylor and Kendric Pryor.
2. Rattle Maryland QB Max Bortenschlager
Max Bortenschlager opened the season as Maryland’s third-string quarterback. But that was before knee injuries to Tyrrell Pigrome and Kasim Hill elevated him into a starting role. Bortenschlager performed well in leading Maryland to a 31-24 victory against Minnesota to open Big Ten play, and has 5 touchdowns and no interceptions in three conference games. Still, his completion percentage is 51 percent. In his last two games, against Ohio State and Northwestern, he completed only 40 percent of his throws (20 of 50).
Wisconsin’s defense would love nothing more than to make Bortenschlager regret that kind of inaccuracy on Saturday. Opposing quarterbacks have completed 55.5 percent of their passes against the Badgers defense with 5 touchdowns and 9 interceptions. If Wisconsin can generate pressure off the edges with outside linebackers Leon Jacobs and Garret Dooley, it could be a long day for Maryland. Jacobs finished with 9 tackles and grabbed a red-zone interception in the fourth quarter against Purdue to earn Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors.
3. Feed RB Jonathan Taylor the ball
This may be the most obvious key of all, but why wouldn’t you hand off to Jonathan Taylor, given what he’s accomplished early in his college career? Taylor leads the Big Ten in rushing and ranks No. 3 nationally at 164.3 yards per game. He has scored a league-high 10 rushing touchdowns. In six games, Taylor has 986 yards rushing on 127 carries and quite likely will become the fastest Badgers freshman to 1,000 yards in program history. All he needs is 14 rushing yards on 10 carries or fewer to surpass James White, who reached 1,000 yards on 138 carries in 2010.
Maryland has not been good against the run and ranks 12th in the Big Ten in rushing defense, allowing 174.3 yards per game. The Terrapins have allowed a league-leading 14 rushing touchdowns. Taylor is averaging 21.2 carries per game, which is a significant workload for a freshman. With Chris James out due to a left leg injury, Taylor will need help from Bradrick Shaw on Saturday, as well as reserves Rachid Ibrahim and Garrett Groshek. But the Badgers should be able to wear down the Terrapins defense with a steady dose of running plays.
Wisconsin has yet to put together a complete performance in three Big Ten games, and that is somewhat of a concern as the second half of the regular season begins. Badgers players know they must do a better job of cutting down on penalties and turnovers, which have uncharacteristically hindered the team. The Maryland game represents one of the best opportunities remaining for Wisconsin to fix its problems and gain more consistency. After Saturday, Wisconsin has three road games and two huge home contests in November against Iowa and Michigan. It’s time to start putting all the pieces together if Wisconsin wants to make a special run. Wisconsin 38, Maryland 17.
Game 1 prediction: Wisconsin 48, Utah State 7; Game 1 score: Wisconsin 59, Utah State 10
Game 2 prediction: Wisconsin 52, Florida Atlantic 10; Game 2 score: Wisconsin 31, Florida Atlantic 14
Game 3 prediction: Wisconsin 27, BYU 10; Game 3 score: Wisconsin 40, BYU 6
Game 4 prediction: Wisconsin 34, Northwestern 13; Game 4 score: Wisconsin 33, Northwestern 24
Game 5 prediction: Wisconsin 21, Nebraska 17; Game 5 score: Wisconsin 38, Nebraska 17
Game 6 prediction: Wisconsin 31, Purdue 14; Game 6 score: Wisconsin 17, Purdue 9