Wisconsin is off to a 3-0 start entering Big Ten play for a second consecutive season. Despite some initial hiccups against Utah State and Florida Atlantic, the Badgers have largely dominated and played up to the level many believed they were capable of before the season.
It’s still early, and Wisconsin has an entire conference slate to navigate before it can position itself for a potential College Football Playoff run. But some trends have begun to emerge that bode well for the Badgers.
Here are five things we’ve learned about Wisconsin through nonconference play:
1. Alex Hornibrook could have one of the best seasons by a UW quarterback
Alex Hornibrook set the school’s single-game completion percentage record when he connected on 18 of 19 passes for 256 yards with 4 touchdowns against BYU. To expect him to complete 94.7 percent of his passes again is, of course, completely unreasonable. But his early-season performance certainly makes it possible for him to produce one of the best all-time statistical seasons by a Badgers quarterback.
Through three games, Hornibrook has completed 70 percent of his passes (49 for 70) with 8 touchdowns and is averaging 233.7 yards passing per game. Only two Wisconsin quarterbacks with a minimum of 100 passing attempts have eclipsed the 70 percent completion mark: Scott Tolzien in 2010 (72.9 percent) and Russell Wilson in 2011 (72.8 percent). No. 3 on the list is Darrell Bevell in 1993 (67.8 percent), and No. 4 is Bart Houston last season (65.0 percent). Three of those four quarterbacks played under Paul Chryst, and it stands to reason Hornibrook should be able to crack that top four.
Hornibrook’s 8 touchdown passes put him well on his way to surpassing Joel Stave’s 22 touchdowns in 2013 for second place on the single-season school list. He could even have an outside shot at approaching Wilson’s record 33 touchdowns set in 2011.
Finally, Hornibrook could threaten to break Wilson’s single-season passing yards mark of 3,175. Hornibrook has 701 yards passing already and has eclipsed the 200-yard mark in each of his first three games. His numbers extrapolated over a possible 14-game season would be 3,271 yards passing.
The level of competition should increase in Big Ten games. But Hornibrook’s play — and the weapons he has around him — should be an encouraging sign for Badgers fans.
2. There is no reason the Badgers shouldn’t have another top-15 defense
Wisconsin has depth at every level defensively, and that has helped to mitigate injuries that might have crippled other programs. Defensive end Chikwe Obasih, who has played in 43 games, has missed the last two games with a left leg injury. Inside linebacker Jack Cichy (right knee) and outside linebacker Zack Baun (left foot) are out for the season.
Yet Wisconsin continues to thrive. Alec James and Conor Sheehy have helped pick up the slack at defensive end. The outside linebacker trio of Leon Jacobs, Garret Dooley and Andrew Van Ginkel has been fantastic. Inside linebackers Chris Orr, T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly have formed a solid trio without Cichy. And the secondary has been as advertised, with reserve cornerback Dontye Carriere-Williams ranking fourth on the team in tackles.
Wisconsin ranks tied for eighth in the FBS in scoring defense (10 points per game), 13th in total defense (248 yards per game), 15th in run defense (90.7 yards) and 29th in pass defense (157.3 yards). The Badgers have 5 interceptions already and can make offenses pay for mistakes.
3. Time of possession will remain on Wisconsin’s side
Wisconsin led the FBS last season in time of possession, averaging 34 minutes, 58 seconds per game. This season, the Badgers have picked up where they left off. They rank second in the nation, averaging 37 minutes, 21 seconds per game. While the quality of opponent has something to do with those numbers, expect Wisconsin to stay among the national leaders in this category.
Part of the reason Wisconsin has such a decided advantage is because of Hornibrook’s incredible success on third down. He has completed 17 of 22 passes for 222 yards with 4 touchdowns and no interceptions on third down this season. Wisconsin’s offense has multiple dimensions, which makes it difficult for defenses to prepare exclusively for a run or a pass. The Badgers have converted 22 of 38 third downs overall (57.9 percent). That’s the fourth-best third-down conversion rate in the FBS. Conversely, opposing offenses have converted 12 of 42 third downs (28.6 percent). When the Badgers defense senses an opportunity, it doesn’t allow teams many more chances.
4. Wisconsin’s wide receiver depth makes this team special
In recent seasons, the Badgers have relied on one stellar wide receiver, a solid tight end and a handful of capable pass-catching running backs and fullbacks to provide some pass-game versatility. But this season, Wisconsin has five legitimate playmakers capable of decimating a defense: tight end Troy Fumagalli and receivers Quintez Cephus, A.J. Taylor, Jazz Peavy and Danny Davis.
Fumagalli has lived up to the billing as one of the best tight ends in the nation. He leads the team with 15 catches for 236 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns. The most intriguing aspect of the passing game has been the quick development of Cephus, Taylor and Davis. Already, Cephus and Taylor have surpassed their statistics from last season. Cephus looks as though he has overtaken Peavy as Wisconsin’s No. 1 receiver. Davis showcased his big-play ability when he caught a 50-yard play-action pass against BYU. And although Peavy hasn’t been heard from much, he has caught 71 career passes for 1,015 yards and 5 touchdowns.
Those five players could be the difference between another really good season and a potentially great one down.
5. Lackluster Big Ten West makes Wisconsin an even bigger favorite
Before the season began, most pundits believed Wisconsin would win the Big Ten West. And based on results among division teams early this season, there is little reason to believe the Badgers will relinquish their spot as the favorite. Wisconsin’s first Big Ten opponent, Northwestern, lost 41-17 at Duke two weeks ago and mustered only 22 rushing yards on 21 carries. Nebraska is 1-2, lost to Northern Illinois and fired athletics director Shawn Eichorst on Thursday.
Iowa required overtime to beat Iowa State and trailed North Texas at halftime. Illinois barely defeated Ball State in its opener and lost by 24 points at South Florida. Purdue is a much improved team but figures to have a long way to go in order to compete for a division title after going 3-31 in conference play the last four seasons.
One team that quietly has taken care of business is Minnesota. P.J. Fleck is the first Gophers coach to begin his career 3-0 since Murray Warmath in 1954. But the Gophers’ last Big Ten title came in 1967. Meanwhile, Wisconsin has appeared in four league title games in the last six seasons.
Ultimately, Wisconsin will have to play its best as the team with the biggest target on it in the division. But based on how the Badgers have performed thus far, they appear up to the task.