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Wisconsin linebacker T.J. Edwards could leave school early for the NFL draft.

Wisconsin mailbag: Badgers defense in Big Ten title game, T.J. Edwards’ NFL decision, basketball tourney hopes

Jesse Temple

Have Wisconsin football, basketball or recruiting questions? We’ve got answers. Join us every Wednesday for the Land of 10 Wisconsin mailbag to talk all things Badgers. This week, we discuss T.J. Edwards’ NFL draft stock, whether the basketball team can make the NCAA Tournament, what went wrong for the Badgers defense in the Big Ten Championship Game, whether quarterback Alex Hornibrook can improve, and more.

Question 1

Answer: Ohio State hit four plays that went for at least 50 yards, which was more than Wisconsin’s defense had surrendered all season. The Badgers’ lack of execution was notable on those plays.

The first big one came when Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett connected with receiver Terry McLaurin for an 84-yard touchdown pass. Ohio State lined up four receivers to the left and sent three downfield. One Buckeyes receiver ran back as though he was going to set up for a screen pass. That move tricked a Wisconsin defensive back into running up to the line of scrimmage.

If you notice on the replay, there actually were two Ohio State receivers wide open downfield. McLaurin ran right past Wisconsin safety Joe Ferguson down the middle for the touchdown. But Barrett just as easily could have thrown to a wide-open man down the left side.

Check it out here:

The second big play was simply poor tackling by Wisconsin’s defensive backs. Ohio State receiver Parris Campbell caught a bubble screen, and Badgers safety Natrell Jamerson missed a tackle. Cornerback Nick Nelson whiffed as well. Campbell had the angle on linebacker Chris Orr and ran untouched for a touchdown that gave Ohio State a 14-7 first-quarter lead. If you’re not going to tackle properly, it doesn’t matter what scheme you’re in. Here’s video of that touchdown:

Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins later broke free for a 77-yard run up the middle and wasn’t tackled until he reached the Wisconsin 1-yard line. The Buckeyes blocked the play well, but notice that Badgers defensive end Conor Sheehy had a free shot at Dobbins in the backfield and couldn’t wrap him up.

The fourth big play came on another Dobbins run, this one going for 53 yards. Overall, this was Wisconsin’s worst defensive performance of the season in its biggest game. Wisconsin led the nation in total defense at 236.9 yards per game entering the Big Ten Championship Game. But Ohio State had tallied 269 yards of offense with 11:10 remaining in the second quarter. Sometimes, the Badgers were in bad spots. But they couldn’t even take advantage of opportunities when they were in the right spots.

Question 2

Answer: I think T.J. Edwards is gone after this season. The window of opportunity to cash in on your talent in football is so tight, and Edwards’ value has never been higher. ranks Edwards as the No. 25 player in the entire 2018 NFL Draft and the No. 2 inside linebacker behind Georgia’s Roquan Smith.

Edwards has been excellent this season and ranks second on the team with 75 tackles, tied for second with 11 tackles for loss and tied for first with 4 interceptions. I asked Edwards after Wisconsin’s home finale against Michigan whether he thought it would be his last game at Camp Randall Stadium. Edwards wasn’t ready to consider it and said it was a decision he would have to make a few weeks later.

I imagine he’ll submit his information to the NFL draft advisory board. If he receivers a high draft grade, it makes sense for him to leave.

Question 3

Answer: There’s a lot of inconsistent play from guys who haven’t been asked to fill big roles before at Wisconsin. Plus, the Badgers are playing four freshmen in the regular rotation, which will naturally lead to some growing pains.

One problem is that we don’t know which Wisconsin players will show up every game. Khalil Iverson has been held scoreless in two games this season. He missed all five of his field-goal attempts and didn’t score against Ohio State on Saturday. Two days later against Penn State, he scored a team-high 16 points and made 7 of 8 field-goal attempts. Brevin Pritzl made 6 of 11 3-pointers in games against South Carolina State and Xavier. In the Badgers’ other seven games, he is 4 of 21 from 3-point range.

Badgers coach Greg Gard has used a lineup that has featured freshmen Brad Davison, Kobe King and Nate Reuvers, redshirt freshman Aleem Ford, and redshirt sophomore Pritzl. Reuvers has come on strong the last two games and is proving why it was smart to burn his redshirt season. But the fact he has to play at all speaks to the issues Wisconsin has with its frontcourt players.

Andy Van Vliet, Charlie Thomas and Alex Illikainen haven’t been impactful and none played against Penn State. Wisconsin could use more production out of its 2015 recruiting class, but those players have to earn the right to be on the floor.

Question 4

Answer: In my mind, Wisconsin (4-5, 1-1 Big Ten) has a team capable of making the NCAA Tournament this season as one of the last Big Ten teams in the big dance. But the Badgers have squandered some great opportunities to earn a marquee win to enhance their tournament résumé. Close losses against Xavier, Baylor and UCLA might help Wisconsin in the long run, but they will do little to impress the tournament selection committee.

The good news for Wisconsin is that it will have plenty of opportunities to prove itself in Big Ten play. I don’t think the conference has a bunch of great teams, which means we’ll see a lot of teams beating up on each other. But even a winning record in conference play doesn’t guarantee Wisconsin a tournament bid. Last season, Iowa finished 10-8 in the Big Ten but was 18-14 overall and missed the tournament.

Based on what we’ve seen through nine games, it’s going to be a challenge for Wisconsin to continue its NCAA tourney streak. But the Badgers can get there if they can play more consistent basketball.

Question 5

Answer: I have a hard time believing Wisconsin will finish 5-13 or worse in the Big Ten. Yes, the loss to Ohio State on Saturday was a debacle. Ohio State crushed Wisconsin 83-58 and outrebounded the Badgers 32-18. But Wisconsin was able to bounce back and escape with a 64-63 victory at Penn State. The Badgers nearly blew all of a 17-point lead before holding on.

There’s no question it’s going to be a roller-coaster season for Wisconsin, given the inexperience on the roster. But Wisconsin’s first three Big Ten games in January are all winnable (Indiana, Rutgers and Nebraska). Wisconsin plays Illinois twice and Nebraska a second time Jan. 29 at the Kohl Center. And if the Badgers play their best, they could steal a win against any number of the so-called upper-echelon Big Ten teams.

Ten of the 14 Big Ten teams already have at least one loss in conference play. And after Michigan State, Purdue and Minnesota, there don’t appear to be great teams. That should create opportunities for Wisconsin to win league games.

Question 6

Answer: I’m taking the over on this, but you can feel free to mock me in two years if this doesn’t happen. The only quarterback on Wisconsin’s roster I can see remotely challenging Alex Hornibrook next season is Jack Coan. But you can’t underestimate the importance of being a two-year starter. Coan has played only a handful of snaps in mop-up duty this season.

I know people are bothered by Hornibrook’s high interception rate. He also has thrown 30 career touchdowns and has a chance to break the program record for career passing touchdowns. Darrell Bevell currently holds the record at 59. Hornibrook also has completed 60.4 percent of his passes, which is the fourth-best career mark for any Wisconsin quarterback with at least 300 passes thrown.

It certainly seems as though Hornibrook will be the Badgers’ starter for the next two seasons. After that? Perhaps Coan or incoming quarterback Chase Wolf will have a crack at the starting job.

Question 7

Answer: I wouldn’t rule out Hornibrook’s ability to drastically improve from a physical standpoint this offseason. He made quite a leap from his freshman to sophomore season in terms of strength and confidence. I’ve written about this before, but he did everything he could to be the best possible player entering this season, whether it was working out with quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr. in San Diego, attending the Manning Passing Academy, or eating 6,000 calories a day to gain lean muscle mass.

Hornibrook’s 15 interceptions this season will stand out most to fans. He obviously needs to cut down on that number moving forward. And his limitations when it comes to mobility also have been noted. But his completion percentage, yards per attempt and quarterback rating have increased over last season. Plus, he’s thrown 21 touchdowns and can finish with the second most in a season in program history by throwing two in the Orange Bowl.

I don’t know what Hornibrook’s ceiling is, but he hasn’t hit it. And given how much work he puts in, it will be exciting to see how much more he can develop.

Question 8

Answer: Wisconsin finished the Big Ten title game with 32 rushing attempts for 60 yards. Even if you take out Alex Hornibrook’s 3 sacks, which went for minus-16 yards, that’s still 29 rushing attempts for 76 yards. That stinks. Hornibrook and Jonathan Taylor had the longest runs from scrimmage — 7-yard gains.

Wisconsin’s run game was ineffective. Taylor, who had been so good all season, carried 15 times for 41 yards — an average of 2.7 yards per carry. There was a reason Hornibrook passed the ball 40 times on Saturday night.

I would also point out that some of the run-pass numbers are skewed because of the situation Wisconsin was in late in the game. Wisconsin took possession with 2:59 remaining at its own 29-yard line with a chance to win the game. But the Badgers had only one timeout remaining, so it’s not like they could afford to methodically roll down the field on 4-yard rushing plays. Hornibrook passed the ball on all nine plays from scrimmage. Before that drive, the Badgers had run the ball more than they had passed.

Question 9

Answer: I think we’re more apt to see college players with nothing left to prove sit out bowl games in the future. Last season, LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey skipped their bowl games. Fournette was drafted fourth overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars, and McCaffrey went eighth to the Carolina Panthers. They helped set a precedent that someone’s draft stock won’t tank because they didn’t play in a bowl game.

As for Wisconsin cornerback Nick Nelson, he’s playing in the Orange Bowl. Nelson has had a tremendous junior season, but who wouldn’t want the opportunity to play against Miami in a big-time bowl game? If anything, he can enhance his stock with a great game. Plus, this type of opportunity rarely comes along. He’ll be ready to take advantage of it.

Have a question about Wisconsin football or basketball? Tweet us @Landof10Badgers and we’ll try to answer your question in a future mailbag. Check to see if your question already was answered by reading previous Wisconsin mailbags here.