MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin’s football team is 6-0, ranked fifth in the country in both major polls and likely will be favored in its remaining regular-season games. But beneath the perfect record are imperfections that threaten to derail a potentially special season.
Specifically, the Badgers’ biggest bugaboos have been penalties and turnovers. The consistency with which they have developed has created cause for concern among players.
“That’s definitely something that could lose you football games, no doubt about it,” Wisconsin left tackle Michael Deiter said. “We have to be sharper there. Can’t afford it.”
Added Badgers fullback Austin Ramesh: “It’s not something we can have if we’re going to keep winning like we are. We’re going to play a good opponent eventually that’s going to capitalize on it.”
No. 5 Wisconsin (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten) plays host to Maryland (3-3, 1-2) at 11 a.m. CT Saturday in the Badgers’ next opportunity to shore up their miscues.
Last season, Wisconsin was one of the least-penalized teams in the FBS, committing 48 penalties in 14 games. The 3.4 penalties-per-game average ranked second in the country. This season, Wisconsin already has committed 37 penalties in six games, an average of 6.2 per contest. That number ranks tied for 64th in the FBS. Wisconsin hasn’t committed more than six penalties per game since 2000.
In three games this season — against Utah State, Nebraska and Purdue — Wisconsin was been flagged for four penalties in the first quarter alone.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s turnover margin is even — 11 takeaways, 11 giveaways — which ranks No. 59 nationally. Last season, the Badgers ranked tied for seventh in that category with a turnover margin of plus-12. Wisconsin committed 16 turnovers the entire season.
Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst often says that his players never intend to commit a mistake. But he remains optimistic about teaching players how to clean up the issues relating to penalties and turnovers.
“I think you’re always trying to come up with ways to reinforce, and a lot of mistakes come from indecision,” Chryst said. “So you want to make sure you take all, what may be gray, and you take it out. And then there’s going to certainly be some physical areas that you want to make sure that you’re doing them properly, if it’s carrying the ball or how you block.
“But I think a lot of the negatives come from indecision. And so if you can make sure that your players know what they’re doing, know how to do it, understand it, then they go out and play. So I think there’s a lot you can do during the week and need to do.”
Of Wisconsin’s 37 penalties, the Badgers have been flagged for nine false starts, nine holdings, seven illegal blocks, three offsides, two unsportsmanlike conducts, two pass interferences, one sideline interference, one personal foul on a punt return, one personal foul for targeting, one face mask and one encroachment.
Of Wisconsin’s 11 turnovers, six have been interceptions and five have occurred on lost fumbles. During Wisconsin’s 17-9 victory against Purdue, the Badgers gained 494 yards of total offense, which was the team’s highest total in a Big Ten game since Nov. 15, 2014, against Nebraska. But tailback Jonathan Taylor lost a fumble at Purdue’s 5-yard line, and quarterback Alex Hornibrook threw 2 interceptions. Hornibrook has thrown 5 interceptions in three Big Ten games, including a pick-6 against Nebraska that briefly tied the score at 17-17 in the third quarter.
During that Purdue game, Wisconsin committed eight penalties, which included four false starts — two apiece from center Tyler Biadasz and right tackle David Edwards.
Deiter cited “mental errors” as the reason for so many penalties.
“There’s some stuff where it’s just guys not trusting themselves,” Deiter said. “So you get guys grabbing, jumping offsides, stuff like that. And that’s stuff you can work on. It should get better. We have to make it better. That’s an emphasis for us. We’ve got to clean that stuff up. Because between that and turnovers, that’s not a sustainable way to play a season.”
Wisconsin’s defense has routinely bailed out the offense for mistakes early this season. The Badgers defense has taken over in “sudden change” situations 11 times this season, following five fumbles, five interceptions and a blocked punt. The defense has allowed opponents to convert only four of those 11 opportunities into scores — two touchdowns and two field goals.
“I know the offense has expressed their gratitude in us, especially after last game when we had a couple big stops,” Badgers outside linebacker Garret Dooley said. “I know as an offense, they want to punch the ball in the end zone a couple more times.
“But we know our offense is going to move the ball, so we’re not worried about that. We take great pride in if they are struggling or have a turnover, that we get their back and try to get the ball to them as soon as possible.”
Of course, it remains to be seen whether relying so heavily on defense is a sustainable model for success. But as Wisconsin begins the second half of its regular season with a potential College Football Playoff appearance in its sights, players recognize they likely won’t come close to achieving that goal without focusing on fine-tuning the details.
“As a leader, I’ve just got to make sure myself and everyone in practice values stuff like that,” Deiter said. “You’ve got to clean that stuff up. That means you’ve got to be extra sharp in practice, because if stuff like that’s going on during a week of prep, it’s going to show up on Saturday.”