MADISON, Wis. — Statistics will show that Wisconsin gained 564 yards of total offense on Saturday against Florida Atlantic, while the Badgers’ defense recorded 5 sacks and pitched a second-half shutout. Those numbers alone might lead many to believe Wisconsin cruised to a 50-point blowout at Camp Randall Stadium in a contest that was never close.
Not so fast.
Despite all the offensive success and a generally sharp defense, No. 10 Wisconsin struggled to put away Florida Atlantic in a 31-14 victory. The Badgers never really seemed as though they were in danger of suffering a stunning upset. But they also didn’t allow themselves much comfort, thanks to enough miscues to keep coaches and players busy this week.
“The stat sheet didn’t really reflect the scoreboard today,” Badgers quarterback Alex Hornibrook said after the game. “There were a lot of drives we could’ve finished and ended with touchdowns that would’ve helped out a little bit.”
There are bound to be mistakes during a football game that features 138 plays, as the game did Saturday. However, some mistakes are more alarming than others, which could be cause for concern moving forward.
Those issues have not come back to haunt Wisconsin against Utah State and Florida Atlantic — two opponents that entered Camp Randall as combined 58 1/2-point underdogs. But Wisconsin’s toughest test to date arrives next Saturday on the road against BYU. And similar issues could put the Badgers in a hole they may not be able to climb out of so easily.
“Ready or not, here it comes, right?” Badgers coach Paul Chryst said. “We’ll make sure they’re ready for it.”
Wisconsin’s most significant challenge in its first two games has been an inability to play consistently during the first half. Utah State led 10-0 before Wisconsin tied the score by halftime. Wisconsin took an early 14-0 lead against Florida Atlantic, but two major miscues allowed the Owls to score two touchdowns and provide them with life.
First, FAU receiver DeAndre McNeal was able to sneak behind Wisconsin’s secondary for a wide-open 63-yard touchdown catch from quarterback Daniel Parr to bring the Owls within 14-7 in the first quarter. Cornerback Nick Nelson and safety Natrell Jamerson were the two players closest to McNeal, but a communication breakdown directly led to the score.
Badgers cornerback Derrick Tindal said he and Nelson each thought they had safety help over the top. The quicker pace of Florida Atlantic’s offense also contributed to the issue.
“Sometimes when you get paced, you’re so locked in on your job, you don’t think about communicating to other people,” Tindal said. “I should’ve done a better job of telling Nick I don’t think he’s going to be back there.”
Early in the second quarter, Wisconsin had a first-and-goal from the FAU 6-yard line but couldn’t score after trying four consecutive running plays with tailback Jonathan Taylor. The final three plays came inside the 2-yard line.
Badgers left tackle Michael Deiter put the blame on the offensive line. He said the line was faced with “weird” defensive pressures for a second consecutive game that caused issues in the trenches and would likely lead to more exotic blitzes from future opponents.
“That’s always going to bring problems,” Deiter said. “There’s going to be plays that just look so bad. But you have to be able to get to the sideline to figure it all out, talk with the other offensive linemen and other guys, the other pieces, tight ends, fullbacks and just figure out and be able to fit up anything they throw at you. We know if we keep showing this stuff on film, that teams are going to keep bringing pressures. So, it’s something we have to just hit in the mouth.”
Later in the second quarter, Hornibrook threw his first interception of the season when defensive end Leighton McCarthy stepped in front of a pass intended for receiver Quintez Cephus. McCarthy returned the pick 15 yards to the Wisconsin 27 with 5:36 left in the second quarter. FAU running back Devin Singletary then scored a 1-yard touchdown run to cut the Owls deficit to 21-14 with 4:29 left in the first half.
Hornibrook said a defender was in his face on the throw, which forced him to speed up his delivery. But he noted he should have thrown the ball away. Chryst, meanwhile, was particularly displeased that Wisconsin gave an opponent a short field for a second consecutive game.
As a result of those key miscues, Wisconsin entered halftime leading only 24-14. In the two first halves this season, the Badgers have outscored their opponents, 34-24. In the second halves, they have outscored opponents, 56-0.
Wisconsin did manage to fix its penalty issue from Week 1, when the Badgers committed 9 penalties for 73 yards. On Saturday, the Badgers committed only 1 penalty for 10 yards. But Wisconsin uncharacteristically lost the turnover battle by surrendering 2 turnovers, which included a second-half Taylor fumble.
So, while Wisconsin’s record remains perfect, Badgers players understand their performance on the field thus far has been anything but. And it will have to improve as games become more difficult.
“We’re 2-0, but we’re nowhere near the ceiling,” Badgers running back Chris James said. “We have so much to improve on. We had a good game today, but I just know as things go forward, things are going to get tougher as we get into Big Ten play and BYU coming up this week. I just know things are not going to be easy.
“Seeing us sometimes start off with a slow start, that gives the opponent an edge. They’re thinking like these guys are maybe not as good. So, if we get on them early, then they’ll slow down. But as a team, we’ve just got to come out swinging every single time, no matter who we’re playing.”