A top-10 kind of defense, we expected. A top-10 kind-of defense, we recognized. But a top-10 kind of defense probably only gets you halfway where you want to go, if where you want to go is the Big Ten championship game.
But this, now — this is different. If the Alex Hornibrook who threw for 195 yards Saturday at East Lansing is the real Alex Hornibrook, if the Wisconsin offense that played keepaway so effectively at Michigan State is the real Wisconsin offense, if Badgers 30, Spartans 6 is a harbinger and not some tease, then the ceiling … well, the ceiling just moved.
Up. Way up.
College Football Playoffs up.
“I thought (Alex) did some good things,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst told the Big Ten Network after his team won — and won handily — at Spartan Stadium for the first time since 2002. “That’s kind of who he’s been. And obviously, this is a big team victory for us.”
Big. Massive. Historic, mostly. For starters, Saturday gives the 11th-ranked Badgers (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten) two wins over Associated Press Top 10 teams in the same season for the first time since 1962 (No. 5 LSU and No. 8 Michigan State now; No. 1 Northwestern and No. 5 Minnesota then). It was the fewest points Wisconsin has allowed on the road against a Top 10 team since giving up 7 at No. 3 Ohio State in 1985 — and the fewest, period, allowed to a Top 10 team since giving up six against the then-top-ranked Wildcats back in ’62.
And if the context doesn’t blow your mind, consider the stage. It was only Michigan State’s second setback over its last 23 tilts at Spartan Stadium. And the first time since 1985 that Michigan State was held without a touchdown at home against a Big Ten opponent.
Wisconsin’s defense managed four takeaways on the day — and none bigger than the one that came, like a bolt of lightning, roughly a minute into the second half. The Badgers’ first drive of the third quarter had gone nowhere and the Spartans, down 13-6, took over at midfield. With 14 minutes to go in the period and the hosts facing a second-and-3 from the Badgers’ 43, Spartans tailback LJ Scott found a seam up the left side of the line — only to find Badgers safety D’Cota Dixon waiting for him.
Dixon lowered his shoulder, drove into Scott, and the ball shot out of the pile like a popcorn kernel. It bounced in no-man’s land for a second before the Badgers’ other safety, Leo Musso, scooped it up, took off up the left boundary, found a convoy, and ran it back 66 yards for a touchdown to completely flip momentum back the other way. Alex Endicott’s extra point put the visitors up 20-6 and hushed the locals into stunned silence.
The Badgers officially placed a foot on Sparty’s throat from there and never let up, sealing the hosts’ fate with 4:09 left in the third period and Michigan State pinned deep in its own territory again. With the hosts trailing 23-6, Spartans punter Jake Hartbarger let a high snap slip through his fingers, giving the Badgers possession at the Michigan State 5. Wisconsin tailback Corey Clement scored on the next play to push the lead to 29-6 and more or less close the books.
An offense that had beaten up Notre Dame in South Bend couldn’t stay on the field against the Badgers. Michigan State managed 69 rushing yards and converted just four of 12 third-down opportunities. Wisconsin, with a gimpy Clement and Dare Ogubowale leading the charge, toughed out 117 rushing yards on 40 attempts but executed when they had to — nailing 7 of 16 third-down opportunities and going 2-for-2 on fourth down.
And, most impressively, while the Spartans’ signal-caller, Tyler O’Connor, was all over the place (three interceptions), his counterpart, Hornibrook, appeared to be the epitome of cool. The redshirt freshman, making his first collegiate start, got stripped by Spartans defender Raequan Williams after holding the ball too low with 9:45 left in the first quarter — a crucial fumble that led to the hosts’ first points.
But that was the kid’s only major blight of the afternoon. As with the week earlier against Georgia State, the left-hander found himself having to navigate several third-and-longs to keep the chains moving. And, just as the weekend before, he delivered calmly.
On a third-and-11, Hornibrook found tight end Troy Fumagalli clear for 16 yards. A pair of drives later, he tossed a third-and-10 rainbow up the right boundary to wideout Jazz Peavy for a 25-yard gain. On third-and-2, Hornibrook angled right and a connected to Fumagalli again, this time for 5. Through the game’s first 40 minutes, the young Badgers’ quarterback completed eight of his first 10 passes on third down for 127 yards and six first downs.
“I think that was a big (focus) we had, especially in the film room, was on third down,” Hornibrook, who completed 16 of 26 throws, told the Big Ten Network. “(We) still could’ve been better on third down but felt pretty good going into the game.”
In the early tests of the Spartans’ speed versus Chryst’s play-calling, the chess match went, time and again, to the latter. Clement couldn’t really get much going in space early on, so Chryst misdirected and feinted, using the hosts’ wheels against them.
After Hornibrook’s fumble had set up the first Michigan State field goal, the Badgers drove 65 yards on 16 plays, thanks in part to two huge fourth down calls — and huge fourth-down gambles. On fourth-and-1 at the Spartans’ 31, rather than chance the points with backup kicker Andrew Endicott, Chryst called for a draw with fullback Alec Ingold and got five yards out of it. On fourth-and-1 at the Spartans 3, it was Ingold again, this time for 2 yards and another first down.
That’s confidence. That’s swagger, the kind that trickles from the top all the way down to the line of scrimmage.
The kind that can already taste a division-title chase. The kind that can smell the history.
“Well,” Chryst said after the game, “the story’s not written.”
Fair enough. But if the rest of this tale plays out like the last three chapters, the ending is shaping up to be one hell of a doozy.