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43 Random Thoughts on Wisconsin

Random musings on the weekend that was against the Badgers

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Penn State Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

On Saturday afternoon, the Penn State Nittany Lions hosted the Wisconsin Badgers at Beaver Stadium in a contest of American football. On a cold and blustery autumn day, the Nittany Lions emerged victorious, 22-10. I have several thoughts, which are set forth randomly below:

  1. Anyone who thinks the result of this game would have differed if Alex Hornibrook was available at quarterback needs to reconsider their view. Hornibrook is...fine? Acceptable? Choose your own descriptor. But completing 58% of your passes with an 11:8 touchdown-to-interception ratio doesn’t exactly scream game changer.
  2. I just took a look at Hornibrook’s stats for the year. He’s started 7 games this year. Without looking, how many times do you think he’s passed for over 200 yards?
  3. Twice. Exactly twice. Against Western Kentucky in the first game of the year and against Iowa a few weeks ago...barely. He had 205 against the Hawkeyes.
  4. So please - Alex Hornibrook’s injury didn’t make Wisconsin one-dimensional. Wisconsin made Wisconsin one-dimensional.
  5. You have to give them credit, though. The Badgers have managed to start the same quarterback for nearly two decades, outside of the Russell Wilson detour that won them a Big Ten Title and Rose Bowl berth. They’ve just changed names like a high schooler with a fake ID.
  6. Alex Hornibrook, Bart Houston, Joel Stave, Scott Tolzien, Allan Evridge, Dustin Sherer, Tyler Donovan, John Stocco, Jim Sorgi.
  7. And now, following in the great Wisconsin quarterback tradition, Jack Coan.
  8. (Seriously, the only school that has a similar quarterback tradition is Northwestern, which has started basically the same quarterback since I was in college in the early-00s)
  9. It’s always surprised me that Wisconsin fans were so tolerant of this kind of quarterback play. Aren’t these the same people who cheer for a team that boasts Aaron Rodgers, Brett Favre, and Bart Starr in their record books?
  10. Of course, you can start that Murderer’s Row of college quarterbacks when you have an actual murderer’s row of collegiate running back superstars. Ron Dayne, Melvin Gordon, Brian Calhoun, PJ Hill, Montee Ball, Corey Clement, and now Jonathan Taylor.
  11. Or, as the Solid Verbal has previously referred to him, Jonathan Taylor Tailback.

12. See? He even protects the football well to avoid fumbles!

13. But I kid Wisconsin. I have to, because despite the obvious All American talent at QB, the Badgers have been one of the best teams in college football, year-in and year-out, for a generation. In this era, that consistency is laudable. And they’ve done it by running the dang ball.

14. So on Saturday, in what had quietly turned into the biggest game of the season for both of these top programs that were struggling to remain relevant for the year, Wisconsin did exactly what it was supposed to do - run the dang ball.

15. I feel like we all must have known that 70 yard touchdown run by Taylor was coming early, right? This is the team that surrendered monster gains and early touchdowns on the ground to Pitt, Indiana, and Illinois. Surely Wisconsin was going to do the same.

16. Did anyone else feel like the Badger offensive line basically swallowed Penn State’s (somewhat maligned) linebacker corps whole?

17. Here’s the thing about Wisconsin, though - without much of a passing game, they weren’t much of a scoring threat. Absent multiple Saquon Barkley-style explosive runs, Taylor was going to be in position to rack up yards without scores. And without scores, Penn State and its superior athletes just had to play well in order to win.

18. That, of course, has been less of a lock than you would have hoped for this year. But it did happen this week.

19. Penn State’s defense was good! After the surrendering big runs on the first two drives, the defense stiffened and prevented another. They refused to let Taylor get to the outside, stringing him out for modest gains that did no damage. It was a throwback performance, the kind that Penn State defenses often put together prior to 2011.

20. The offense? Also good! This wasn’t a modern classic Penn State offense that featured numerous touchdowns of 30 yards or more, but it did exactly what it needed to do and did it well - held the ball, scored points, and ran the clock to the point where a team that lacked firepower could never make up the ground it needed to make.

21. No one’s ever happy about anything anymore, which is why people complained after Penn State failed to give the ball to Miles Sanders on the first drive. That was premature, though - Sanders finished with 159 yards on 23 carries (a very nice yards per carry average) and looked like a star, breaking tackles and ankles along the way.

22. The first drive was used effectively. Penn State didn’t score, but it did get a first down and quickly involved a wide receiving corps that desperately needed some confidence. Credit to Ricky Rahne for changing things a bit here - not only did Penn State eventually get the ball downfield to these receivers, but the offense started to get KJ Hamler involved in space with receiver screens that allowed him to be evasive to gain yards.

23. I’m not one to slag on coaches constantly. I don’t think David Corley is coaching experienced guys to drop passes and I don’t think Phil Galiano is telling guys to miss blocks on fake punts (see Hoosiers, Indiana). But sometimes the criticism is unavoidable.

24. I like Matt Limegrover, and it’s hard to argue with the performance the offensive line had on Saturday in support of Miles Sanders. But Trace McSorley almost got killed on the first drive because the line has shown no capacity to handle a stunt or twist by a defensive lineman. That’s what got us beat by Ohio State and that’s what made us nearly see Tommy Stevens early in this game. So can we fix that, please?

25. Trace looked much more comfortable out there this week. It’s not just the difference between the Michigan defense and the Wisconsin defense, although that’s part of it. There was an obvious difference in how the ball came out of his hand. Trace looked like Trace this week, and it showed in the stat line - 19 of 25 for 160 yards.

26. Two of those incompletions were dropped passes, but that’s fine. I don’t expect receivers to be perfect. Deandre Thompkins dropped a third down pass that would not have resulted in a first down, and Pat Freiermuth had his first drop of the year. Neither was a complete disaster that way that others have been.

27. Jahan Dotson keeps drawing DaeSean Hamilton comparisons, but is that just recency bias? One commenter this week suggested he was a Jordan Norwood clone, and I think that might be spot on.

28. Hey look! It’s Justin Shorter!

29. Three yards isn’t much, but it’s a start. Let’s hope we look back three years from now on these three yards as the start of something special.

30. Wait...Wisconsin fumbled and...didn’t recover?

31. On the other hand, our fumbles weren’t exactly great.

32. Can we stop calling what happened at the tail end of the 4th quarter “trickeration”? It was a mis-timed snap that hit a guy in motion. Are we seriously calling motion a gimmick?

33. The natural skill and physicality at the end of the half by Tommy Stevens showed a lot of what makes me excited to see him with a complete offense. Once Amani Oruwariye pulled down that pick, you knew Penn State was going to try to put itself in position to score. Stevens was the catalyst for that, with a tough and athletic run that gave Jake Pinegar a shot at three points.

34. Speaking of Jake Pinegar - he was good! Also, all of special teams was good! Pinegar in particular had a rough assignment, kicking into a swirling wind and needing to keep the ball low. He still managed a 49 yard field goal and did what he needed to do.

35. Generally speaking, I want my college kickers to be nearly automatic inside of 40 yards and have range in the mid-40s. Pinegar as a freshman has shown that his ceiling is high, and he’s performed admirably in tough situations over the last few weeks.

36. Johnathan Thomas just keeps making plays. Long touchdown run? Check. Big kick return? Check. Now a fourth down conversion on a punt fake? Check. Nice senior year he’s having.

37. Meanwhile, the first guy off the bench in relief of Miles Sanders is Journey Brown? Good for him, and I think he’ll be a contributor in the coming years. But how deep in the doghouse is Ricky Slade, exactly?

38. The defensive line deserves its own full post, frankly. Vintage performance. Congratulations to Robert Windsor for winning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week against his home state squad. Shareef Miller ran over Coan like a Mack truck. Yetur Gross-Matos continues to make his case for All-America honors early in his career. And Kevin Givens just keeps on doing things well. That doesn’t even include PJ Mustipher, who made me notice that he was on the field as a true freshman.

39. I don’t want to hear anyone criticize CJ Thorpe for that stiff arm and fumble. You keep running, big man! You’ll see the end zone someday!

40. I’m proud of this team. It hasn’t been easy all year, but they’ve shown growth and a willingness to stick by each other even through some significant adversity. That’s a credit to the culture that James Franklin and his staff have developed here over the last five years.

41. Looking forward to seeing the Badgers in the 2019 Big Ten Title game.

42. On to my home state stomping grounds. On to Rutgers!

43. We are...