Mondays with Rasty: Despite loss to Buckeyes, Badger football has bright future

Saturday night began with the hope of picking up a signature win for Wisconsin football, but ended with the most bitter of defeats.

It’s the kind of loss that was agonizing to endure as it happened and can stick with both players and fans for quite some time. The opportunity to knock off the No. 2 team in the country was right there for the taking, and the Badgers let it slip through their hands.

Things looked promising when Wisconsin dominated the first half and took a 16-6 lead into the locker room. Even then, it was hard not to feel like the Buckeyes got off too easy. The Badgers outgained Ohio State 313-171 in the first half, but left too many points on the field. Two second-quarter drives stalled inside the OSU 10-yard line and forced Wisconsin to settle for field goals, which proved costly. Against a team as good as the Buckeyes, you simply have to convert those redzone opportunities into touchdowns to put their backs against the wall early.

The defense was not without fault, either. There were several instances where a player nearly corralled Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett on third down, only to allow him to escape, extend the play and pick up the first down. A few of those plays kept drives alive that eventually resulted in points for the Buckeyes. That, too, proved costly in the end.

It was the most anticipated home game for the Badgers in at least five years and they lost in overtime. It was, and should, be agonizing. As a fan, you should aspire for Wisconsin to reach a point as a program where beating the best of the best at home is a regular occurrence. Moral victories are an extremely tough pill to swallow after a game like that, but there is good reason for fans to be optimistic about this team and the state of the program.

First and foremost, a Big Ten West title is still within reach. Nothing is a given, but the Badgers should be favored in all six of their remaining games. If they can take care of Iowa on the road next Saturday and hold serve against Nebraska at home on Halloween weekend, they likely would only need the Cornhuskers to lose on the road to Ohio State to earn a trip to Indianapolis.

A former Daily Cardinal sports editor made the point to me this weekend that Wisconsin’s two losses are actually more encouraging than their wins against LSU and Michigan State, and it’s hard to disagree. In retrospect, the victories over the Tigers and the Spartans don’t look nearly as impressive as they initially did. On the other hand, it’s clear that Michigan and Ohio State are both legitimate College Football Playoff contenders, and the Badgers took it to them these past two games and could have easily won either one. Yes, a loss is a loss, but they showed that they can hang with any team in the country. Not too shabby for a team that entered the year unranked and has an offense guided by a freshman quarterback who has still made only three starts.

But above all else, faith should be reaffirmed in Paul Chryst as Wisconsin’s head coach.

When Chryst was initially hired two years ago, the prevailing expectation seemed to be that he could maintain what Wisconsin was and provide the program with much-needed stability after the sudden departures of Bret Bielema and Gary Andersen.

However, Chryst has shown that he could have his program contending for Big Ten titles most years. The Ohio State game showed just how good of an offensive game plan he can put together and also showcased his play-calling abilities. You don’t get the feeling you have to worry about the Badgers coming into any game unprepared with him at the helm. The offense was in rough shape when he arrived, but it’s already made huge strides and Chryst isn’t even through his second full recruiting cycle.

The future looks bright for Wisconsin football. This team is young and Alex Hornibrook could be a superb quarterback once he develops more. The schedule for next season is less grueling and could set things up for a special season. Even this year could end with a Rose Bowl appearance if everything falls Wisconsin’s way.

Of course Saturday’s loss was soul crushing, but fans should keep their heads up. The Badgers are going to be just fine.

Should Badger fans be worried that UW is just 1-2 in Big Ten play this season? Have the Badgers' two losses given you confidence that this team is for real? Let Zach know at sports@dailycardinal.com

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