Wisconsin doing enough, need to play better to beat elite competition

Jonathan Taylor has carried UW's rushing offense so far this season.

Image By: Brandon Moe

Another week, another second-half surge by the Badgers. A dominant run game and a characteristically strong defense in the second half erased the memories of a generally dismal first 30 minutes and sent UW to its first 5-0 start since 2011. It’s tough to nitpick after a 21-point win on the road in a tough environment that broke Nebraska’s night game winning streak at 20, but there’s still a good deal to improve upon.

Given the remaining slate of games, Wisconsin may be content with the level of play it’s displayed all year. They wouldn’t be blamed — with the exception of Michigan, no other regular season opponent comes close to UW in terms of talent. But if they get complacent, it will come back to haunt them eventually. Maybe not in the regular season. But when the Ohio States and Penn States or even, *knocks on wood*, Alabamas of the world come knocking, nothing except a complete performance will do.

The offensive strategy in the second half of Saturday’s game was quintessential Wisconsin. They realized (finally) that their offensive line was manhandling Nebraska’s once-vaunted “Blackshirt” defense and accordingly relied heavily on Jonathan “Jonny Heisman” Taylor to make something out of it. He delivered. His shiftiness, decisiveness and New-Jersey-state-track-champion speed were constantly on display. During some runs, I couldn’t help but think about what he’ll be able to do in another year or two in this offense. But in the meantime, I was happy enough seeing him run roughshod over Nebraska, sealing our fifth consecutive win over our “rivals” (if you almost never lose, at what point does it kind of stop being a rivalry?).

The Northwestern and Nebraska games are now in the rearview, and Wisconsin’s prospects for returning to Indianapolis in December look better than ever. Wisconsin now holds the tiebreaker over the Cornhuskers, who still have to play both Ohio State and Penn State. Every other team in the B1G West has at least two losses in conference play with the exception of Purdue, who will come to Camp Randall next weekend. While the Boilermakers have been a pleasant surprise in returning to better-than-awful status under rookie head coach Jeff Brohm, they’re still a couple years away from being a serious contender within the division (sadly, beating Minnesota yesterday doesn’t mean a whole lot).

With a comfortable cushion atop the division, Wisconsin now gets a particularly cushy slate of games through October and early November. They host Purdue and Maryland (I can confirm that we still need not fear the turtle), then visit Illinois and Indiana. Those teams’ combined record in conference play is 2-6. None of them rank in the top 40 in overall defense in the country or top 50 against the run.

This is an opportunity, then, to work out the kinks and strive towards putting up more complete performances. The specter of losing a game in the near future has been mostly eliminated with the victories over the Wildcats and Cornhuskers, but this juncture of the season represents a vital crossroads. If Wisconsin continues to play to the level of their opponents, only pulling away when it’s absolutely necessary, it will be doomed to fail in late November and December. If it takes these next four weeks, however, to reaffirm its identity, perfect its run game and build on its pass defense, it can build momentum that may carry it through the rest of the season.

It would be easy for the Badgers to take their feet off the gas pedal as an already easy schedule gets easier. Head coach Paul Chryst has shown in his three seasons, though, that he continues to send the same message to his team regardless of the circumstances (having only one road loss in his entire tenure will vouch for that). Wisconsin can impress the College Football Playoff committee and give itself its best chance of experiencing a dream season if it doesn’t take these opponents lightly. Rather, it should see these games as learning opportunities, some extra reps to help it become a well-oiled machine that can dominate on both sides of the ball and on both sides of halftime. If Wisconsin’ is able to do that, it can be at its very best when it comes time — no offense, Maryland — to play some real opponents.

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