Protect the quarterback
While quarterback Alex Hornibrook shone against Western Kentucky, passing for 257 yards and two touchdowns, the redshirt junior suffered three sacks on the night. That can’t happen if the Badgers are to be successful in the future, especially when Wisconsin hits a tough Big Ten schedule that includes road games against Iowa, Michigan and Penn State.
It’s not just that Hornibrook should be kept off the turf; he needs time and space to operate at his best. Take last year’s Big Ten Championship, for example. With the Badgers’ O-line bullied by the Buckeyes, Hornibrook completed below 50 percent of his passes and threw two picks.
The Wisconsin offensive line is one of the best in the country. It even got its own Sports Illustrated cover before the season began. Now, it needs to shake off some of that rust before New Mexico visits Madison and give Hornibrook the security he needs.
The Badgers value pristine play from the quarterback position, and that’s exactly what Hornibrook, who had no picks or fumbles, provided last game. But the story is different in losses. Hornibrook has just two touchdowns and six interceptions in four career defeats, so coach Paul Chryst will hope his signal-caller continues his strong start to the season.
The same goes for Jonathan Taylor, who lost six fumbles last season. The sophomore lost another Friday night during his 145-yard, two-touchdown performance. His gaffe didn’t make much of a difference against a weak Western Kentucky team, but the same mistake in a conference game could be deadly. The easiest way for the Badgers to beat others is to avoid beating themselves, and that starts with Taylor and Hornibrook.
Clean up the penalties
Though the Badgers led for much of the game against the Hilltoppers, they still committed eight penalties for 80 yards – a mark of indiscipline which Chryst won’t have been happy with.
After the departures of seniors Troy Fumagalli, Leon Jacobs and Derrick Tindal, the Badgers start the season with lots of young faces atop the depth chart. The youth movement is stronger on defense, where three starting defensive backs (Caesar Williams, Scott Nelson and Faion Hicks) are redshirt freshmen or sophomores. Furthermore, both of the team’s starting defensive ends in week one were redshirt freshmen.
The Badgers have a talented team, but also a young one, and so the first few weeks of the season will be full of both brilliance and blunders. Week one is the time to make these mistakes, of course, but Wisconsin will need to be more disciplined over the course of the season if it has serious playoff aspirations. Eight penalties is too many.
Pound the rock
Wisconsin fans may not know it, but New Mexico also boasts an impressive rushing attack. The Lobos recorded 319 yards on the ground in their first game of the season, not with a workhorse like Jonathan Taylor, but with an efficient, balanced stable of running backs. Three players recorded at least 50 yards on the ground, and four received at least seven carries out of the backfield.
New Mexico will face a stout Wisconsin defense on Saturday, but it’s not clear whether the Badgers can reach the lofty heights of last season with such large roster turnover. Western Kentucky posted 124 rushing yards at Camp Randall Friday, which will encourage New Mexico enough to stick with their ground attack. The team ran the ball 66 times Saturday, compared to just 25 pass attempts. They may not be as good as the Badgers, but they sure seem to play like them.
Control the clock
If New Mexico does manage to run the ball somewhat effectively against Wisconsin, it will achieve something else by proxy: a possession battle advantage. Both teams held the ball for at least 34:03 in their first games, which is obviously a testament to their lopsided victories and their commitments to the run games. But keeping your defense off the field in the September heat is vital, and both teams managed to do just that. Despite their 3-9 record in 2017, New Mexico actually ranked 18th nationally in average time of possession, so it appears an impotent offense was a greater issue than a negative game script. Still, keeping the Badgers defense on the field will only help the Lobos’ chances this weekend.
Go for the long ball
However, if the game goes as Wisconsin intends it to, the Badgers will likely have more time on offense than the Lobos. New Mexico would be wise to test the Badgers’ young secondary with some of those plays.
D’Cota Dixon is the only upperclassmen starting at defensive back, and Nick Nelson is now in the NFL after leading the nation with 21 passes defended last season. And while New Mexico’s first-week opponents Incarnate Word were weak opposition, the Lobos still seem to have a knack for the long ball. They completed seven passes of 30+ yards in their first week and only completed 15 passes in total.
When the offense does pass, however, it swings big, so the Badgers need to keep an eye out for quarterback Tevaka Tuioti. New Mexico would be loathe not to try and unsettle the Badgers early.