It wasn’t always pretty, but the Badgers offense showed flashes of what it is capable of, while their new-look defense impressed in Wisconsin’s 34-3 win over the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers.
UW’s most impressive drive came just before halftime. The Badgers offense took over from their own 25 yard line with 1:56 on the clock. Four different receivers – Jake Ferguson, A.J. Taylor, Jack Dunn and Kendric Pryor – registered receptions on the drive, highlighted by a tough 21-yard catch through traffic by Taylor to bring the Badgers to the two yard line. Hornibrook scrambled and found Pryor in the back of the end zone to put the Badgers up 24-0 right before halftime.
The drive capped off a 17-point second quarter for the Badgers after three punts on their opening four drives. Head coach Paul Chryst was happy with the way his offense kept going despite early struggles.
“Offensively, we were doing some good things and then we kind of sputter,” Chryst said. “But they kept their poise and that, you appreciate, because no game is going to be perfect.”
Redshirt freshman tight end Jake Ferguson, who made catch after catch throughout spring and fall camp, proved his busy offseason was no fluke in his first career game for the Badgers. Ferguson impressed with four catches for 43 yards, each going for a first down.
“He had a one-on-one matchup, and he did a great job winning every single one of those,” junior quarterback Alex Hornibrook said. “He knew coming in there would be some third downs going his way, we saw a coverage and took advantage of it.”
Ferguson came into the season labelled more of a pass-catching tight end, but perhaps his most impressive accomplishment in his first career game was his run-blocking, particularly on Jonathan Taylor’s two rushing touchdowns.
“It’s always good to versatile,” Ferguson said. “Troy Fumagalli taught me that if you’re going to catch passes, you might as well get some blocks in there once in a while. I kind of took that to heart last year, working on my blocking all through spring ball. I’ve got a lot of work to do but I’m taking the right steps.”
On the defensive side of the ball, the Badgers had seven players making their first career starts. UW’s defense held the Hilltoppers to just 305 total yards and three points. Most impressively, Wisconsin had multiple red zones stops, something the Badgers have prided themselves on in recent years. Two of those stops resulted in turnovers.
“You never want a team to score, so when you can do that I think it’s a really good job,” T.J. Edwards said. “It was a very talented offense and I thought that we just did a good job of competing.”
Redshirt freshman Scott Nelson impressed throughout the night in his debut. He finished tied for a team high seven tackles and almost had an interception in the first quarter. Nelson clearly enjoyed his time under the lights in his first game for the Badgers, savoring every moment out on the field.
“I don’t know how to describe it. It was so much fun,” Nelson said. “Three and outs were kind of frustrating, because you just want to play.”
At cornerback, redshirt freshman Faion Hicks also made his first career start. The young defensive back had a big tackle in punt coverage and added a red zone interception on a failed trick play by Western Kentucky.
“I was manned up,” Hicks said. “My guy went outside and I just saw it from the corner of my eye. He tossed it to the receiver, so I fell off my guy and tried to make plays.”
Sophomore running back Jonathan Taylor also was off to a strong start. The Heisman hopeful finished with 145 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 8.1 yards per carry. Taylor opened the scoring with a 47-yard touchdown in the first quarter and later added another highlight-reel 30 yard score in the second quarter, including a nasty juke to seal off the run.
“We try and keep the same formula, make sure we just keep churning out yards,” Taylor said. “One of the biggest things, I think, is that we don’t get relaxed and keep the same mentality.”
It wasn’t all smooth sailing for Taylor, though, as his Achilles' heel of holding onto the ball followed him into 2018 with a third-quarter fumble. He acknowledged that you can’t expect to never fumble, and all he can do is to keep working on it in practice.
Even though it was not as crisp as he would’ve liked, Chryst was happy with his team’s first game.
“All in all, it was great to get the season started, and a number of players that we’ll be counting on got their first significant snaps, and there’s nothing like playing the game. So it was good for the team to get it going.”