ANN ARBOR, MICHIGAN — “They’re a good team, so if we’re going to move the ball and be successful we gotta be on, we gotta be doing things well, and I don’t think we were today, so that’s why we didn’t have success,” junior quarterback Alex Hornibrook said.
On Saturday night, Hornibrook and the Wisconsin Badgers (2-1 Big Ten, 4-2 Overall) didn’t do anything well, and certainly weren’t on, as they lost to the Michigan Wolverines (4-0, 6-1) 38-13.
The Badgers came into Ann Arbor battered by injuries on defense — starting safety and captain D’Cota Dixon was out with a foot injury, cornerback Caesar Williams was limited with a leg injury, defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk did not make the trip and cornerback Faion Hicks left the game with a leg injury after the first drive. Safety Scott Nelson, who was suspended for the first half following his targeting penalty last week, went out early in the 3rd quarter with a leg injury.
Yet it wasn’t UW’s defense that lost them the game, as they bailed out their putrid offense again and again in the first half until they finally broke in the second.
Alex Hornibrook was seven of 20 for 100 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. While those numbers look subpar, they don’t do justice to just how impotent Wisconsin’s passing game was. A 36-yard completion to Jake Ferguson with four minutes left in the game was Hornibrook’s first completion since the Badgers’ second drive, late in the first quarter. Hornibrook had just 25 yards before that final drive.
“There’s a lot of things we could’ve done better.” Hornibrook said. “I’m not going to sit here and make excuses or complain about anything. We knew what they were going to play and they just beat us… There’s a lot of things, starting with myself, I know I can be better.”
Despite their first half offensive woes — Hornibrook was three of seven for 25 yards and an interception — the Badgers were only down 13-7 at halftime, thanks in large part to resilience shown by their defense. That group had four players in the secondary making their first career starts, including the first game ever for true freshman Reggie Pearson.
“Not a challenge at all,” sophomore safety Eric Burrell said of the injuries. “We came here for a reason. I think everybody has to do their own job. I don’t care if you’re a freshman, sophomore… the coaches trust the guys that they put out there."
After giving up two third-down conversions on Michigan’s opening drive, UW’s defense forced Michigan to settle for a 41-yard field goal, which Quinn Nordin promptly missed, the first of two misses on the night. After a UW punt, the Wolverines struck first, with Karan Higdon punching in a two-yard touchdown run after Shea Patterson set him up with a 81-yard run off a read option that Wisconsin was badly fooled by.
Following Hornibrook’s first interception, Wisconsin’s defense was once again backed into a corner. They responded by allowing zero yards on Michigan’s three plays, including great coverage from freshman Rachad Wildgoose on 3rd and 10. The Wolverines settled for a field goal, extending their lead to 13-7. The two sides came up empty on the next to drives to close the half, including a Michigan missed field goal from 54 yards out.
After Michigan’s touchdown drive, the Badgers responded immediately, tying the game 7-7. It took just four plays, all coming on the ground to reach the end zone. Three runs of five, 11, and 23 got UW into Michigan territory, where Kendric Pryor took an end around 33 yards to the house. He scored on the same play for 32 yards when the two sides met last year. Those would be Wisconsin’s last points until their final drive of the game.
Following Pryor’s touchdown, UW elected to throw on 5 of their next 7 offensive plays. Jonathan Taylor had racked up 76 yards on 10 rushes before that. Those plays produced a three-and-out, interception, and another three-and-out.
“I think the coaches had a game plan dialled up,” Taylor said. “They spend a lot of time in the film room studying the opponent, and we practice that throughout the week and then execute on gameday. I feel as though we should of, whatever the plays that were called, whatever the coaches dialled up, we just needed to execute.”
After a nine-yard run by Taylor, Alex Hornibrook fumbled the snap, but immediately recovered. He was sacked a play later, forcing the Badgers to punt. Michigan then marched into Badgers’ territory, but were forced to settle for a field goal after a T.J. Edwards sack forced a third-and-16, which UW stopped, making the score 10-7.
Coming out of halftime, UW’s defense got what appeared to be a stop following a Reggie Pearson forced fumble which rolled out of bounds. On the ensuing punt, UW was flagged for what appeared to be an extremely touchy roughing the snapper call, giving Michigan a new set of downs.
Any signs of life from Wisconsin’s sideline was taken away as Patterson ran in for a seven-yard touchdown, extending Michigan’s lead to 21-7 after a two-point conversion. Michigan proceeded to score on three out of their four drives in the second half, and added a pick-six to finish off the Badgers.
The loss all but ends Wisconsin’s playoff dreams, something they thought was achievable coming into the season. Despite of this, the Badgers players claimed they still have a lot to fight for.
“I think everybody’s going to talk about goals but I don’t think anybody was in our team meetings when we established them,” Hornibrook said. “We still have goals ahead of us and that’s what we’re going to do. I don’t even understand the talk of not having anything to play for. We’ve got a lot to play for.”
“We can still win a Big Ten championship, win the west - there is still a ton of stuff to play for," senior offensive lineman Michael Dieter said. “It's not like we were saying playoffs or bust for us, that was never our thing. The goal was to get to the playoffs, whether or not that is possible, I don’t know. It wasn't, 'Hey guys we have to make the playoffs or the season’s a wash,' that was never the mentality and it's not going to be now.”