“I don’t even understand the talk that we have nothing left to play for,” junior quarterback Alex Hornibrook said. “We’ve got a lot to play for.”
Wisconsin’s 38-13 loss to Michigan all but ended their chances at making the College Football Playoff, a feat many Badger fans thought was possible coming into the season. With that out of the picture, many UW fans were quick to jump ship, prematurely labelling 2018 as a disappointment. But try telling that to the Wisconsin locker room.
“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.”
Most of Wisconsin’s goals are still right in front of them, as they will now invest all their energy in winning the Big Ten West, something they’ve accomplished three times in the four years since its inception. UW already has a leg up thanks to their 28-17 win over Iowa in Kinnick Stadium. Should they win the west, the Badgers will likely face either Ohio State or Michigan in the Big Ten Championship - two teams Wisconsin could use some revenge on.
Winning the conference title game has proven elusive for the Badgers in recent years; they’ve lost in Indianapolis all three times they’ve won the west — to Ohio State in 2014 and 2017 and to Penn State in 2016. Clearing that hurdle would turn UW’s 2018 season into a success and give Badger fans something they haven’t had since 2012.
“You have to bounce back,” sophomore running back Jonathan Taylor said. “You have no choice. You have to ask yourself, ‘Who do you want to be as a team? Who do you want to be as a player?’”
If the Badgers want to be Big Ten champions, they must regroup and respond strongly after their calamity in Ann Arbor, and attack the second half of the season with new energy.
“It’s always hard to move forward,” senior linebacker T.J. Edwards said. “But the sun will rise tomorrow, so there’s no time for sulking. If we get in this lull, we’re gonna lose. We have to be at our best every week, so we will be.”
To accomplish their remaining goals, Wisconsin will need multiple inexperienced players to step up and fill roles forced open due to injury.
Against Michigan three players — freshman safety Reggie Pearson, redshirt sophomore safety Eric Burrell and freshman corner Rachad Wildgoose — made their first career starts in the Badgers’ secondary. Wisconsin has five members of the secondary listed as questionable in their preliminary injury report for this week’s game against Illinois.
Even with young players thrust unexpectedly into significant roles, Wisconsin's defense performed admirably against Michigan, holding the Wolverines to 13 points in the first half despite facing several short fields. The defense wore down in the second half, but the potential shown in Ann Arbor gives the Badgers confidence moving forward.
“I thought we played well,” Burrell said. “We were working as a unit… I thought all the [defensive backs] played well, we were clicking. We’ve never really played with each other, so it was new to us. We just trust our instincts. I thought we were clicking, whoever coach threw out there.”
Wisconsin’s offense will always be able to lean on Jonathan Taylor and their run game, but it’ll have to improve its passing game, something that badly held it back against Michigan. Hornibrook completed just seven of 20 attempts for 100 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
“I’m not going to sit here and make excuses or complain about anything” Hornibrook said. “There’s a lot of things [we can do better], starting with myself — I know I can be better.”
After they beat Iowa, senior fullback Alec Ingold said this team wanted to write its own story. If the Badgers can rebound from their dreadful trip to the Big House, they’ll have a chance to redeem their failures against BYU and Michigan and write a new script — one that might include a Big Ten championship.