On Aug. 20, the Badgers were ranked fourth in the nation. Fans’ confidence grew in hopes UW was a title contender. Following a 13-1 season with a 34-24 Orange Bowl victory over Miami, the Badgers looked primed to make the jump and be regarded as one of the nation’s best.
Fourteen weeks later, UW is coming off a 37-15 beatdown by Minnesota at Camp Randall, surrendering Paul Bunyan’s Axe for the first time in 15 years. After 14 weeks, UW’s preseason ranking was perhaps the high point during a season to forget. The Badgers finished the regular season at 7-5 overall and 5-4 in the conference, good for fourth in the unimpressive Big Ten West.
Although key departures clouded the defensive side of the football, putting points on the scoreboard was not something people thought would be an issue. Wisconsin averaged 33.8 points per game in 2017, and Alex Hornibrook showed improvement throughout the season, convincing media and fans alike that he was capable of being a top quarterback after a dominant Orange Bowl showing in which he completed 23 of 34 passes for 258 yards and four touchdowns.
But a wide receiver group touted as one of Wisconsin’s best fell apart after Quintez Cephus was suspended indefinitely after being charged with sexual assault. An offensive group dominated by experienced starters suddenly became inconsistent. UW averaged 29.3 points per game, but that number is inflated with 40-point showings against New Mexico, Nebraska, Illinois and a triple-overtime win over Purdue, the only team on that list with a winning record.
Hornibrook regressed; the redshirt junior struggled against BYU, went over three quarters without completing a pass against Michigan and threw three interceptions against Minnesota. Hornibrook finished with 13 touchdowns and 11 interceptions, and his lack of arm strength made easy throws turn into jump balls. In UW’s other two losses to Northwestern and Penn State, sophomore Jack Coan was forced to play after Hornibrook was injured. Coan played about how anyone would expect for his first real-game action but showed significant growth in his next few starts.
The only thing consistent about Wisconsin’s offense came on the back of sophomore Jonathan Taylor, who finished the regular season with 1,989 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns. Behind an offensive line that had four first team All-Big Ten blockers, the Badgers leaned on Taylor every game. Taylor had almost 300 more rushing yards than the second-best rusher this season. Somehow, Taylor improved on his gaudy freshman campaign.
Wisconsin staff knew they would have an extremely inexperienced defense after losing seven starters, but injuries pushed that problem to the extreme. A preseason injury forced defensive lineman Garrett Rand to miss the entire season. Cornerback Dontye Carriere-Williams left the program after losing his starting role in the summer. Two of the Badgers’ best seniors, safety D’Cota Dixon and nose tackle Olive Sagapolu, missed three and four games, respectfully. Scott Nelson, Faion Hicks, Caesar Williams, Deron Harrell and Isaiahh Loudermilk were all also forced to miss significant time due to injury. Across the defensive line and in the secondary, defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard was forced to mix and match with an assortment of freshmen and sophomores who hadn’t played last season.
Despite the issues, Leonhard’s crew performed respectfully, surrendering 24.3 points per game. Wisconsin’s defense consistently kept them in games while its offense sputtered, relying heavily on senior linebackers T.J. Edwards and Ryan Connelly as the pair finished up their decorated careers. But UW struggled at pressuring the quarterback, only registering 18 sacks on the season. That lack of pressure left its young secondary exposed and it became worn down.
The Badgers entered the season with high hopes, but that all came crashing down. Instead of a Big Ten Championship, UW lost the Axe and were barely bowl eligible. What a difference a year makes.