The Wisconsin Badgers are a well-disciplined, well-prepared, and well-coached football team. The coaching staff has a plan and they stick to it. But, on afternoons like two Saturdays ago in Columbus, Ohio, none of that mattered.
I asked lineman Matt Henningsen to share his thoughts on the Badgers’ gameplan immediately following the 38-7 defeat to now No. 1 Ohio State. It was, admittedly, an unfair question; Henningsen was never going to stand there and call out his coaches or teammates in the moment after a crushing loss. That’s not how Wisconsin players have handled themselves this season in both the good times and the bad.
What Henningsen did say, however, was in strong support of a program that has managed to do a lot with a little over the last fifteen-plus seasons.
“This is a winning program,” Henningsen said. “We’ve got good coaches that know what they’re doing when it comes to winning football games. I’m convinced that sticking to the plan that we got is the way to win … you can prepare all you want, but at the end of the day it’s about execution on gameday.”
Sure, the loss to Illinois earlier this fall was shocking and ugly, but it didn’t expose anything new about Wisconsin football. The Badgers have won by grinding out first downs, holding onto the ball, and converting on scoring chances. Against the Illini they had multiple costly turnovers, kicked a field goal from the one-yard line, missed another from short range, and allowed a couple of big plays slip past them defensively. When those things go wrong in a low-scoring Big Ten environment, the Badgers have a hard time winning.
“You can never play a perfect football game, there’s no such thing,” Henningsen said. “At the end of the day you have to execute when it comes down to it.”
Wisconsin’s battle against the Buckeyes was a completely different story. From the get-go, it was apparent the Badgers’ offensive line was no match for the insane talent Ohio State has compiled defensively. A one-dimensional running attack from Jonathan Taylor never got off the ground; he ran for just 61 yards on 20 carries. The offensive line was pushed around, most-aggressively by Buckeyes defensive end Chase Young. Young set a school record with four sacks, and added two forced fumbles to cap off one of the all-time great defensive performances you’ll ever see. How could such a highly-touted offensive line with NFL Draft-quality talent have no answer for the OSU pass rush?
The simple answer: that Saturday, talent won. It’s no secret that OSU has a loaded recruiting class year in and year out on both sides of the ball. Wisconsin, on the other hand, ranked last of the 52 Power Five schools in recruiting budget between football and men’s basketball since 2013. When Wisconsin is matched up against the superpowers of the college football world, their ground-and-pound approach is defeated time and time again. The Badgers are stuck firmly in the second tier no matter how dominant they appear against middling and above-average opponents.
But, nothing is truly that simple. After taking a step back and analyzing the Ohio State game a bit closer, it becomes apparent just how close the Badgers are. Tasked with trying to slow down Justin Fields and JK Dobbins for the first time all year, Wisconsin’s defense actually had the edge in the first half of the ballgame. Fields faced his first test of pressure, and he wasn’t all that prepared for it. On his first three dropbacks, he was sacked once, fumbled and recovered a snap, and threw a wildly incomplete third-down pass into the benches. The Buckeyes punted on their first three drives in the cold rain.
The Wisconsin offense did their defensive unit no favors though. The Badgers were rendered completely ineffective from start to finish, failing to sustain drives and allow the defense to catch their breath. The Badger defense allowed four straight touchdown drives to end the game, ultimately losing by four scores in what had seemed like a tight game.
Quarterback Jack Coan’s day was especially disastrous. With the offensive line failing to contain Young, he was stripped twice by the now-Heisman candidate pass rusher. On the rare occasions that he had time to throw, there was no separation in the secondary from OSU’s incredible cornerbacks.
At least in the moment, it felt like the Badgers had no chance. It wasn’t as if lengthy drives were stalling around mid-field. There was no flow, no rhythm, no space for the Badgers offense all afternoon long. They took zero points into the half and finished with a meager one touchdown following a blocked punt. Coan was 10/17 for 108 yards.
It looked much worse than that live.
“You have to make sure you stay calm,” Jonathan Taylor said of the frustrating performance. “When you press, you start doing things you’re not normally doing and you’re off your game … they did a good job of playing assignment football.”
Taylor has been off his game for a couple of conference games this fall after a hot start. While the blame can be passed around from the scheme to the offensive line to Taylor himself, his lack of explosive plays has left a glaring hole in the Badgers’ offense.
The good news for the Badgers: with four games remaining, no team left on the schedule is nearly the dominant force that Ohio State is. Wisconsin can go back to basics, utilizing the game plan that has produced a nine to ten win team consistently, despite unspectacular recruiting figures.
If the Badgers can win the battle in the trenches, limit turnovers, and convert in the redzone, none of No. 18 Iowa, Nebraska, Purdue, or No. 17 Minnesota will beat them. They’ll need some help from either Iowa or Penn State, but should Wisconsin win out they give themselves a great chance to head to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship game in December. It’s not quite the guarantee that it felt like back in early October, but as Henningsen reiterated over and over, it’s all about whether Wisconsin can execute on Saturdays.
“We’ll be confident,” Henningsend added. “We’re still the same group of guys. Same defense, same offense...The season’s not over.”