PROVO, Utah — In whipping two overmatched opponents at home to open the season, the University of Wisconsin football team hasn’t established much of anything. Even the Badgers agree on that.
“The season’s young,” coach Paul Chryst said this week. “We don’t know who we are yet. We’re finding it and we know what we can be, but until you do it, you can’t write the story yet.”
That’s the polar opposite of last year. Or the year before. Or the year before that.
UW produced volumes of information when it opened the previous three seasons with neutral-site games against SEC powers LSU (twice) and Alabama. Every year, the Badgers were forced to hit the ground running or risk getting run over.
But with Utah State and Florida Atlantic as the first two teams on this year’s schedule, the Badgers were able to hit the ground jogging. Though they did plenty of impressive things in both games, they made enough mistakes to give the opponents hope, which prevented anyone from drawing any lasting conclusions about how good 10th-ranked UW really is.
“I don’t think it changed our approach and the opportunities for growth,” Chryst said. “I think you’re always trying to find it, whether you open up with a big game like LSU, a ranked opponent, or the ones we’ve had. I think you’re stressed a little bit differently and maybe that way it’s a little bit different, but we’ve just got to keep helping these guys try to become the best team they can be and that starts with individually each being the best they can be.”
If we’re ever going to get a true read on the Badgers, today might be the day as UW meets BYU in what likely will be a severe stress test at LaVell Edwards Stadium. BYU’s offense has been punchless — imagine that — in going 1-2 so far, but the Cougars have Power 5 conference talent, the experience and physicality that comes with being college football’s oldest team and the energy-sapping altitude of Provo on their side.
With Big Ten Conference play coming up next, UW needs to play a complete game against BYU, the nation’s second-best independent program behind Notre Dame.
“We’re still growing and we need to keep growing,” Chryst said. “I like the steps that some have taken and as a unit I think there’s been some good moments, but I think it comes down to consistency and right now we haven’t had that.”
No, the Badgers haven’t. The offense has piled up eye-popping yardage totals but too often hasn’t finished off possessions with points. The defense held the first two opponents scoreless in the second half but gave up enough big plays to keep things interesting. UW is close to being dominant on both sides of the ball but isn’t quite there yet.
The numbers put up by the offense — 45 points and 521 yards per game — are great on their face. However, quarterback Alex Hornibrook has had accuracy issues, the receivers have dropped too many passes, the line has taken too long to adjust to changes in defensive strategy and the Badgers have committed four turnovers.
UW has run the ball well, but now it’ll have to do it against a veteran front seven that is the strength of BYU’s team.
“I just see inconsistency,” offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said. “I see some really positive things and I see some things we’ve really got to clean up. The message to the team was, good teams know where they can help each other out. Maybe it’s not the perfect placement on the pass, but do I come down with the ball? Maybe it’s not the perfect protection, but can I keep it alive and make the throw? ... When an offense has that shared mentality to help the man next to you, great things happen. We’ve got to understand those moments and make plays.”
Playing hard, fast and physical, the defense has limited opponents to 12 points and 276 yards per game. Still, communication breakdowns resulted in several long passes, there hasn’t been a consistent pass rush off the edge and, after forcing four Utah State turnovers, the defense didn’t force any against Florida Atlantic.
BYU has struggled to score after losing halfback Jamaal Williams and quarterback Taysom Hill to the Green Bay Packers (though the Packers lost Hill trying to sneak him onto the practice squad). Hill’s replacement, Tanner Mangum, is expected to miss today’s game, which means BYU will rely on its power running game against UW to improve on its 11 points per game.
“It’s just the details,” defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. “To me, it’s playing with the right energy. We’ve done a great job and been dominant at times, but you’re going to have some of those lapses during games and it’s, how fast can you snap out of it? Other offenses, they’ve got plays that can hurt you and if you give it up you’ve got to be able to step back. We have not handled sudden-change situations very well. We have not gotten off the field when our offense has put us (in tough situations).”
Though UW lost two of its three openers against SEC teams, beating only LSU last season, the Badgers had a good idea of how strong they were after all three games. BYU is no heavyweight, but it’s the closest UW will come to playing one prior to the Big Ten season.