Coming into a matchup with Rutgers, where has Wisconsin's initially promising season gone?
Coming into Saturday’s matchup against Rutgers, the Wisconsin football team has seemingly fallen apart this season after having one of its best seasons ever just last year.
The Badgers (5-3, 3-2) began the year with a preseason ranking of No. 4 in the country after ending last season at No. 7 with a perfect regular season record before falling to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game for their only loss of the season.
But, since the season began, Wisconsin has fluctuated all around the AP top 25, and now after its third loss of the season in just eight games played, the team finds itself on the outside looking in at the top 25.
Where did things go wrong for the Badgers? They had five players taken in the 2018 NFL Draft, and overall had a 13-member senior class last season. Starting quarterback Alex Hornibrook returned to Camp Randall Stadium as well for his junior year.
One of the biggest returning pieces to the Wisconsin sidelines was running back Jonathan Taylor, who broke Adrian Peterson’s freshman rushing yard record with 1,977 yards last season. Taylor finished last season with the sixth highest votes for the Heisman Trophy, as well.
“He’s a very good player obviously,” Ash said on Taylor. “He’s from our state and was committed to us for a long time. We knew he was going to be a great player, that’s why we recruited him. He’s done a great job.”
The Badgers won their first two games of the season by a combined score of 79-17, but were dropped down a spot each week to sit back at No. 6 in the country.
Then, Wisconsin’s season took an unexpected turn when BYU visited Camp Randall Stadium on Sept. 15. The Cougars hit a huge field goal in the fourth quarter of a 21-21 game and held on to the lead to pull off the upset over the Badgers on the road.
Hornibrook had a quiet game, going 18-28 for 190 yards, 0 touchdowns and an interception, while Taylor had a solid outing running the ball, finishing the game with 117 yards on the ground. Though he was unable to score, fellow running backs Taiwan Deal and Alec Gold combined for 3 touchdowns to keep Wisconsin in the game.
But, BYU running back Squally Canada put up 118 yards and 2 touchdowns on the ground, while backup quarterback Aleva Hifo used his one throw of the game to connect with tight end Moroni Laulu-Pututau for a touchdown to help the Cougars match the Badgers in touchdown production and pull away with the win.
The sudden loss early in the season sent Wisconsin down the ranking board to No. 18, but it was still early on and recoverable at that point.
The Badgers went into the bye week at 3-1 after grabbing a gritty win over Iowa in their first trip away from Madison, and then got a good win back home over Nebraska after the week off to sit at No. 15 heading into a big matchup against then-No. 12 Michigan.
A primetime game in Ann Arbor, Mich. pit the two Big Ten powerhouses against each other for what should have been a competitive game, considering the two were so close in the rankings.
But Wisconsin was exposed badly in this one, with the Wolverines using a trio of halfbacks to run the ball all over the field and the Badgers en route to a 38-13 statement win. Hornibrook had a rough game, throwing 7-20 for just 100 yards and two interceptions — though he did throw a late touchdown to wide receiver AJ Taylor.
Things were close in this one for a majority of the game, with Michigan only leading 13-7 at halftime. But the Wolverines went on a 25-6 tear in the second half to come away with the big conference win.
At 4-2, Wisconsin was sent to the near brink of the top 25, being named at No. 23 to start week eight.
A 49-20 thrashing of Illinois a week later put the Badgers at a safer No. 20 ranking, but it was clear from there that the team couldn’t afford anymore losses if it hoped to be in contention for a good bowl game at the very least.
Northwestern hosted Wisconsin last Saturday, just a week after the Scarlet Knights nearly upset the Wildcats in a highly defensive 18-15 game. Rutgers was a few third and fourth down conversions away from potentially winning its first Big Ten game of the season, but the team was unable to get it done.
Well, Northwestern understood that it can’t let teams hang too close for too long this time around, as quarterback Clayton Thorson shook off a rough game in the air (17-30, three interceptions) to run the ball in for scores twice and lead the Wildcats to a classic win at home over the Badgers.
Hornibrook didn’t play in this one after recovering from a concussion, and is still questionable for Saturday’s game against the Knights. Second string quarterback Jack Coan had a quiet but solid showing for his first ever career start, throwing 20-31 for 158 yards and a touchdown in the loss to Northwestern.
Saturday’s matchup against Rutgers may be a make or break game for Wisconsin, who looks lost as of late and is searching for answers as to how its season has slipped away.
“They are a big, strong, physical football team. They have got good coaches and they have got good players. They have a winning culture that they have had for a long, long time,” Ash said.