A month ago, the thought of the Wisconsin Badgers making it through their early season gauntlet unscathed would’ve sounded just plain insane.
A season-opening tilt with a top-five LSU team, then a brutal start to Big Ten play, with games against Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa and Nebraska, three of those coming on the road, didn’t seem survivable for anyone, these Badgers included.
But after two wins over top-10 teams in their first four games, the sanity of that notion seems to be of no consequence. Because, apparently, the Badgers can do it.
Saturday, Wisconsin went from a fine team with an impossible schedule to a full-blown College Football Playoff contender. The Badgers paid a visit to East Lansing and put on a dominating performance on both sides of the ball, blowing the doors off a Michigan State Spartans team that is the reigning conference champion and just a week earlier scored what seemed like a huge road win at Notre Dame.
No one expected the 30-6 beatdown Wisconsin delivered. And therefore expectations must be changed moving forward.
The Badgers’ defense, which lost defensive coordinator Dave Aranda to LSU in the offseason and lost starting linebacker Chris Orr to a season-ending injury in Week 1, has been incredible. Through four games, Wisconsin ranks in the top 12 in the country in both scoring defense (seventh, 11.8 points per game) and total defense (12th, 277 yards per game). And while the season-opening effort against one of the best running backs in the nation, LSU’s Leonard Fournette, was terrific, Saturday’s was perhaps more impressive. The Badgers kept the Spartans out of the end zone, no small feat considering Michigan State rattled off 36 straight points against Notre Dame the weekend prior. Wisconsin also intercepted Michigan State quarterback Tyler O’Connor three times, and the fourth takeaway was a brilliant forced fumble, picked up and taken back 66 yards for a touchdown. There was no rushing attack for the Spartans, who gained just 75 yards on the ground, and if the trio of picks wasn’t enough indication of the pressure on O’Connor, the four sacks ought to do it.
As it has been in recent seasons, this defense is again looking like one of the best in college football. That right there is enough to keep the Badgers in any game and to power them through the remainder of this gauntlet of games.
And let’s adjust expectations for the Badgers’ offense, too, after freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook looked like a legitimate playmaker against a talented Spartans defense in his first career start Saturday. His stat line won’t jump off the page – 16-for-26 for 195 yards, a touchdown, an interception and a fumble – but he was mighty impressive, wowing with the placement and accuracy on a good number of his passes.
For a team that has so often looked for a game-manager at quarterback who allows for the always-productive rushing attack to take over, Hornibrook and receiving targets Jazz Peavy, Robert Wheelwright and Troy Fumagalli might be changing that narrative.
So perhaps it’s time to treat the Badgers like the contenders they’ve played like. At least for a little while. The next two games are towering obstacles, another trip to the Great Lakes State, this time to take on a Michigan team that is pouring points on opponents and playing equally sensational defense. The Wolverines rank ahead of the Badgers in total defense. And then comes a date with the Ohio State Buckeyes, who have looked as good as any team in the country in their three games. And even with Wisconsin’s seeming emergence as the Big Ten West’s new favorite, Iowa and Nebraska provide stiff challenges, as well.
Caution is certainly advised when ramping up expectations for this group of Badgers, as that schedule hasn’t gotten any less daunting. But with the way Wisconsin has played through its 4-0 start, envisioning the Badgers as the Big Ten champ is not something that requires a powerful hallucinogen. And with that comes – at least at the moment – a much more realistic chance for the Badgers to reach the sport’s final four.
It’s not crazy. It’s Wisconsin making one heck of a statement.
After Notre Dame gave up 50 points in its season-opening loss at Texas, coach Brian Kelly said criticisms of Brian VanGorder’s defense were “jumping the gun,” adding that “I think y’all should relax a little bit. I think our defense is going to be fine.”
Following that 36-28 loss to Michigan State two weeks later, Kelly said “without question” VanGorder was the right man for the job and that firing him was “not even part of the conversation.”
And after Saturday’s 38-35 loss to Duke, Kelly said he was pleased with Notre Dame’s defensive coaching. Then, on Sunday, he fired VanGorder.
“That's not the appropriate time to get into talking about your coaches and where you feel they fit on that continuum of how well they are doing,” Kelly said of his media sessions. “I’m going to defend them, I'm going to defend my coaches in those kind of public settings. As I got a chance to further evaluate our football team and our current situation, I felt that it was in our best interests to make the move that I did.”
While Kelly said he never considered firing VanGorder after the 2015 season, he did mention that he felt a pattern emerged after that loss in Austin. Going back to last year, Notre Dame had lost three consecutive games to Stanford, Ohio State and Texas, with defensive issues marring each game.
Notre Dame’s defense allowed Stanford to connect on a walk-off field goal that effectively eliminated any chance of the Irish reaching the College Football Playoff. Ohio State’s offense kept Notre Dame at arm’s length in the Fiesta Bowl, a game which ended 44-28 in favor of the Buckeyes. And the 50 points Texas racked up — 37 of which came in regulation — were too much for DeShone Kizer (who scored six touchdowns) and the offense to overcome.
“To me, that was three in a row,” Kelly said. “So that's got my attention. You're evaluating everything at that point. So yes, I mean, I'm evaluating those from even what it happened the previous season.”
Kelly spent more time with Notre Dame’s defense last week, which allowed him to take the pulse of the group. And after watching his team self-destruct in an embarrassing loss to Duke, Kelly said he needs to see more energy, fire, passion — whatever you want to pick from the buffet of synonyms — from his team.
The move to fire VanGorder, in part, is an effort to generate that kind of enthusiasm from this defense going forward. Because if this defense doesn’t get fixed, or at least improves to being somewhat reliable, Notre Dame could very well struggle to reach six wins.
“I need to see our guys play fast and free and loose, and I need to see excitement on the field,” Kelly said. “I need to see guys playing the game like kids, and not so mechanical and robotic. They have to let it go and let it happen and that means we have to tweak some things.
“They had some fourth down stops. They played hard. But playing hard is not enough. There has to be other intangibles as it relates to your defense, and we were missing some important ingredients, and that's why I made the change. And so what I'll be looking for in particular relative to these tweaks is these guys come at it with a clean slate, and I expect to see them play with a lot more passion and enthusiasm.”