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.