After two months of solid, boring victories against bad teams by margins of multiple scores, Wisconsin football finally played a game worth watching. And they made the most of it. Facing their first ranked opponent of the season (the soon-to-be-unranked Iowa Hawkeyes), the Badgers dominated, allowing a little bit of doubt to creep in on two pick-sixes but otherwise playing a perfect game. On a day when higher-ranked Georgia, Notre Dame, and TCU were all blown out, Wisconsin’s 38-14 victory to get to 10-0 was exactly what they needed.
Every relevant college football team still has three games left to play (now that the Big 12 has a title game like everyone else), and their fortunes rest with a group of people with their own biases, so it’s a little pointless to speculate that far into the future, but let’s focus on what we do know: Wisconsin is really good. We don’t know if they can be great, and we don’t know yet if they can beat a top-tier opponent, but, heading into a massive game against Michigan this weekend, Wisconsin now deserves attention.
It will not shock anyone who’s even just casually followed Wisconsin football over the last two decades to hear that the Badgers are winning almost entirely because of their rushing attack and their defense. Sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook is mostly a replacement-level passer, and he isn’t asked to do much more than that. Only once in Big Ten play this season has he topped 200 passing yards, and he often doesn’t even break 20 attempts in a game. He can’t run, either, but that’s all okay, because once again, there’s another Wisconsin running back making a name for himself—freshmen Jonathan Taylor, who leads the conference in rushing attempts, yardage, and touchdowns. Taylor is a classic workhorse who mostly just runs fast in a straight line. He’s not an elusive human-highlight guy so much as someone with great acceleration who can find the gaps his offensive line opens up and speed through. In Saturday’s game against Iowa, he didn’t score a touchdown, and he didn’t have a rush of more than 19 yards, but he controlled the pace and kept Wisconsin in the lead, carrying the ball 29 times for 157 yards.
Perhaps more interesting than Wisconsin’s offense, however, is the defense, which held Iowa’s offense scoreless and only let the Hawkeyes gain 66 total yards. And that’s only slightly better than the unit has been all season, as Wisconsin allows 13.4 points per game and leads the country in yards per game allowed. This might actually be the rare team that’s more fun to watch when they don’t have the ball, as a fumble-recovery touchdown from Leon Jacobs and a spectacular falling interception from T.J. Edwards combine to argue:
Again, though, there’s a fair counter that Wisconsin still has everything to prove. While their strength of schedule (67th in the country) isn’t drastically worse than fellow undefeated Alabama (38th), the Badgers’ early-season wins against Utah State, Florida Atlantic, and BYU, as well as its regular-season avoidance of Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan State, all work against the notion that this is a legitimate title contending team. That’s what makes this upcoming matchup against Michigan so important. The Wolverines are just a solid squad with an unproven freshman forced to play quarterback, and Wisconsin will benefit from home-field advantage just like they did against Iowa. But until the Big Ten Championship game (to which they’re already guaranteed a berth), this is Wisconsin’s big chance to assert their national importance. Repeat that Iowa performance, and this formerly disrespected undefeated quickly becomes a true threat.