One of the main concerns for Wisconsin in regards to senior Bart Houston was if he could go throughout a game without putting his offense in peril. In his two games with considerable work, Houston’s good throws are masked by some hair-pulling mistakes, resulting in interceptions that kept points off the board for the offense or points for the defense.
That was not the case against Akron. More importantly than Houston’s 68.2 completion percentage, his passing yards or his two touchdowns was the fact that the Badgers were turnover free.
Houston’s two touchdown throws were well executed. His 13-yard touchdown pass to junior Jazz Peavy was an easy attempt because Houston looked right before coming back to his left, allowing Peavy to come out of his break and generate separation from a cornerback who bit on a double move. The 32-yard strike was perfectly placed between the two safeties, hitting Peavy right in the chest in a tight window.
A few things are deceiving. Houston’s longest pass play was a receiver screen that went for 47 yards and there were two early passes that hit Akron defenders in the hands. There are still plenty of things to improve on.
With the game well in hand, redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook made his collegiate debut and was efficient. He was 4-for-4 on his first drive and got bailed out on a couple catches but delivered a floating touchdown pass to Alec Ingold off play action and beautifully thrown 35-yard completion to A.J. Taylor that set up another score.
Excluding a final drive in which UW ran out the clock, the Badgers scored on all four second-half possessions
No quarterback controversy now, but Hornibrook certainly showed some things that will make some want to see more of him should things go south.
Akron’s young front seven had little chance to matchup with a tank like Corey Clement
With the help of the group in front of him, Clement rushed for 111 yards and two short-yardage touchdowns in the first half. He ran 21 times in the first half (tying his career high set the week before) and averaged 5.3 yards per carry.
“These opportunities are really slim, when you think about it for division 1 football and especially playing running back,” Clement said. “I try to take every opportunity, every carry, and just not take it to the house but at least get a first down my team.”
Clement now has 304 carries for 1,924 yards for a career average of 6.33 yards per carry. That ranks him second in school history behind only Melvin Gordon (2011-14), who holds the FBS record for average yards per carry at 7.79
On Wisconsin’s opening possession, Clement rushed seven times for 47 yards and the touchdown, as the Badgers methodically controlled the clock all afternoon with its running game.
“It feels really good when you just march down the field,” Houston said. “If we can run the ball all the time, why not?”
When Clement went out, the Badgers were able to get some younger backs a bevy of carries. Taiwan Deal had only one carry in the opener but turned his 12 carries into 58 yards. The real breakout performance was from redshirt freshman Bradrick Shaw, who is his collegiate debut rushed for 74 yards on nine carries (8.2 ypc) and a 35-yard touchdown run.
Shaw was able to the open field with a full head of steam, thanks to a large gap created for him between the right guard and right tackle. That made up for receiver George Rushing missing his blocking assignment but got help with the inside and outside linebacker crashing toward the center. Shaw overcame a push from the free safety by diving into the end zone from two yards out.
It wasn’t all stats that was impressive about this group.
Fullback Austin Ramesh delivered a couple of impressive short-yardage blocks that sprung Clement for his touchdowns. He was awarded later in the game with his first career touchdown run. On Houston’s second touchdown pass, Deal stepped up into the pocket and bottled up the blitzing inside linebacker.
Throw in Peavy’s 23-yard end around, Dare Ogunbowale’s 18 yards on four carries and the work from the fullbacks (6 carries, 16 yards), this was a solid all-around day.
After registering 100 receiving yards in week one, Troy Fumagalli was consistently double teamed by the defense. That opened up opportunities for the receivers to take a giant step forward from week one. Much like Fumagalli in week one, Jazz Peavy set career highs in receptions (seven) and yards (100). He also added those two touchdowns – the firsts of his career.
As started above, Peavy’s first touchdown was a result of him pulling a simple fake, causing the corner to bite outside and be wide open. The second was another case of solid route running. He also delivered a couple critical blocks downfield to senior Rob Wheelwright, especially on his 47-yard catch and run off a wide receiver screen.
Fumagalli only registered one catch but it bailed out Hornibrook with a 6-yard completion on third-and-5. He also sprung both Clement’s touchdown runs, twice sealing his defensive player inside in UW’s jumbo package and doing so lined up on either side of the formation.
Receivers coach Ted Gilmore talked in the fall about how he feels the program hit the jackpot with the three receivers they signed in 2016. More evidence of that came with Quintez Cephus nicely adjusting on a Hornibrook pass and diving for a 10-yard completion. He also attacked the ball on a deep route, drawing a pass interference that helped set up a touchdown. Taylor’s 35-yard catch will do a lot for his confidence.
Wisconsin’s offensive line had its second different starting combination in two weeks with redshirt freshman Jon Dietzen starting at left guard, but the Badgers didn’t miss a beat. Clement’s second touchdown was to the left, as Dietzen and Fumagalli delivered the primary seal blocks inside while Ramesh took care of the outside runner.
Pass protection was well designed and took the heat off Houston. On the quarterback’s first touchdown pass, UW easily neutralized a four-man rush to allow Houston time to throw. On the second, right tackle Jacob Maxwell got pushed five yards back by the end, but then stood the player straight up to stop his momentum, allowing Houston time to strike.
A byproduct of that, UW converted just 3 of 15 third-down opportunities in the opener against LSU. Against a lesser defense, the Badgers converted 10 of 15 chances (67 percent) Saturday. The last time UW converted 10 third-down chances was nearly five years ago against Northern Illinois (Sept. 17, 2011).
Akron did get one sack on the Badgers’ line but the Zips sent four players on a blitz to get it. As expected against a young front, Wisconsin was dominant.
The Zips failed to pick up a first down on eight of their 11 possessions and even surrendered a safety after stopping UW on fourth-and-goal. Defensive end Alec James was the beneficiary of outside pressure from outside linebackers Vince Biegel and T.J. Watt and defensive end Conor Sheehy forcing quarterback Thomas Woodson up into the pocket and into his linemen, leaving him pinned for James.
Wisconsin primary with two down linemen against Akron’s spread offense, so the individual tackle numbers weren’t massive, but neither were the Zips 88 rushing yards.
T.J. Watt's brute physicality continues to be a huge asset with his pass rushing abilities. On the Zips first drive of the second half, Watt – playing in a two-point stance at the line of scrimmage – gets a full head of steam and knocks the right tackle off his mark as soon as he makes contact, forcing the tailback to come over to give help. Gaining depth in the backfield, defensive end Chikwe Obasih flushes Woodson to his right after Obasih failed to complete the sack. By that time Watt had already shed both blockers and completes the 11-yard sack for the first of his career.
“It was huge, I was stressing over it, I’m not going to lie,” Watt said of wanting his first sack. “Especially after that first half I wanted to get that sack so bad. To finally get it and get it under my belt, that’s huge for me. It build confidence and I’m looking forward to getting more.”
Of the six tackles for loss Wisconsin registered, five were registered by the linebackers, including a sack by Leon Jacobs in his first game since re-adding inside linebacker to the list.
T.J. Edwards (two tackles, one sack) having no pain on the 14-15 snaps he saw is a good sign for Wisconsin’s depth moving forward.
UW has held opponents to an average of 6.0 points per game over its last 10 non-conference home games, dating to the start of the 2013 season
The narrative of the week was that Wisconsin’s cornerbacks were going to have another test in a pair of experienced, big bodied receivers who combined for 200+ receiving yards the week before. The first drive was foreshadowing that it wasn’t going to be a problem.
Woodson tested Derrick Tindal with Jerome Lane on the first play and Sojourn Shelton with JoJo Natson and Austin Wolf (the Zips’ third option) on the next two plays. The result was a pity five-yard completion for Natson and nothing else. After throwing for 400+ yards and six touchdowns in the opener, Woodson was limited to 108 yards on 9-for-19 passing and zero scores.
“They challenge us more (than LSU), but I felt like we held our own pretty well,” Tindal said. “They had great receivers but we were just staying in our technique and it was working for us.”
Tindal continues to elevate himself as a starting cornerback for Wisconsin, evidence by another stellar performance. Not only did he deliver a team-high two pass breakups, his ability to chase down tailback Warren Ball was the defense’s play of the game. Ball had already broken three tackles as he got inside the UW 20 when Tindal raced over and punched the ball free from his hands
Fellow cornerback Sojourn Shelton scooped up the bouncing ball and gained nine yards to the UW 27. The Badgers then drove for a touchdown in nine plays to pad the lead to 23-0 with 4:58 left in the half.
Sitting at the Wisconsin 38 on its next drive, the Zips were turned away again when Leo Musso made his first interception of the year at the UW 9.
“We are very big on turnovers, and if we win the turnover margin then we most likely win the game,” Tindal said. “We came into the season expecting to execute and we execute in practice all the time, so now we just have to bring it to the field.”
Natrell Jamerson and Titus Booked tied for the team lead with four tackles. Jamerson was burned by a simple stop-and-go move from Lane that turned into a 38-yard gain but registered an important one-on-one tackle on a screen pass in the final minute of the half for a 1-yard gain at the UW 22. Akron had to settle for a field goal. Not having Jamerson for at least the next month is an underrated injury for the Badgers.
After a banner week in the opener, Wisconsin’s special teams took a step back.
The Badgers allowed their first punt return touchdown in nearly four years when true freshman Anthony Lotti’s 42-yard punt didn’t have enough hang time on it, allowing Natson to make just two moves on his way to the end zone. Jamerson was caught out of position and Natson easily navigated around linebacker Jack Cichy and Lotti. The punt took a little shine off Lotti’s collegiate debut, especially after his first punt bounced perfectly inside the 10-yard line. It appears the punting battle will based on a week-by-week basis.
The Badgers kicking game was decent. Rafael Gaglianone made his only attempt (33 yards) and P.J. Rosowski averaged 62 yards on his nine kickoffs, including five touchbacks. He did have one kick go out of bounds because the returner whiffed on fielding it (and may or may not have touched it) and the spin caromed it out of bounds.
UW averaged 20.7 yards on its three kickoff returns, and Ricky Finco, a reserve wide receiver who sat out last season after transferring from Division III UW-Whitewater, had one return for 15 yards as the No.2 punt returner.
Wisconsin didn’t suffer the hangover that many other power five teams did when facing smaller schools, a sign that Paul Chryst had the group ready to go. Chryst’s decision to go for it on fourth-and-goal at the 1 was the right call, especially since Clement would have walked into the end zone had he not tripped. UW got its safety two plays later.
Wisconsin going with two down linemen against Akron’s spread and rotating consistently delivered solid pressure on Akron’s young offensive line and kept the Zips out of rhythm. Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox and defensive back coach Jim Leonhard adjustments in the second half limited things in the passing game for the Zips, which only threw for 55 yards in the second half.
The move to put Olive Sagapolu at fullback is unique and could be a weapon for the Badgers moving forward.