Against a physical rival in a harsh environment that has its fans so close to the sidelines they could touch you, No. 10 Wisconsin turned to several freshmen to bring the Heartland Trophy back to Madison.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook understandably had a big hand in Wisconsin’s 17-9 victory over Iowa Saturday, but it was true freshmen wide receivers Quintez Cephus and A.J. Taylor making explosive plays in both the pass and run game, and redshirt freshman tight end Kyle Penniston hauling in one of Wisconsin’s two 50+ yard receptions in a critical Big Ten West division victory.
“Those guys are phenomenal, and I think it starts in practice,” senior running back Corey Clement said. “Those guys really execute when they step out on the field and really take advantage of the opportunity they’re given. Being that they’re freshmen, I understand their position that they’re in because when I was a freshmen I wanted to do everything I possibly could to stay on the field.
“Those guys are going to be awesome as the season keeps going.”
Last week Wisconsin utilized the jet sweep in 22 and 21 personnel with Jazz Peavy receiving carries to open up the Ohio State defense. On Saturday, Taylor - a former prep running back standout from Kansas City, Mo. -- provided some additional pop to what’s become a staple play in the offense.
On his second career carry and UW’s third offensive play of the game, Taylor went around end and gained 23 yards. Though he was stuffed for a one-yard gain by an Iowa defense expecting the look later in the game, the experience breeds assertiveness in his role in the offense.
“It definitely boosts my confidence a little bit,” Taylor said. “It makes me a little more comfortable with playing that position and getting that sweep. Now that I got some positive yards from it, it makes me more like, ‘I can do this, and it’s not that bad.’”
Hornibrook started his fourth career game and completed 11-of-19 passes for 197 yards. He led the Badgers on two of their scoring drives, alternating at times with redshirt senior Bart Houston during the course of the game.
With Wisconsin up 7-3 with 3:49 in the first half, Hornibrook found Penniston past midfield, who eluded a strip attempt of 2015 Jim Thorpe winner Desmond King and sprinted 54 yards down to the Iowa 5. If not for a Clement fumble at the goal line that was recovered by Iowa, UW could have been up 14-3 at halftime.
Leave to another freshmen-to-freshmen connection to revitalize the offense to put points up on the board.
With UW leading 7-6 on the second series of the third quarter, Hornibrook found Cephus behind close coverage by two Iowa defenders. Fifty-seven yards later, the Badgers set up first-and-goal from the Iowa 5 once again. This time, Clement held onto the ball crossing the goal line, putting the Badgers up 14-6 in what was the game-deciding score.
“Q’s done a lot in practice and he had some opportunities today,” head coach Paul Chryst said. “It was a big play obviously with him and Alex on the one pass. He’ll continue to grow, and he’ll continue to take those steps forward that we need.”
The 6-1, 195-pound Cephus had only caught two passes during the season, but he’s been vital as a run blocker. Against Ohio State last week, his block sprung Clement for at 30 extra yards on a 68-yard run in the first half. With senior Robert Wheelwright severely limited with a right leg injury coming in, his role was bound to expand against the Hawkeyes.
Along with the young skill position players shining, redshirt freshman left guard Jon Dietzen returned to the lineup for the first time since Sept.10 and played some substantial snaps. True freshman nose guard Garrett Rand also found time on the field in place of injured starter Olive Sagapolu (right arm).
Wisconsin has been long known as a development program, coaching up and molding athletes into vital contributors. It appears the Badgers are ahead of the curve in a couple of cases, including their two young receivers.
“We always stay on each other,” Taylor said about his and Cephus’ motivations to play early. “We’re actually rooming in the hotels so we keep each other on point, just waiting on our time. We just got to take advantage of our opportunities and really we just stay on each other because we’re good friends and we’re good teammates, too.”