The lasting memory of the University of Wisconsin’s 38-13 loss at Michigan was one of offensive ineptitude — a low point for a unit that entered the season with expectations of being one of the Badgers’ best in school history.
In reality, a handful of plays in the passing game may have changed the course of their performance. While a meaningless touchdown drive boosted the number a bit, UW actually averaged more yards per play Saturday (5.78) than in last year’s win over Michigan, and even last season’s Orange Bowl victory that was lauded as a breakout offensive outing and set the stage for a promising 2018.
It may not have felt like it once the clock hit zero, but the Badgers ran the ball quite effectively throughout the night. They averaged 6.3 yards per carry, a number that balloons to 7.5 without the two sacks and Alex Hornibrook’s fumbled snap.
UW’s offensive line didn’t dominate in the same way it did against Nebraska — something that just wouldn’t happen against this Michigan front, regardless of Rashan Gary’s involvement — but Jonathan Taylor had room to pick his way for a number of decent gains.
That’s why the Badgers found themselves in a third-and-3 or shorter on six of their 11 drives Saturday — a spot this offense typically thrives in. UW only converted two of those six and finished the night 0 for 9 on third downs that required more than 1 yard to gain. Hornibrook dropped back to pass nine out of 11 times on third down, despite the short yardage in many instances, and the only one that led to a first-down completion came during that final touchdown drive.
The passing game simply didn’t get the job done, and its inefficiency destroyed possessions that began with encouraging gains on the ground.
You can’t place all the blame on a single person or position group. It starts with Hornibrook, though, who played one of the worst games of his career. He completed 7-of-20 passes for 100 yards with two interceptions and the touchdown to A.J. Taylor in the final minutes.
There were a few instances in which the offensive line gave him plenty of time to throw, the intended target created some space and Hornibrook just missed the mark.
Hornibrook’s interceptions, which directly led to 10 Michigan points, were mental errors.
On the first, it appears he initially read man coverage when the Wolverines were actually in Cover 2. If they were in man, Pryor would have drawn the outside corner further up field and opened up plenty of space for A.J. Taylor to catch this pass. Instead, he led Taylor right into the defender.
“I should have seen it,” Hornibrook said. "They were just playing Cover 2, so I shouldn’t have thrown that. I knew right when I had it out of my hand. That was just a stupid decision."
On Hornibrook’s pick-six, Michael Deiter pulls away from the left side to sell UW’s play-action, and it looks like Tyler Biadasz is late sliding over after Michigan’s pre-snap movement ended with Chase Winovich blitzing off that edge at the last minute.
That led to some pretty immediate pressure on Hornibrook, and he may have failed to notice Lavert Hill drifting into that space as he took a hit. A replay of the TV broadcast showed that lofting the pass a bit more may have led to a big gain for tight end Luke Benzschawel.
That doesn’t excuse the mistake. It’s a costly error that ended any hope of a UW comeback.
While it makes sense to hold frustration with the quarterback play from Saturday, the Jack Coan supporters won’t be vindicated just yet. Hornibrook played efficiently through the season’s first five games, and it may be shortsighted to assume Coan would have fared any better on the road against one of the nation’s top defenses.
The quest to redshirt Coan also complicates matters if UW actually did feel a change could benefit the offense. Hornibrook will have his chance to bounce back, and history tells us he will.
Like I mentioned earlier, the passing-game failures shouldn’t fall all on Hornibrook. He didn’t always get the protection he needed, and many of those issues came down to communication between UW’s offensive linemen.
Those miscommunications weren’t solely due to the pre-snap confusion Michigan often tries to create. Take this third-down sack in the video below, for example. There’s certainly nothing special about this Wolverines blitz, but the Badgers leave an outside linebacker free when they don’t need to.
The Badgers likely won’t face a better defense this season, but many of their problems were of their own doing. There’s reason to be encouraged by what we’ve seen from the running game since the bye week, but the passing game must become more consistent for UW to stand a real chance at Penn State and in the Big Ten title game.
— Andrew Van Ginkel looked much healthier Saturday. Per Pro Football Focus, he played 52 snaps compared to the 33 he saw against Nebraska last week.
He and UW’s other outside linebackers, however, were also prone to mental errors. They were often suckered into crashing towards the line of scrimmage on read-option plays, allowing the quarterback to sneak around the edge for big gains. The first two videos below in particular were crucial plays in the game.
Michigan hadn’t shown much read-option prior to this game. The Badgers looked completely unprepared for it and didn’t adjust well once Patterson took his initial read-option 81 yards to begin the second quarter.
— UW’s shorthanded secondary played shockingly well Saturday, and I don’t think any Badgers fans needed to watch the game a second time to start getting excited for Reggie Pearson’s future.
Watch where the true freshman is at the time of the handoff on this play — about 11 yards from the line of scrimmage — and yet he still flies up to make a big hit for just a 1-yard gain.
He also, of course, made another spectacular play to force a fumble at the line of scrimmage on third-and-1 during the Wolverines’ first drive of the second half — a big moment until the ensuing roughing the snapper penalty.
Pearson did take a couple poor angles in this game and wasn't tested all that much in coverage. He made quite the first impression, though, and could certainly compete to become D’Cota Dixon’s replacement in the starting lineup next season.
As a side note, I didn’t initially realize Caesar Williams played Saturday until I noticed him at cornerback in the fourth quarter when re-watching the game. He played 19 snaps, per PFF, and he said the coaching staff played him more in red zone situations so he didn't need to run as far on his injured leg.