MADISON, Wis. — For a team that has earned its reputation as reliable and boring this year, No. 5 Wisconsin sure can flip a game in a hurry.
The Badgers’ undefeated season and College Football Playoff bid appeared to be in doubt in the second half of a Saturday slogfest against Michigan‘s talented defense. Then two touchdowns in the final 3:31 of the third quarter changed that, and propelled Wisconsin to a 24-10 vindicating victory.
Things turned on a dime at Camp Randall Stadium, more specifically a dime of a throw from quarterback Alex Hornibrook. The redshirt sophomore dropped a 51-yarder into A.J. Taylor‘s breadbasket to breathe life into a stale offense. Three plays later Hornibrook stepped into another pass to Taylor, this one a 24-yard dart to the end zone on third down that put the Badgers ahead for good.
Hornibrook (9-for-19, 143 yards) was far from perfect Saturday, but just like the previous 10 games, he did enough to win. Wisconsin’s offense had minus-7 yards in the second half prior to that game-changing drive. His two connections with Taylor came on the heels of a three-and-out and an interception that set Michigan up to take the lead. Wolverines kicker Quinn Nordin connected from 39 yards after a Devin Bush interception, but that was the end of what was looking like a promising day for a young Michigan team that has yet to beat an opponent with a winning record.
Brandon Peters, the redshirt freshman quarterback who had provided some optimism for Michigan’s offense in November, left the game on the following series. He was hit hard by Wisconsin linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel after releasing a third-down pass and needed to be carted off the field.
Peters completed 9-of-18 passes for 159 yards before leaving. He narrowly missed a touchdown pass when referees decided in the second quarter that freshman Donovan Peoples-Jones didn’t touch a foot down inbounds before stepping on the sideline on an end-zone fade route. Fifth-year senior John O’Korn wasn’t able to get the offense back in rhythm after coming off the bench in the fourth quarter, and his receivers didn’t provide him with much help.
Wisconsin smelled blood. The offense drove 61 yards in less than two minutes — warp speed for a team that has made it this far with its suffocating defense and its 1,000-yard rusher, Jonathan Taylor — capped off by a creative rushing play that freshman receiver Kendric Pryor took 32 yards to the house. That surge seemed to loosen up some space for Taylor, who managed to reach 132 rushing yards despite an ineffective start.
The party had already started in Madison by the time Taylor topped the 100-yard mark. The late third-quarter surge came just in time for Camp Randall Stadium to turn into the House of Pain. With “Jump Around” playing into the final 15 minutes, Badger players danced on the field between quarters and their fans shook the stadium. They’ve seen enough to know that this year’s Wisconsin team can close out a win.
The next jump, sliding from the College Football Playoff’s on-deck circle into the top four, may not come until (and unless) the Badgers can beat Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game in early December. Knocking off a sturdy Michigan team in their final home game, though, should give the Badgers all the résumé-padding they need to secure a semifinal spot if they take care of business in Minnesota and Indianapolis in the next two weeks.