PROVO, Utah – Many people studied the football schedule for the University of Wisconsin during the offseason and opined that there are only a handful of chances for the Badgers to lose.
The first of those games was against BYU Saturday at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
The UW-could-be-in-trouble crowd was not without ammunition all week. The 10th-ranked Badgers had two promising yet mildly unsatisfying victories in their first two games, they were playing on the road for the first time, they were dealing with high altitude for the first time and they were facing an independent program that plays a brand of physical, big-boy football which allows it to match up well with teams from the power conferences.
But if any of that was a source of worry, the Badgers quickly and firmly put it to rest. Finally looking like the team everyone expected to see, UW dominated BYU for a 40-6 victory.
“We knew we had to play our best game and I thought in many ways we did,” UW coach Paul Chryst said. “We knew we were going to be challenged differently than maybe in the first two games and I was proud of the way the guys prepared this week and most importantly did a lot of good things today and played with energy.”
The result was UW’s most complete game of the season. With sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook playing his best game at UW, the offense was efficient and balanced. The defense allowed BYU’s physical ground game to pound out a 61-yard field-goal drive early in the game but slammed the door after that. And the special teams were solid as a rock.
No offense to Utah State or Florida Atlantic, UW’s first two victims, but they’re not BYU. Yes, the Cougars had a quarterback, Beau Hoge, making his first start, but they had 255-pound Ula Tolutau running behind a veteran line and an experienced, stubborn front seven on defense.
With its size and style of play, BYU looks more like a Big Ten Conference team than a typical wide-open team from the West. That made it a perfect test for UW, which has a bye week before it opens Big Ten play against Northwestern.
“Our goal this week was to be the tougher team, be the team that’s going to impose our will,” guard Micah Kapoi said. “I think we took steps in doing that this week.”
Indeed, they did. This was BYU’s third loss in three weeks to a ranked team, having previously lost to No. 12 LSU by 27 points and No. 23 Utah by six. Maybe the Cougars ran out of gas after that taxing schedule. More likely the Badgers were just that good.
“I thought we were overwhelmed,” BYU coach Kalani Sitake said. “We couldn’t get anything going.”
It was just the opposite for UW. After a slow start against Utah State and an uneven passing performance against Florida Atlantic, the Badgers offense finally found the sweet spot, rushing for 235 yards and passing for 256. UW scored on all four drives in the first half en route to a 24-6 lead.
Hornibrook, questioned after some off-target throws in the first two games, had ample time to pass this time and was as efficient as a quarterback can be. Given time to set his feet and throw, he completed 18 of 19 passed for 256 yards and four touchdowns. His only incompletion was a dropped pass.
“I thought they did a good job overall,” Chryst said. “I thought up front we were on our targets and I thought the backs ran well and I thought today Alex was really sharp. He was seeing things clean.”
That might have been because he was clean. Even though tackle Michael Deiter was playing hurt and guard Jon Dietzen wasn’t in uniform due to injury, the line played its best game of the season — and against the toughest front it faced, too.
“I think it all started up front,” Hornibrook said. “The O-line was doing a great job in the run game and especially in the pass game. I was kept pretty much clean the whole game. And then our backs were doing a good job making plays for us.”
Defensively, BYU came out in a spread offense that forced UW to match up with a nickel scheme and the Cougars pounded the ball up the middle with Tolutau and on the edges with Hoge, a good running quarterback. But it took UW less than a quarter to make adjustments and put a halt to that. Except for a 50-yard pass from Hoge to wide receiver Micah Simon just before halftime, the Cougars were stonewalled the rest of the game by a defense that hasn’t allowed a second-half point all season.
“I think we definitely put together more of a complete game today,” linebacker Chris Orr said. “I think the statement was just, we’re going to stop the run. Aside from that one drive, that was the statement we made.”
The entire UW team declared itself in the fresh, thin air of Provo. The Badgers made mistakes and there are always things to clean up, but this was a quality win against a quality opponent, a game they dominated from beginning to end.
“I think doing it on the road is really encouraging,” Deiter said. “To come out here — they’ve got great fans, it was loud — and to play what I think was a pretty good football game in all three phases was really encouraging. I think we were due for it.”
The timing couldn’t have been better because there are a bunch of games coming up where the Badgers will have a chance to lose.