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Defense, Hornibrook shine as Wisconsin throttles Michigan State in upset

Wisconsin's defense smothered Michigan State and quarterback Alex Hornibrook seized the starting job in the Badgers' 30–6 rout of the Spartans on Saturday.

Overlook a Wisconsin-Michigan State showdown at your own peril. In the last six seasons, the programs have combined for six Big Ten championships—they shared one in 2010, accounting for the year neither won— and each team has three league title game appearances in that span.

So Saturday represented a fairly meaningful pivot point for both the Badgers and the Spartans. The result was a stunning 30–6 beatdown by Wisconsin, which makes its next two games against Michigan and Ohio State highly interesting … while making everyone wonder just how Michigan State could come out so incredibly flat after looking so good one week earlier.

Here are three thoughts on the proceedings:

1. Wisconsin’s defense is just fine, thank you

No one can blame Dave Aranda for taking nearly three times the money— a reported $1.3 million salary— to run the LSU defense. Ask any semi-rational American if she or he would take a 300% pay raise, and prepare to wipe up a pool of salivation on the floor. It’s reasonable. It wasn’t as reasonable to believe a very solid Badgers defense would cease to function in 2016; it was, however, fair to wonder just what the overall effect would be in trading Aranda for new defensive guru Justin Wilcox.

As of Saturday, the Badgers have atomized those worries and wonderings.

First, Wisconsin’s defense limited LSU to 257 yards of total offense in a season-opening upset of the Tigers. If anyone applied a large asterisk to that game—an asterisk specifically related the odd LSU strategy of playing a quarterback that can’t win college football games—there would be no such mitigation Saturday. Michigan State rolled up 36 points and 500-plus yards one week earlier on the road … and then amassed just six points at home just seven days later. The Badgers were steady all game, allowing 4.7 yards per play—though that number was less than four yards per snap before Wisconsin pulled back a bit in the fourth quarter.

And Wilcox’s crew was spectacular when it mattered, too. A strong pass rush led to a second-quarter interception from cornerback Sojourn Shelton, which turned into a Wisconsin touchdown. But this was hardly the most consequential play of the day from the Badgers defense. No, that would be the third-quarter fumble return that changed the tenor of the day: Wisconsin was clinging to a seven-point lead and Michigan State had just decisively forced a three-and-out to start the second half. Momentum was turning. And then Wisconsin’s D’Cota Dixon put his helmet on the ball and popped it loose from Michigan State running back L.J. Scott. The Badgers’ Leo Musso scooped the fumble and, after a sensational spin move to avoid a tackle, finished off a 66-yard return for a touchdown. It was still a two-score game, but the pall fell over Michigan State at that moment.

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How long this lasts is the question. Wisconsin will travel to Michigan next weekend and then hosts Ohio State two weeks after that. Maintaining this level of fortitude won’t be easy. But there’s a reason to be more optimistic about the Badgers surviving a harrowing start to league play with their Big Ten West division title hopes intact: The defense that no one, anywhere, should worry about anymore.

2. Alex Hornibrook is your Wisconsin quarterback of the present and the future

It’s possible, and even very likely, that Paul Chryst didn’t think of his quarterback battle in these terms … but, man, did Wisconsin’s head coach play that dynamic perfectly.

Senior Bart Houston was the starter for the first three games and redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook the enticing option that, in smaller doses, simply looked better. So Chryst got to make the best kind of change: He figured out he needed a different guy under center without suffering a loss on the way. And Chryst gave the veteran a chance, which ultimately took the pressure off the younger, greener option, by limiting any second-guessing. Had Hornibrook been the guy from the jump, and had he struggled, you can be assured the Why wouldn’t you go with the more experienced guy early on? crowd would have made their voices heard. That is moot now.

However Chryst got there, he arrived at Hornibrook in Week 4, and surely he is happy he did. Hornibrook’s numbers against Michigan State were more than acceptable: 16-for-26 for 195 yards and one touchdown against one interception. But the numbers within the numbers were even more impressive. On a third-quarter third-and-8, Hornibrook dropped an absolutely perfect ball into receiver Jazz Peavy’s hands for a 31-yard gain. Not only was the throw a tough one that Hornibrook executed as well as humanly possible, it made him, at the time, 7-for-9 for 127 yards on third downs for the day. And 16-for-19 for 270 yards on the season. (Kudos to Wisconsin State Journal writer Jim Polzin for the on-the-fly research, disseminated via Twitter.)

We’ll see how well Hornibrook responds against feral Michigan and Ohio State defenses. Here’s guessing that a Badgers run game will have to step it up a notch to protect its young quarterback from having to do too much. (Corey Clement, back from an ankle injury that cost him a game and a half, rushed for 54 yards on 23 carries Saturday.) But Hornibrook certainly seems reliable and dauntless, which would seem to be exactly what Wisconsin needs now and for the next few years.

3. Michigan State needs better quarterback play

It’s very easy to pile on the quarterback. But now we’re wondering how much of Michigan State’s offensive detonation at Notre Dame had to do with Michigan State; faced with a stout run defense and a pass rush that actually can get to a quarterback, the Spartans wilted.

Even during that rout in South Bend, Tyler O’Connor had inconsistent moments. When it was left to O’Connor on Saturday to make plays, he didn’t make enough. The senior misfired on 11 of 18 first-half passes. He finished 18-for-38 for 224 yards and three interceptions—and much of that line was padded late in the fourth quarter with the Badgers defense playing much more permissively, which tells you how bad it was before that. We’ll see if Mark Dantonio takes a look at backup Damion Terry next week on the road at Indiana, or if the Michigan State head coach allows O’Connor to build confidence against a more inferior Hoosiers defense. Either way, at the moment, the Spartans don’t appear to have a difference-maker at quarterback. That means a lot of other things need to go right, or else. Saturday was an “or else” day.