Wisconsin football: 5 things we learned from victory against Purdue

MADISON, Wis. — No. 7 Wisconsin defeated Purdue, 17-9, on Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium. The Badgers created even more distance in the Big Ten West by improving to 6-0 overall and 3-0 in league play.

Here are five things we learned about Wisconsin:

1. RB Jonathan Taylor is still a force of nature

Jonathan Taylor announced himself to Purdue’s defense by bursting through the middle for a 67-yard touchdown on the third play from scrimmage Saturday. The only person on the field who even had a chance to stop him was an official he eluded on his way to the end zone. Taylor wasn’t perfect. He fumbled near the goal line early in the fourth quarter with Wisconsin leading 17-9. But he still finished the game with 30 carries for 219 yards and 1 touchdown.

Taylor entered the day leading the Big Ten in rushing and ranked No. 4 nationally in that category at 153.4 yards per game. He also had scored a league-high 9 rushing touchdowns. Both of those marks led all freshmen. The more Taylor continues to excel, the more discussion there will be about him being a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender. As long as Wisconsin remains unbeaten, Taylor is sure to draw more nationwide attention.

2. The passing game remains up and down

Badgers quarterback Alex Hornibrook had two uneven games to open Big Ten play against Northwestern and Nebraska. In those contests, he completed 20 of 37 passes and threw 2 touchdowns with 3 interceptions. He had a solid drive early against Purdue, but he still didn’t put together a complete game. On the team’s second drive, he completed all 4 of his passes for 63 yards, which included a 14-yard touchdown pass to receiver Quintez Cephus.

Purdue cornerback Dedrick Mackey intercepted Hornibrook early in the second quarter. But it appeared as though the pick was a result of receiver Danny Davis running the wrong route. Hornibrook completed 7 of 9 passes for 93 yards in the first half. Purdue defensive end Danny Ezechukwu then intercepted Hornibrook when his pass bounced off the hands of tailback Rachid Ibrahim and into the waiting arms of Ezechukwu. It marked Hornibrook’s fifth interception in the last three games. That’s too many turnovers for a team with national-title aspirations.

3. Wisconsin’s defense is bailing out the Badgers

The Badgers didn’t put their defense in the best position, but the group responded against Purdue. Wisconsin did not allow any points after Hornibrook threw his first interception. Later in the second quarter, the Badgers secured a big-time stop after Purdue’s Garrett Hudson blocked a punt. Teammate Race Johnson picked up the ball and ran to the Wisconsin 15-yard line. But outside linebacker Garret Dooley and defensive end Alec James registered back-to-back sacks to push back the Boilermakers and force a 42-yard field goal, which missed wide right.

Just before halftime, Purdue reached Wisconsin’s 20-yard line after Badgers linebacker T.J. Edwards was ejected for targeting. But defensive end Conor Sheehy sacked Purdue quarterback Elijah Sindelar for a 7-yard loss and forced a long field goal. Wisconsin again held Purdue to a field goal after Hornibrook’s second interception. After Taylor’s fourth-quarter fumble, Purdue was forced to punt. And just when it appeared Purdue might have a chance to tie the game, outside linebacker Leon Jacobs intercepted a Sindelar pass on the right sideline inside the red zone for the biggest play of the game.

Wisconsin entered the game leading the nation in opponent touchdown percentage in the red zone, allowing 5 touchdowns on 15 drives. And the Badgers remained stout with their backs against the wall.

4. The targeting rule needs to be tweaked

During the second quarter, Edwards was ejected for a targeting call with 18 seconds remaining. The play happened at such a high speed that it appeared there was little Edwards could do to avoid a hit to the helmet. The idea behind penalizing players is a good one because it is meant to try to make the game safer. But the application of the rule should be examined.

It would make sense to put in place two separate forms of targeting: One for hits that appear to be unintentional and one for hits that are more egregious. The first version could still result in a 15-yard penalty without ejection. While it would be up to an official’s discretion, at least it would provide a rule that seems more fair to the defensive player.

5. Wisconsin continues to pull away in the Big Ten West

Wisconsin’s first three conference opponents have all been from the Big Ten West, and the Badgers haven’t missed a step. With a Purdue victory on Saturday, the Boilermakers actually would have taken over first place in the West Division via a tiebreaker against the Badgers. Instead, Wisconsin widened its lead to at least two games on every team, which included any potential tiebreaker against Nebraska.

The Big Ten West has largely been a disappointment, but that is out of the Badgers’ control. What matters for Wisconsin is that the Badgers continue to win. That isn’t always an easy proposition in college football. Just ask Oklahoma, Clemson and Washington State, which have each lost in recent weeks to unranked teams and seen their College Football Playoff dreams take a substantial hit.

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