The football game played Saturday in Madison could have taken place 20 years ago. Wisconsin performed a complete takedown of Michigan, outclassing the Wolverines on both lines. The Badgers were unstoppable in the running game, piling up 359 yards on 57 carries. They pressured Michigan on 39.6 percent of dropbacks, negating the Wolverines’ speed at the skill positions. They led 28-0 at halftime and had the ball for more than 41 out of 60 minutes.
In short, they played the game that Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has always wanted his team to play. After he accepted his first head coaching job, at San Diego in 2004, Harbaugh told legendary Michigan coach Bo Schembechler that he would always have a fullback on his roster. As they shift toward spread concepts — Harbaugh brought in coordinator Josh Gattis last offseason to overhaul his ground-and-pound offense and replace it with a no-huddle attack as a last-ditch effort to break Michigan’s Ohio State curse — this year’s Wolverines don’t have a fullback. But Wisconsin has three, and one of them, John Chenal, scored a touchdown against Michigan. After Saturday’s rout and shutouts of South Florida and Central Michigan by a combined score of 110-0, Paul Chryst’s team is 3-0, No. 9 in the coaches’ poll and No. 8 in the AP poll. The Badgers appear to be the best version of their traditional hard-nosed, smashmouth selves. The question this year is: Is that good enough to make the College Football Playoff?
In the spread-offense era, Wisconsin would be quite the party-crasher. The Badgers this season have averaged one snap every 31 seconds, playing at a slower tempo than any of the 20 playoff teams to date. Just 41.4 percent of their play calls are passes, fewer than any playoff finalist except Georgia in 2017. Chryst’s team has run more than half of its plays (118 of 224) from under center and huddled before 99.1 percent of its snaps. On its fourth play from scrimmage Saturday, Wisconsin faced fourth-and-inches from its own 34-yard line and came out in a jumbo formation it calls “14-Hippo” featuring seven offensive linemen, two tight ends, quarterback Jack Coan and running back Jonathan Taylor. “We slowly got to where we wanted to be, right?” Chryst told reporters afterward. “It worked.”
Wisconsin has been playing this way for years; since 2005, the style has produced nine double-digit-win seasons and three Rose Bowl berths. But the Badgers have not played for a national championship in that time. They came closest in 2017, when they marched undefeated through the regular season but fell just short to Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game. That team, perhaps more than any other, illustrated the perils of playing a plodding style in this era. When it counted, Ohio State raced past Wisconsin for 57-yard and 84-yard touchdown passes in the first quarter, and the Badgers managed only one offensive touchdown in a 27-21 loss. When their defense gave them two final chances to take the lead in the fourth quarter, their offense finished those drives with a punt and an interception.
This year’s team may already be different in one area: quarterback. From 2016 to 2018, Wisconsin started the inconsistent Alex Hornibrook, whose touchdown-to-interception ratio was just 1.42 and whose highest completion percentage in a season was 62.3 percent, good for 33rd among the top 100 quarterbacks. (The other two years he didn’t make the top 100 in completion percentage.) He threw crucial late interceptions in games such as that 2017 Big Ten championship and a 2016 trip to Michigan. Coan faced no such problems Saturday, when he rushed for two touchdowns. In Coan, Wisconsin might now have a capable quarterback to pair with its defense and Taylor, its Heisman candidate running back.
This year’s Badgers have one opportunity that the 2017 version didn’t: a regular-season trip to Ohio State. Two seasons ago, Wisconsin did not play a top-15 team until the conference championship, and losing that game knocked the team out of playoff contention. This year, the Badgers can make a huge statement by beating the Buckeyes for the first time since 2010. Their schedule may even afford them two cracks at it: If they win all their other games, they could lose to the Buckeyes in their regular-season matchup next month, avenge that loss in the Big Ten title game and still make the playoff.
If they can’t beat Ohio State, the Badgers will likely become another good team with a stout defense and an offense that’s serviceable but not flashy, potentially ending up in a New Year’s Six bowl but missing the playoff. And if Wisconsin can beat its old rival, Alabama and Clemson will likely be lying in wait, setting up the ultimate test of speed versus power.1 This decade has overwhelmingly favored speed. Old-school Wisconsin is hoping it can turn back the clock.