MADISON, Wis. — In the aggrieved history of college football, Americans have looked huffily toward people in other towns and accused their teams of playing meager schedules. In the tortured history of college football, Americans have griped even about their own unbeaten teams when the quarterback's touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio is deemed unsatisfactory.
Both those American traditions have alighted this year in this fantastically rowdy and rowdily fantastic college town. The Wisconsin Badgers seem to have the temperament to handle the former and the forgetful quarterback to heal the latter.
When they reached 11-0 Saturday with a 24-10 win over No. 24 Michigan, the No. 5 Badgers made it seem as if they barely had noticed that people have pooh-poohed their schedule, with its lack of Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State, and its nonconference turns with Utah State, Florida Atlantic and BYU. They also demonstrated that when sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook throws an interception that looks pivotal, as he did in the middle of the third quarter with the score 7-7, there's no cause for despair.
Of the former issue, and all the outside clamor, Coach Paul Chryst has a solution.
"Stay inside the [football] building," he said, dredging guffaws.
Of the latter, wide receiver A.J. Taylor had an assessment of Hornibrook, whose touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio of 18-13 could be classified as adventurous.
"He's just really mentally strong," Taylor said. "That's the biggest thing. Mentally, he's there. I give him credit for that, because I'm not there yet. If I make a mistake, something big, I'm kind of on myself."
When Wisconsin's defense replied to Devin Bush's interception of Hornibrook 29 yards from the end zone by permitting only a field goal, and when Hornibrook then forgetfully led creative drives of 77 and 61 yards, a national referendum on Wisconsin on a tepid national day was settled. Three third-down plays factored mightily into that: a 51-yard pass to Taylor up the left side on third and 13, a 24-yard touchdown pass to Taylor on third and 16 and a 27-yard pass to Danny Davis on third and eight.
By the end of that last play, the Badgers had recovered from Michigan's 10-7 lead, led 14-10 already and had unlocked Michigan's herculean defense, ranked No. 3 nationally. Moments later, Kendric Pryor took off on a 32-yard jet-sweep end-around, finding a veritable open prairie to the end zone.
"Because you just keep hammering, you know, similar plays at a defense, and it doesn't get mundane to them, but I think they get a feel for how they want to fit this play, and then when you hit them with a change-up like that, it should usually always be there," left tackle Michael Deiter said.
Hornibrook, who had two interceptions returned for touchdowns in an otherwise cheery 38-14 win over Iowa last week, had struck again. Deiter, with a clear comprehension of college football history, said of the gripes, "I think that's how it's going to go anywhere and any town. Fan bases, they like to point fingers and stuff like that. They like to, I don't know, I don't want to say 'whine,' but they'll blame someone about stuff that's not going right. And it's easier to blame a quarterback. It really is. And that kind of comes with the position."
Said Hornibrook: "Sometimes adversity helps make you play harder and better," as if people might try the occasional interception now and then as a motivating agent.
On they go, at No. 5, up from No. 9 and then No. 8 in the College Football Playoff rankings, all while remaining unbeaten while spending those three weeks behind various once-beaten teams: six of them, then four, now two. They have had their schedule pilloried, a routine matter around the country, but not especially insulting here, apparently.
"Maybe a little bit, but not really," Deiter said. "I mean, there's really no need for it, because at the end of the day, if you just keep winning, you'll find yourself in a good spot. And what good does getting mad at the outside noise do for a team? To me, all it could do is harmful stuff. So keep everything in-house, and just making sure you win games, and everything should work out for you. I think that if your fuel is outside noise, then you probably shouldn't be here [at Wisconsin]. If your fuel isn't just this team and wanting to win, if your fuel is, 'I want to silence the haters,' and stuff like that, then you're probably not in the right spot. Wisconsin is just all about playing for the team, and for the state, fans, stuff like that, that's your fuel."
"There's no ego here," safety D'Cota Dixon said.
So they have the two wins against top 25 teams, No. 23 Northwestern and No. 24 Michigan, and now it's time for the committee to set those against the gaudier arrays of wins for No. 2 Clemson (10-1), No. 3 Miami (Fla.) (10-0) and No. 4 Oklahoma (10-1), up ahead of them, plus the worrisome No. 6 Auburn (9-2) and No. 7 Georgia (10-1) just behind. They have their remaining games at Minnesota and in the Big Ten championship game against somebody presumably sturdy.
None of this clamor seems to have infiltrated them, up to and including Chryst, of whom Deiter said, in an apt summary of this whole situation: "He's just a good dude."
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