By Genaro C. Armas, AP Sports Writer
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin will need some help to make November a month to remember.
The Badgers are beat up, out of the Top 25 and out of first place in the Big Ten West.
A loss last week to Northwestern knocked Wisconsin (5-3, 3-2) from its familiar perch atop the division. Now, just winning their last four games of the regular season won’t guarantee a trip the conference title game after falling behind the Wildcats.
This is unfamiliar territory for a team that went to the Big Ten title game the previous two years with at least outside shots to make the College Football Playoff. A chic pick going into this season to make the final four, the Badgers instead are out of the Top 25 for the first time since the 2016 preseason poll.
The message from coach Paul Chryst and the team’s senior leaders hasn’t wavered, though there might have been a hint of disappointment in offensive lineman Michael Deiter’s voice.
“The message is win football games and play good football and that’s what it’s been all year. If you do that, you’re going to have what you want at the end of the year,” Deiter said Monday. “But obviously there have been some hiccups here and there.”
They are in part due to an injury list that keeps mounting.
Standout nose tackle Olive Sagapolu will miss this weekend’s game against Rutgers after hurting his right arm in the second half against Northwestern. The anchor of a line who regularly draws double teams, Sagapolu will be replaced by freshman Bryson Williams.
That will make it three freshmen across the defensive front, with Williams flanked by Matt Henningsen and Kayden Lyles, a converted offensive linemen. They have also been pressed into starting duty because of injuries.
Starting safeties D’Cota Dixon and Scott Nelson remain questionable with right leg injuries, sapping the secondary of its two best players. The Badgers are already relying heavily on freshmen at cornerback.
On offense, Cole Van Lanen will miss the Rutgers game with a left leg injury. Van Lanen splits time with Jon Dietzen to form an effective duo at left tackle.
Most important, quarterback Alex Hornibrook missed the Northwestern game because of a concussion, leaving sophomore Jack Coan to make his first collegiate start. Coan was 20 of 31 for 158 yards and a touchdown. The Badgers didn’t have much of a deep passing game, and a botched handoff to Jonathan Taylor led to a fumble.
Chryst said Hornibrook was still in the concussion protocol Monday.
“If he’s in it and he’s ready to do more than before, then as the week goes on we’ll know more,” Chryst said.
Facing Rutgers (1-7, 0-5), the only winless team in conference play, should give the beat-up Badgers a confidence boost at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday. But tough road tests come the following two weeks at Penn State and Purdue before Wisconsin hosts traditional rival Minnesota to finish the season.
Probably the easiest path back to the top of the West would have the Badgers winning out and Northwestern, which is 5-1 in conference, losing two of its last three Big Ten games.
The steady Chryst, as usual, isn’t looking that far ahead. He doesn’t get too high after big wins or too low after tough defeats.
“You always try to put your energy into things that you can control,” Chryst said. “I don’t know if we can control (the team’s destiny in the West), but every day we can impact it. How you approach that day, and that message has been consistent from Day 1. That hasn’t changed.”