Wisconsin's defense stars against Purdue despite turnover woes on offense

Despite rushing for more than 200 yards, Jonathan Taylor's fourth quarter fumble nearly cost the Badgers against Purdue.

Image By: Christian Memmo

For the first 15 minutes of their 17-9 win over the Purdue Boilermakers (1-2 Big Ten, 3-3 overall), the No. 7 Wisconsin Badgers (3-0, 6-0) played like an undefeated powerhouse rolling over the rest of their conference opponents.

Then, an early second-quarter interception by redshirt sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook became the catalyst for three quarters of sloppy football from an offense that left UW looking vulnerable despite their perfect record.

Purdue climbed back to make it a one-score game late in the third quarter, and Wisconsin held on. But the close margin of victory was a reminder that the Badgers still have work ahead of them if they want to keep the zero in the loss column.

“Certainly we’ve got to do a better job of taking care of the football, those are big,” head coach Paul Chryst said. “That and the blocked punt, those are huge plays,”

The huge plays for Wisconsin were mostly negative after that first quarter. It started with the Hornibrook interception just over a minute in the second quarter.

The Badgers had already driven 41 yards in six plays, with a pair of explosive plays from Hornibrook and freshman running back Jonathan Taylor.

On a 2nd and 11, Hornibrook had an empty backfield with time to throw, and he thought he had freshman wide receiver Danny Davis open. Hornibrook threw it where he thought Davis would be, but redshirt senior Purdue cornerback Da’Wan Hunte was there instead to pick it off and take it back 42 yards.

“We were a little off-key there,” Hornibrook said. “I was thinking [Davis] was going to post it over the middle, and he was seeing something different, so we were just off on that one.”

Wisconsin was off on its next drive too.

After seven plays and 43 yards, the Badgers were ready to punt from their own 47-yard line. Sophomore punter Anthony Lotti was hoping to pin the Boilermakers back near their goal line, and he needed his coverage team to hurry down field to corral the ball or force a fair catch.

They didn’t get the opportunity.

“It was pretty much right as the snap was coming,” Lotti said. “I saw them load up that right side, and we had sent out my personal protector. So I could have had a faster get-off, that’s for sure, but it was definitely not a great setup.”

Normally, in Wisconsin’s pro-style punt protection, an extra blocker stays back near the punter to serve as the last line of defense for anyone trying to block the punt.

On this particular fourth and three, the Badgers motioned that personal protector, redshirt freshman running back Garrett Groshek, in order to get him a free release and a head start to cover the punt.

Purdue’s punt team noticed it right away and was ready for it, shifting four defenders just before the snap to overload the right side of the formation where Wisconsin now had one fewer blocker.

That left the Boilermakers’ redshirt senior cornerback Race Johnson unblocked as he sprinted to the punter to block the kick.

“Pre-snap, we have predetermined guys who we’re supposed to block,” said redshirt junior linebacker Ryan Connelly, who was blocking on that side of the punt formation. “They knew we would motion out our guy, so they timed it perfectly, and kind of overloaded that one side and hit.”

Those two turnovers were the story of the second quarter, killing Wisconsin’s borderline dominant start to the game.

Those struggles lingered over into the second half, when Hornibrook threw his second interception of the game on a screen pass to redshirt senior running back Rachid Ibrahim.

The pass was slightly behind the transfer from Pittsburgh but Ibrahim still got two hands on it. But in trying to corral the pass, Ibrahim tipped it up in the air so that redshirt senior Purdue linebacker Danny Ezechukwu easily intercepted it.

Hornibrook can only do so much when a catchable pass is intercepted, but as a leader of the offense, he still took blame for his role in the play.

“There were probably a little too many guys there,” Hornibrook said. “I probably could have just put it in the dirt, but I saw a lane to throw it to [Ibrahim], so I threw it.”

A fourth-quarter fumble by Taylor proved to be more of the same from Wisconsin, as turnovers in each of the last three quarters prevented UW from putting up more than three points after the first period.

Giving the Boilermakers so many opportunities could have resulted in a disaster for the undefeated Badgers, but their defense stepped up to the plate the way they have so many times this season.

“I think those are crucial moments in the game, when the offense has a turnover or we have a blocked punt,” redshirt senior outside linebacker Garret Dooley said. “ As a defense, we kind of need to stop the momentum that the other team has, and tonight we were able to do a heck of a job with that.”

UW is going to need more of these types of performances from its defense in order to remain undefeated. But to truly take this season to the next level and be one of the nation’s best, Hornibrook and the offense is going to have to pull its weight and take care of the ball at the very least.

The road to a perfect season continues Oct. 21 against Maryland. Kickoff is scheduled for 11 a.m. at Camp Randall Stadium.

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