After losing to Ohio State in a hard-fought battle in Columbus, Ohio, Sept. 28, Wisconsin had the luxury of sitting at home watching those same Buckeyes face off against Northwestern in a prime-time matchup of then-undefeated Big Ten teams.
Northwestern, hosting ESPN’s "College GameDay" for the first time since 1995, put everything it had into what ultimately became a heartbreaking 40-30 defeat in front of a sold-out Ryan Field.
Having lost a spot in the AP Top 25 following the defeat, Wisconsin (2-1 Big Ten, 4-2 overall) did everything it could to get it right back, picking apart a battered and bruised Wildcat team en route to an 35-6 win at Camp Randall.
“I’m not going to talk about anything negative today,” head coach Gary Andersen said. “It’s a big win and these kids need to enjoy it.”
The No. 19-ranked Wildcats (0-2, 4-2) got the start they were looking for. Senior quarterback Kain Colter led NU on a promising opening drive before a bad decision outside the pocket led to an interception by freshman cornerback Sojourn Shelton, giving UW possession at its own 36-yard line.
“If you look back at the OSU game, (on a missed interception) my hand placement was terrible, my eyes weren’t on the ball, so that’s one thing I wanted to focus on this week, just looking the ball in.” Shelton said.
The Badgers gave it right back on a fumble by redshirt senior wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, but all Northwestern could muster out of the opportunity was a 27-yard field goal from senior kicker Jeff Budzien.
The 3-0 lead for NU didn’t last long. Taking over at their own 37-yard line with 4:19 left in the opening quarter after another quick defensive stop, the Badgers struck quickly. Play action opened up a seam for Abbrederis and sophomore quarterback Joel Stave was able to find him for a 63-yard touchdown pass that gave UW a lead it would never relinquish.
“When you’re faking a fly sweep to Melvin Gordon and then a run to James White, as a defense you have to respect those two fakes,” Stave said. “It’s tough to cover all three of them.”
The defense made sure it never let go. Northwestern struggled to generate momentum offensively, picking up just three first downs the rest of the first half, allowing UW to assert itself both on the ground and through the air.
“Whatever we did we should put in in a can, seal it and unleash it next Saturday,” Andersen said. “I thought they blitzed with an attitude. I thought the defense had an edge all around.”
Although the Badgers lost Abbrederis to a head injury later in the game, they never lost steam, ringing up 21 unanswered points before a third turnover gave Northwestern the final possession of the half and a 43-yard Budzien field goal.
If the interception and field goal kept Northwestern from being run out of the game in the first half, the Badgers' opening drive of the second half shut the door on any hopes of the Wildcats getting their first win at Camp Randall since 2000.
Beginning with consecutive first down rushes by senior James White and sophomore Melvin Gordon, the Badgers embarked on a prototypical Wisconsin scoring drive.
Gordon followed White’s rushing attempt with four straight of his own before Stave put UW inside the Wildcat 5-yard line on a 35-yard completion to redshirt freshman wide receiver Alex Erickson.
After consecutive stops inside the 2-yard line for Northwestern, Wisconsin was able to cap off the drive in atypical fashion on a 1-yard TD pass from Stave to senior tight end Jacob Pedersen to push the lead to 21.
Just one week after putting a scare into the Ohio State defense, Northwestern’s two-quarterback offense was no match for the Badger defense.
“Our crowd was great today,” senior linebacker Chris Borland said. “At times it was too loud for [Northwestern] to make their checks.”
Between Colter and junior Trevor Siemian, NU completed just 17 of 39 passes for 197 yards. With Colter and senior running back Venric Mark both leaving the game due to injury, the Wildcats became one-dimensional and finished with just 241 yards of total offense after picking up almost twice that number last week against OSU.
Wisconsin now faces its second road test of the conference season when it heads to Champaign for a night game against Illinois (0-1, 3-2) before heading into another bye week to cap off the month of October.
Although in need of serious help from Ohio State, Saturday’s win put the Badgers back on track in what could still be a season that ends in championship fashion.