Wisconsin survives late push from Northwestern

Wisconsin's defense sacked Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson eight times in the Badgers' win over the Wildcats.

Image By: Cameron Lane-Flehinger

With just over a minute to play at Camp Randall Stadium, over 80,000 raucous Wisconsin fans watched nervously as Northwestern began a drive from its own 2-yard line, the first of any such late-game drama for the Badgers this season.

There were surely flashbacks to UW’s losses to the Wildcats in 2014 and 2015, and collective groans around the stadium as Wisconsin watched a 21-point lead dwindle to just seven.

But after a safety forced by senior safety D’Cota Dixon, Wisconsin (1-0 Big Ten, 4-0 overall) eventually triumphed 33-24 over Northwestern (0-1, 2-2) Saturday, as the Badgers made various self-inflicted mistakes, but also got some significant late-game experience.

“It was definitely nice,” Dooley said of the game’s squeaky finish. “We don’t wanna go the entire season — and we’re not gonna go the entire season — just having a bunch of blowouts, because then we haven’t been in that situation.”

The Badgers’ survival versus Northwestern came after a fluffy non-conference schedule to start the season. Wisconsin easily disbanded Utah State and FAU at home before making quick work of BYU on the road in week three.

Wisconsin knew Saturday’s game would be tougher, regardless of its No. 10 ranking or the 16-point advantage that bookies set for the game.

It’s never that easy against Northwestern, after all, and though the Badgers jumped out to a three-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter, the Wildcats fought back and gave a scare to the fans who remained in the stadium.

“It wasn’t really that surprising,” said Michael Dieter, Wisconsin’s redshirt junior left tackle. “They’re a good team; they’re gonna battle, they’re gonna fight, but we gotta be better at the end.”

While Northwestern’s late push gave guys like Dooley and Dieter the chance to actually play significant snaps towards the end of the game, the closer scoreline is also indicative of the mistakes the Badgers made on Saturday.

The first of Wisconsin’s blunders came on its first offensive play, as senior wide receiver Jazz Peavy fumbled the ball after a short reception, handing Northwestern possession in the redzone and helping them to a 3-0 lead.

Two more first half giveaways would follow, as redshirt sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook bookended the second quarter with interceptions on ill-advised throws to Kyle Penniston and Quintez Cephus.

Thanks to their defense, however, the Badgers overcame various short-field situations and went into halftime trailing just 7-10, as true freshman running back revelation Jonathan Taylor found the endzone for the sixth time this season.

“I love this defense, they help us out all the time,” Hornibrook said. “We gotta help them out and not put them in those situations.”

Hornibrook and the rest of the Badger offense did that to a greater extent in the second half, as Taylor scored for the second time in the game before true freshman wide receiver Danny Davis III caught his first career touchdown for Wisconsin.

That lead was extended by a 36-yard Natrell Jamerson interception return, as the senior safety recorded his second pick of the day before Northwestern scored two quick, late-game touchdowns.

Towards the end of the fourth quarter, the Badgers allowed the Wildcats back in the game, but there would be no tying touchdown, as redshirt junior quarterback Clayton Thorson was tackled in the endzone to effectively squash any comeback hopes.

“The defense was getting great pressure on the quarterback that made the quarterback roll out and put me in the position to make a play,” Dixon said. “Anytime they get the pressure like they did today, turnovers happen.”

While the Badgers’ defense had some rough patches in this game, it managed to contain Wildcats senior running back Justin Jackson, who had at least 139 rushing yards against Wisconsin in 2014 and 2015.

The Badgers also registered eight sacks on the day, equalling the amount of sacks they came into Saturday with.

On offense, they were without tight end Troy Fumagalli, as the senior missed the game with a leg injury. Davis III and sophomore wideout Quintez Cephus performed admirably in his absence, though, as the latter caught 4 balls for 99 yards.

Saturday’s game verses Northwestern, ultimately, showcased Wisconsin’s various shortcomings but also gave the Badgers the opportunity to win a close game.

They were up to the task.

“You gotta assume that in the Big Ten, one of the best conferences in the nation if not the best, people aren’t gonna come into Camp Randall and let you walk all over them … It’s not gonna be a cakewalk,” Dooley said.

The Badgers will travel to Lincoln, Neb., next Saturday for a tricky primetime matchup against the Cornhuskers, as the former looks to cut out mistakes and improve their conference record to 2-0.

Blowout season, it seems, is over.

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