Football

Without a spark, Wisconsin's offense fails to get off the ground against Northwestern

Jack Coan's improved play in 2019 gives the Badgers a new-look on offense they haven't seen in years. 

Image By: Cameron Lane-Flehinger

Evanston, ILL — Spirits were high on the Wisconsin sideline after an Evan Bondoc interception set up an Alec Ingold 4-yard touchdown with eight minutes and four seconds left to play in the first quarter to give Wisconsin (3-2 Big Ten, 5-3 overall) a 7-0 lead.

For the next three and a half quarters, Wisconsin’s offense treated fans to a sloppy, lethargic, and uninspired display of offense as they fell 31-17 to Northwestern (5-1, 5-3).

Sophomore quarterback Jack Coan made his first career start with junior quarterback Alex Hornibrook out with a concussion. The Sayville, NY native looked rusty, but finished with a respectable 20 completions on 33 attempts, 158 yards, one touchdown and one fumble. Coan’s performance matched up with expectations for a quarterback making his first career start, but sophomore running back Jonathan Taylor and Wisconsin’s rushing attack was unable to help ease Coan into the game and take some pressure off his shoulders.

“I’m not sure [what went wrong],” Coan said. “I think I did some good [things] and some bad [things]. I just tried to battle and play as hard as I could… It was an emotional week for me, I’ve worked really hard just to get to this moment, to be a starter. It was definitely emotional. I just went out there and battled and whatever happened, happened.”

After that first quarter touchdown, Northwestern would go onto score 31 of the game’s next 34 points, helped along the way by Wisconsin's fumbles, penalties and lack of offensive rhythm.

Jonathan Taylor failed to reach 100 rushing yards for the first time this season, finishing with 46 yards on 11 carries with two fumbles, his fourth and fifth of the season. Taylor’s first fumble of the afternoon came midway through the second quarter, as he never gained full possession of Coan’s handoff. Northwestern was right there to recover, and followed up with a Clayton Thorson 5-yard touchdown run, breaking tackles from senior linebackers Andrew Van Ginkel and Ryan Connelly, giving Northwestern a 14-7 lead.

The fumble came after Wisconsin’s defense had built some momentum, stuffing two Clayton Thorson quarterback sneaks from the one yard line on third and fourth down. Taylor’s struggles continued late in the third quarter, where he coughed it up once again, giving the Wildcats the ball at Wisconsin’s 42-yard line. Northwestern’s third string kicker, Charlie Kuhbander, nailed a 26-yard field goal, giving Northwestern a 24-10 lead. Taylor’s two fumbles coupled with Coan’s fumble, which led to an Isaiah Bowser 2-yard touchdown run midway through the fourth quarter, led to 17 points for Northwestern.

“Jack took first team reps all week,” Taylor said. “We felt really comfortable, it was just quarterback, running back exchange — we gotta make sure that’s cleaned up. The second one, always gotta make sure you hand the ball to the referee. Even if you’re down, don’t let them try to scoop it up from underneath you or anything like that, always have to hand it to the referee.”

In addition to the fumbles, the Badgers beat themselves twice on fourth down, leading to 14 Northwestern points. Before Thorson’s five yard touchdown run following Taylor’s first fumble, freshman cornerback Faion Hicks was flagged for pass interference in the back of the end zone on fourth and three. The Badgers had good coverage, but Hicks never turned his head around, and ultimately went through Charlie Fessler, giving Northwestern a new set of downs.

On Northwestern’s second drive of the second half, with the Badgers only trailing 14-10, UW forced a three and out, but freshman linebacker Jack Sanborn was flagged for roughing the punter, giving Northwestern a first down. After a couple runs of six and eight by Bowser, Thorson found Kyric McGowan in the end zone for a 24 yard touchdown, extending Northwestern’s lead to 21-10. Thorson made a perfectly-placed throw to the back of the end zone, and McGowan made an impressively athletic play to keep his right foot in bounds.

"We’ve been putting our defense in a lot of hard situations, so there’s some momentum to a stop. And then to give that back… it’s huge," head coach Paul Chryst said. "We didn’t play good enough football, and didn’t complement each other. You get limited opportunities, and you have to maximize them, and we didn’t.”

Coan’s worst play of the game, an unforced fumble early in the fourth quarter, set up Northwestern’s offense to extend their lead to 31-10. 

Coan lead a scoring drive and found sophomore wide receiver Kendric Pryor for a 10-yard touchdown pass midway through the fourth quarter, briefly giving Wisconsin some semblance of life near the end of the game. The touchdown pass was the first of Coan’s career, and cut the score to 31-17.

Saturday’s loss to Northwestern breaks the Badgers’ streak of 16 straight wins over Big Ten West opponents. Wisconsin's last divisional loss came on October 4, 2014, to Northwestern at Ryan Field. It marks the second time in the past three weeks the Badgers have laid an egg offensively, with a 49 point performance against Illinois separating Saturday’s disappointment in Evanston and a 13-point dud in Ann Arbor.

“It’s real tough,” junior tackle David Edwards said. “I think everyone on the team, especially the offense, wants to be clicking on all cylinders. We haven’t been playing a complete game… The highs we have, week in and week out, are pretty high, but the lows are low and we have to clean up the things that just kill us - the penalties, the negative yardage, the sacks, the hurries, the things that you can control.”

“We needed that one spark, that one play, and we never really got it,” senior fullback Alec Ingold said.

On a disappointing day in Evanston, that spark never came. 

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