A week ago in Evanston, the Wisconsin Badgers (4-2 Big Ten, 6-3 overall) seemed to be lacking energy during their loss to Northwestern.
They found a spark of energy back when senior safety and captain D’Cota Dixon returned for this game after a lengthy spell on the sidelines with an injury.
The sheer fact Dixon was dressed and out for warm-ups seemed to give the players a calming feeling, as if a weight was lifted off their shoulders. Head coach Paul Chryst could tell Dixon’s influence.
“Having him back, one it was great for him and everyone felt his energy and going along in the week knowing he had a chance to go, he’s one of those guys who brings a lot of energy and guys take energy away from him,” Chryst said.
The Badgers would ride that energy to a strong 31-17 win over the Rutgers Scarlett Knights (0-6, 1-7).
After Dixon suffered an injury in the win against Nebraska, the young defense lost a stabilizing presence on the backside. That young defense got forced into pressure situations against Northwestern after offensive mistakes, where the Wildcats scored 17 points off turnovers. Dixon’s return helped bring the leadership back.
It looked like the defense might have to protect the offense once against after junior quarterback Alex Hornibrook threw two first half interceptions. But the defense held firm against the Scarlet Knights, allowing no points off those two turnovers and limiting the damage from the offensive mistakes.
“It was huge, you know when the offense isn’t clicking they just need the ball, the more they get the ball the more opportunities they have,” senior linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel said. “That is just our mentality each game get the ball back to them as quick as possible, whether that would be from a 3 and out or from a turnover. I think we did a great job of that.”
The Badgers started the second half without Hornibrook. Right before halftime, a sack by freshman defensive end Mike Tverdov made Hornibrook’s head hit the ground hard, and the starter was placed in concussion protocol once again.
Uncertainty loomed over the offense without the starter as sophomore quarterback Jack Coan had to lead them again. This time, Coan had the help of running back Jonathan Taylor. Taylor had a huge first half, rushing for 97 yards — double his numbers from the entire Northwestern game.
After being forced to pass 31 times last week, Coan only threw the ball once on his first three drives thanks to the great rushing of Taylor. The young quarterback was just fine with just handing the ball off and letting Taylor run.
“I don’t really care if we run the ball or pass the ball, I’m just happy if we are moving the ball and scoring touchdowns, it was great to get J.T and the line going,” Coan said.
The Badgers thoroughly controlled the line of scrimmage resulting in two touchdowns with only putting the ball in the air once. Taylor would tack on another 111 yards in the second half as he finished with 208 rushing yards and three touchdowns, with junior tackle David Edwards saying it was probably one of the quietest rushing performances he has ever seen.
“When we looked up at the scoreboard and saw that he had 197 yards on 24 carries, that was one of the quietest 197 I have ever seen But the things he does for our offense speaks for itself,” Edwards said.
After a solid win, Hornibrook’s injury is slightly worrying for the Badgers before they travel to Penn State next week. The energy that D’Cota Dixon’s return brought the defense will be crucial in a game that is must win if Wisconsin would have any shot of getting back to the Big Ten Championship game.