“We just didn’t click,” Wisconsin wide receiver A.J. Taylor said postgame. “That’s not us, and we’ll get back to playing Wisconsin football pretty soon.”
Although the attitude in the media room from No. 8 Wisconsin’s (4-0 overall, 2-0 Big Ten) players and coaches was positive, the offensive struggles overshadowed another dominant defensive performance in the Badgers’ 24-15 victory over Northwestern (1-3, 0-2) Saturday afternoon at Camp Randall.
Last season, Wisconsin had trouble moving the ball consistently against Northwestern’s defensive line in the Wildcats’ 31-17 win, in which running back Jonathan Taylor was held to just 46 yards on the ground – his lowest total of the season. Looking for redemption from last year’s loss, the Badgers simply couldn’t find any rhythm on offense. Outside of an opening drive touchdown, Wisconsin’s next 10 drives resulted in eight punts, one interception, and one incomplete drive right before the halftime.
“We had a gameplan, and they did a really good job of screwing it up,” junior offensive lineman Cole Van Lanen said of the Northwestern defense. “Opportunities are out there and we have to execute when we have them. We didn’t do a very good job of that today.”
Wisconsin Offensive Coordinator Joe Rudolph had everything working early on the Badgers’ first drive of the ballgame. Sophomore kick returner Aron Cruickshank took the opening kick all the way to the Wisconsin 45-yard line.
The offense took over from there, and showed much of the same dominance in the running game that had been giving the team big leads earlier this season. A nine-play, six-minute sequence brought the Badgers down to Northwestern’s 12-yard line on 4th-and-2. Wisconsin Head Coach Paul Chryst has been much more aggressive with his offense in fourth down spots this year, and he left his playmakers on the field once again Saturday. With extra linemen in the formation, Taylor got the carry and pushed his way forward past the first down marker and into the endzone to put the Badgers up 7-0 early.
The touchdown marked Taylor’s fourth-consecutive first-drive score, and his tenth overall touchdown this season. The Heisman Candidate was limited to just 121 yards on 26 carries in the game after that, however. Outside of the first quarter, Taylor was held in check and couldn’t break loose any of his typically game-changing carries.
Northwestern forced Wisconsin quarterback Jack Coan to be uncomfortable in the pocket for the first time this year, and he didn’t respond very well to the adversity. Coan was just 15/24 for 112 yards and an interception, and was throwing mostly short to intermediate passes all game, even on third-and-long, where he consistently threw short of the first down marker. His deepest attempt of the afternoon was intercepted near the end of the first half.
“They’ve got a good scheme,” Coan said. “They’ve got good players, and they prevent a lot of deep throws. I tried one and it didn’t work out. It’s one I learn from and just keep moving forward.”
While Wisconsin was having offensive troubles, the Northwestern offense was even less successful. Wildcats quarterback Hunter Johnson completed just 4-12 first-half passes for 29 yards, and the NU offense was just 2/9 on third downs in the opening half. It was classic Big Ten football, multiple Badgers players noted postgame, that has characterized this rivalry for quite some time.
The Badgers put up 24 total points, but 14 of them came directly from the defense in the second half. With just under three minutes remaining in the third quarter and Northwestern at their own 16, Wisconsin safety Eric Burrell blitzed and hit Johnson, forcing the ball loose into the endzone, where defensive lineman Matt Henningsen fell on it for a Badgers touchdown. The score was Henningsen’s second defensive touchdown of the year, just a year after the Wisconsin defense didn’t score a single touchdown.
“Henningsen is a touchdown magnet,” Badgers senior linebacker Chris Orr joked. “We’re going to start putting the ball on the ground for him and having him score.”
Orr forced a fumble of his own in the fourth quarter, connecting on a blitz with backup quarterback Aidan Smith filling in for an injured Johnson. Orr is embracing his role as a leader for this defensive unit that has wreaked so much havoc on opponents through four weeks.
“When you get here as a freshman, you dream about being the leader,” Orr said. “You want everybody to look to you when times a rough. You step on the field confident, knowing that everybody trusts you to make a play.”
Wisconsin added another defensive touchdown on an acrobatic pick-six from Junior linebacker Noah Burks, who scrambled 68 yards and shed multiple tackles to put Wisconsin ahead by three scores.
“I got some pretty good blocks and ended up having to beat only one guy,” Burks said of his interception return. “We want to create the momentum and move fast. We want to be the best defense in the country and be technically sound – we want to do our jobs. When we do that, we know we’re going to be really successful.”
Wisconsin’s defense held Northwestern to just 255 total yards, despite missing both safeties Eric Burrell and Reggie Pearson in the first half – both were serving first-half suspensions for targeting calls last week against Michigan. Burrell didn’t miss a beat when he finally got on the field in the second half.
“You’re in the moment,” Burrell said. “You know what you gotta do. At the end of the day you just have to trust the preparation and base it off reaction. Hats off to [Northwestern], they’re very smart and put you in great situations that you’ve never been in. I’m just so happy that we won.”
At the end of the day, Wisconsin did indeed win, keeping them undefeated and atop of the Big Ten West. According to A.J. Taylor, there’s certainly room for improvement, but it says a lot about the strength of the Badgers’ roster that they can look so sloppy and still win by multiple possessions.
“We can’t be doing this against the teams that are right there with us,” Taylor added. “We’ve got to be better, and we’ll be ready when it comes.”