On the Wisconsin Badgers’ first play from scrimmage, the Badgers put the ball on the ground. The Northwestern Wildcats recovered the fumble in the red zone and had the momentum on their side. It felt like a repeat of the 2015 game when the Badgers’ own turnovers gave the Wildcats the opportunity for an upset victory.
Like that game, the Wildcats did not always take advantage of their friendly field position or the copious amount of turnovers. Unlike that game, the Wildcats were unable to hold on to the victory. Unlike that game, Wisconsin made the plays they needed on both ends.
Despite Northwestern forcing three turnovers — adding two interceptions in the first half — the team led only 10-7 at halftime. The Wildcats scored only a field goal on the drive that opening play fumble set up. That was a sign of the direction this game was going to head.
Wisconsin shut out Northwestern for much of the second half, getting to Clayton Thorson for eight sacks. The biggest coming in the end zone as Northwestern tried frantically to erase a 31-24 deficit, having to go 99 yards in 67 seconds.
Thorson took a sack in the end zone for a safety late in the game with a clear opportunity to throw the ball away and keep the game alive. That clinched the Badgers’ 33-24 victory at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday.
Northwestern’s comeback aside — the Wildcats, down 31-10 after a pick-six scored two touchdowns in the final five minutes of the game before giving up that safety — the team was stymied and stuck. The offense could move nowhere as Wisconsin brought pressure on Thorson and chased him around the pocket. He barely had room to throw. And, more alarmingly, the Wildcats’ running backs had little room to run.
The problems from non-conference play showed up again and again. As the Badgers dialed up their blitz pressures in the second half, the offensive line gave Thorson less and less time. The Wildcats offense could obviously go nowhere with their quarterback under pressure.
It was not until Wisconsin dialed it back after going up 31-10 that Northwestern found some time to get Thorson going.
Thorson threw for 219 yards on 29-for-45 passing (far too many passes for Thorson, Northwestern is 1-5 in games where Thorson throws 40 or more times). But 116 of those yards came on the final three drives. And that first touchdown drive — that made it 31-17 — got an assist from two pass interference penalties.
That was the kind of mud Northwestern’s offense was stuck in all day. On the ground, the Wildcats found little room too. They rushed for 25 total yards, hampered significantly by those eight sacks. Justin Jackson rushed for 25 yards on nine carries and Jeremy Larkin rushed for 37 yards on seven carries. It was both a no factor and completely halted by NU’s poor offensive line.
The game just came down to Northwestern’s inability to get into favorable third-down situations and inability to convert. The Wildcats were just 3 for 15 on third downs, continuing a problem from the non-conference season.
That left the defense on an island.
After struggling to get pressure throughout non-conference season, the Wildcats defense picked up three sacks in the game and got fairly consistent pressure on Alex Hornibrook. It forced him into some poor throws and the defense made some good plays.
After getting their bearings following a rough first few drives, the defense largely corralled freshman running back Jonathan Taylor. He finished with 80 yards on 19 carries for the Badgers.
But, when the offense is not able to stay on the field or sustain drives, inevitably the defense was going to tire. And they broke in the second half, giving up big plays in play-action passes and big, gashing runs from Taylor.
Northwestern’s defense held up about as well as it could. But the Wildcats had no more big plays to make.
Their opportunity had passed. The turnovers and field position the defense gave the offense in the first half went to waste. And the Wildcats could never turn things back completely their way. They kept getting in their own way.
Eventually, Northwestern would not be able to hold up. Wisconsin did what Wisconsin often does — grates on a team and wears them down by the second half. The Badgers began pouring it on in the second half as the Wildcats struggled to catch their breath.
The blitzing on defense and the run game to set up the pass on offense was classic Wisconsin. Northwestern would not gain the momentum back, suffering from their own problems.
The Wildcats’ opportunity to steal an upset win on the road early in Big Ten season was there. And then it was not.
Northwestern will have a week to examine these missed opportunities again. The Wildcats showed the dynamism and wrinkles on defense everyone knew the team was hiding a bit in the non-conference slate.
Now they have to find the comfort, rhythm and confidence on offense to break free and give the support the team needs.
It sounds like a broken record. It is a broken record.
But these opportunities to win do not come around often for this program. It is hard to see them squandered.