MADISON — After an agonizing week of no Wisconsin football, the Badgers opened up their Big Ten schedule versus Northwestern on a picturesque Saturday morning in Madison.
Off to a shaky start, Wisconsin WR Jazz Peavy fumbled the first play from regulation, putting Northwestern in prime scoring position on the Wisconsin 24-yard line. The Wisconsin defense, as per usual, steadied the ship, holding Northwestern to a chip-shot field goal. OLB Leon Jacobs made a clutch tackle for loss on third down to stop the Wildcats in their tracks.
On the ensuing Wisconsin kickoff, returner AJ Taylor got rocked, losing the football deep in Wisconsin territory, but the Badgers retained possession, ultimately punting.
On their next offensive opportunity, Wisconsin would grind out a beautiful drive, culminating in a seven-yard Jonathan Taylor TD run. Hornibrook, after overthrowing Quintez Cephus downfield the previous drive, showed impressive patience, moving through his reads with poise rather than rushing plays.
However, that show of maturity would fade, as Northwestern and Wisconsin would trade turnovers over their next two drives. After Northwestern had moved into Wisconsin territory, QB Clayton Thorson would wildly overthrow his target, the ball eventually landing right in Natrell Jamerson’s bread basket. Wisconsin, unfortunately, would squander the turnover, as Hornibrook would make the same mistake, overthrowing Danny Davis where Northwestern S JR Pace would make an athletic catch to stay inbounds.
After exchanging punts, Northwestern would compile a tenacious and measured drive, shaking off tackles and fighting back after costly penalties. QB Thorson made smart play after smart play, after being burned earlier on a gusty pass. Northwestern would eventually convert a textbook one-yard TD pass to SB Cameron Green, putting them up 10-7 with less than three minutes remaining in the first half.
In a pivotal closing-minutes Wisconsin drive, where a score would’ve prevented a halftime deficit, Hornibrook threw his second INT of the day, this time on a grossly under-thrown ball to TE Kyle Penniston. Wisconsin appeared to sorely miss Troy Fumagalli, perhaps Wisconsin’s most gifted receiver, who creates space better than anyone on the team. The Wisconsin defense, ever calm, would force a rapid Northwestern three-and-out, giving the Badgers less than two minutes to put up a score.
Wisconsin would again fail to capitalize, and headed into the locker room trailing Northwestern 10-7. The defense had played solidly, missing a few tackles here and there, but no noteworthy breakdowns. The offense, however, looked desperately in need of a readjustment, mustering a meager 114 yards of total offense, including a laughable three first half turnovers. Jonathan Taylor was a lone bright spot, as he continued his impressive first year campaign with 62 yards an a TD. Hornibrook seemed to have left his dominant and special play in Provo, looking nothing like the QB we saw two weeks previous.
This ended up being a turning point for Wisconsin, who took control second half, “I’m proud of the way they continued to play and continued to respond.” Chryst said following a back and forth game.
Wisconsin defensive end Alec James made sure he was heard after the second half whistle. Following a Northwestern-momentum-killing chop block penalty, James wrapped up QB Thorson to force a punt on the Wildcat’s second half opening drive.
On the first Wisconsin drive, Hornibrook would redeem his early mistake, finally finding Cephus deep after missing two deep balls early. A defensive lapse from Northwestern would allow Cephus to run a barebones post route with no one picking him up. After a 61 yard completion, Jonathan Taylor would take characteristic control of the drive, waltzing into the end zone for an 11 yard score, his second of the afternoon.
After a Northwestern drive that ended abruptly with a monster Chris Orr sack, Wisconsin controlled the ball in Northwestern territory, looking for their second score in two second half drives. Danny Davis would shake half the Northwestern defense on his way to a 32 yard pickup, setting up a first and goal opportunity from the six. Davis wouldn’t stop there, catching a five yard TD strike from Hornibrook to put extend the Wisconsin lead to 11. It was Davis’s first career TD, and without a doubt revitalized the Badger faithful.
Wisconsin’s third down defense was unreal Saturday, as Northwestern converted just 3/15 of their third down conversions. The defensive stops weren’t quiet either, as Wisconsin recorded five, yes five, sacks solely on third downs.
“I thought our defense did a ton of good, they kept us in the game, gave us a chance,” Chryst said.
Hornibrook eventually got into a rhythm, hitting AJ Taylor downfield for a 33 yard pickup. The drive would result in a Gaglianone field goal, and just like that, Wisconsin held a 14 point lead.
As icing on the cake, on the ensuing Northwestern drive, S Natrell Jamerson would record his second INT on the afternoon, this time for a 36 yard pick six. The pattern of slow starts followed by dominant second halves has worked in Wisconsin’s favor thus far, but the squad still needs to work on executing out of the gate; as the season progresses, flaws become more apparent and, more importantly, exploitable.
Chryst advocated that Wisconsin’s first half struggles have been a result of game-by-game challenges rather than a definitive pattern, “I don’t think anything is that simple. Every game’s not the same,” he said.
Northwestern would find energy too late, scoring two TDs in the final five minutes of regulation. Ultimately, the effort would manifest in a classic “too little too late” scenario.
Wisconsin would leave victorious Saturday afternoon, defeating Northwestern 33-24 in a game with plenty to analyze.
“We knew it was gonna be a hard one, a lot of lessons to be learned from this one,” Chryst said.
There was, without a doubt, much to learn from Saturday’s Big Ten opener. With Nebraska on the horizon, Wisconsin will need to figure out their first half shortcomings in an effort to prevent such a weakness from becoming a cemented team characteristic.
Overall, Chryst summed up the winning effort simply, “This was a great example of how football’s a team game, it takes everyone.”
Photo courtesy of foxsports.com