MADISON -- Coming off a gut-wrenching loss to Ohio State a week ago in perhaps its most hyped game in program history, Northwestern hoped to avoid a hangover in its second conference matchup of the season.
Unfortunately for the Wildcats, few have ever avoided a hangover when it comes to a date at Camp Randall, especially during a Wisconsin Homecoming weekend.
Riding a sold-out crowd of 81,411 and an aggressive pass rush, the Badgers (4-2, 1-1) overwhelmed the Wildcats’ offense (4-2, 0-2), tallying seven sacks and holding the No. 19/18 team in the nation to just 241 offensive yards in a decisive 35-6 win.
"This was a big game," Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen said. "To win at home against a really good football team… this is a big win and the kids need to enjoy it."
Facing a stout run defense for the second straight week and losing starting running back Venric Mark in the first quarter to a lower body injury, Northwestern leaned on the arm of quarterback Trevor Siemian to no avail, as the junior completed just 13 of his 34 attempts through the air for 197 yards.
Siemian struggled to find his comfort zone the entire game, as seven different Wisconsin players recorded a sack. With defensive coordinator Dave Aranda using a variety of blitzes, shifts and stunts, NU’s offensive line failed to provide any real consistent pocket or push for the Wildcats’ to utilize, neutralizing the potent offense dead in its tracks.
The Wisconsin defense, which had struggled in games against spread teams so far this season, snapped Northwestern’s seven game streak of scoring 30 or more points in a game. It was also the first time the Wildcats’ had failed to score 10 points for the first time in 78 straight games.
"For us to come out as a whole and be able to compete like that and come out with the ‘W’ is a good feeling," Wisconsin freshman cornerback Sojourn Shelton said, who intercepted his third pass of the season Saturday. "Coach said something like [Northwestern] put up 30 points a game… for us to keep them out of the end zone that’s huge and a big confidence boost for the defense."
Getting some help from a timely bye week, Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon looked back to his old ways after suffering an injury in the team’s last game against Ohio State two weeks ago. Gordon highlighted the Badgers’ ground game with 172 yards on 22 carries, including a 71-yard touchdown scamper on a jet-sweep to the left side in the second quarter.
Complimenting Gordon was also the efforts of fellow tailback James White, who added 101 yards on the ground of his own and three catches in the flat for 29 yards.
"That was a tough loss against Ohio State," Gordon said. "We just wanted to come out here against Northwestern and play well. I needed to play well. We all needed to."
But even before Gordon and White broke loose, it was the efforts of the pass game that helped loosen up an otherwise sluggish offensive opening for the Badgers in the first half.
After two consecutive three and outs on offensive possessions to open the game, the Badgers got the Wildcats to bite on a double play-action, as quarterback Joel Stave connected on a 63-yard bomb to star wide receiver Jared Abbrederis for a touchdown, awakening a slumbering Camp Randall crowd and giving Wisconsin a 7-3 lead late in the first quarter.
Set up by the reputation of two of the Big Ten’s leading rushers, the respect Northwestern showed on the first fake to Melvin Gordon on a jet-sweep and the second to James White up the middle was enough to allow Abbrederis to slip behind the Wildcats’ safeties Traevon Henry and Ibraheim Campbell.
"That’s one we’ve practiced a lot and not had a chance to dial up in the game," Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave said. "Getting the opportunity to do that is exciting for a quarterback."
"When you’re faking a fly sweep to Melvin Gordon and then a run to James White, as a defense you have to respect those two fakes right there. It’s tough to cover all three of them."
That would be the only meaningful impact Abbrederis made in the game, as a head injury sidelined the wide out on the Badgers’ next drive.
Even without Abbrederis, Stave still was effective, although erratic, through the air. Finishing the game 17-of-28 passing for 241 yards and three touchdowns, Stave made use of his check offs as well as the short and middle passing routes, completing passes to nine different players on the day.
"I thought Joel continued to progress," Andersen said. "He dropped that deep ball right on Abby for a tremendous play. We’re going to continue to progress. The throw game, I believe we’re improving."
And if the performance of the football team wasn’t enough to make the Wisconsin’s Homecoming an enjoyable one, Wisconsin basketball head coach Bo Ryan joined the "Jump Around" in the student section at the beginning of the 4th quarter.
"I’m sure he’s probably a better athlete than me," Andersen laughed. "I didn’t see it…maybe we’ll have to have a ‘Jump Around’ competition someday."