Sloppy weather and field conditions were no match the Wisconsin Badgers' efforts Saturday afternoon at Northwestern's Ryan Field. Unfortunately, slow starts have started to become the norm and not the exception for the Badgers, and on Saturday, Wisconsin fell to Northwestern, 20-14.
For the second straight week, Wisconsin failed to score a first-half touchdown and entered halftime down 10-0. Also for the first time under Gary Andersen, the Badgers failed to score 20 points.
The first half was highlighted by inconsistent play on both sides of the ball. Tanner McEvoy's continued struggles with passing accuracy limited the offense. The Badgers were unable to back the Wildcats' defense off the line of scrimmage and stared down the barrel of eight and nine men in the box. The lone drive that reached Northwestern territory, set up by a 58-yard Melvin Gordon run, stalled out in the red zone and ended with a McEvoy interception in the end zone.
Offensively, the Badgers' game plan continued to be confusing. Calling on McEvoy to drop back and read defenses instead of utilizing his running prowess is not doing favors to anyone. Following the game plan of Western Illinois and South Florida vs. Wisconsin, Northwestern honed in on stopping the Badgers' running game and dared McEvoy to complete passes over the top and move the ball. After McEvoy finished the first half 4-of-10 for 24 yards and one interception, Joel Stave came in as relief on the last drive of the first half. Stave missed all of September after struggling with "the yips," but was reactivated for this week and named the No. 2 quarterback behind McEvoy.
On defense, Wisconsin struggled to defend the spread, read-option attack of Northwestern. Limited pass rush and soft zone defense combined to allow Northwestern quarterback Trevor Siemian to sit back and find open receivers in space. Yet opportunities were still there. Sojourn Shelton and Devin Gaulden both had potential momentum-swinging interceptions slip through their hands early in the game. The Wildcats also tallied 191 rushing yards aided by a slew of missed tackles. Senior linebacker and sure-tackler Marcus Trotter was injured early in the first quarter and his presence was certainly missed in run defense.
To open the second half, Stave led the Badgers on a touchdown-scoring drive, though he only completed one pass. While Gordon did a bulk of the work on the ground, Stave did a nice job of checking down to Corey Clement on a 1st-and-20 to help stay ahead in the down and distance.
However, the rally was short-lived. On the next offensive possession, Stave's arm was hit as he was throwing and Northwestern intercepted the ball, setting up another touchdown to put the Wildcats ahead 17-7. They never looked back.
Continuing with the sloppy theme, Northwestern capitalized on Wisconsin turnovers. Four interceptions and one long missed field goal led to 17 Wildcat points. On a day when the defense was struggling to get stops, giving Northwestern field position was insult to injury. Northwestern never really felt taxed to run any play in its offensive playbook; Wisconsin defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is known for an aggressive, attacking style, but for some unknown reason, that strategy was abandoned Saturday.
As much as Badger fans wanted Stave to come in at half and lead the team to a come-from-behind win, he was little better than McEvoy, finishing 8-of-19 for 114 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. Without harping too much on the scheme again (armchair quaterbacking!), the offensive game plan was lacking as well. Perhaps it was due to the lack of developed wide receivers and a need for blocking tight ends, but seemingly every formation utilized two or three tight ends in tight formations.
With defenses already keying to stop the run, it would stand to reason that spreading out the field to create more space for Gordon and Clement would be optimal. Despite all this, Gordon was a monster today. He ran for a career-high 259 yards on 27 carries with one touchdown. If you had told me Gordon would run for a career high before the game, I would have felt pretty confident in a Badger win.
Losing a conference road game is certainly no cause for panic. College football is a wild, wacky beast. Remember, playoff hopeful and perennial poll favorite Oregon lost at home to Arizona on Thursday, and Oregon has a Heisman hopeful and future NFL first-round pick at quarterback.
Despite those facts, losing this one certainly stings. I'm not sure I remember a bigger difference in season expectations from midway through the third quarter against LSU to this week against Northwestern. Wisconsin will absolutely be limited by whatever quarterback play shows up on Saturdays.
So here's some unsolicited advice: sit back and enjoy watching Melvin Gordon run. We might not see another player of his caliber in cardinal and white in quite some time.