MADISON — Following a bye and a demonstrative showing against BYU two weeks prior, the Wisconsin Badgers’ offense appeared to be rolling heading into its first conference game against the Northwestern Wildcats.
There was a difficult first half, with only 114 yards gained and seven points on the scoreboard, but Wisconsin stopped shooting itself in the foot in the final two quarters. Another big third quarter offensively helped the Badgers take control of the game in their 33–24 win over Northwestern on Saturday.
It wasn’t pretty from the start. On Wisconsin’s first offensive play, quarterback Alex Hornibrook found redshirt senior Jazz Peavy, but the wide receiver fumbled the reception. Northwestern cornerback Trae Williams recovered, which led to a field goal and an early 3–0 lead for the Wildcats.
On the enusing kickoff return, sophomore A.J. Taylor fumbled but fullback Austin Ramesh was there to retain possession deep in Wisconsin territory.
In all, three mistakes led to possession changes, thwarting UW’s attempts to get the ball rolling.
“Obviously the biggest thing for me was turnovers to start,” tight end Zander Neuville said. “We weren’t being sound with the ball. We just have to do a better job there, there are really no excuses for that.”
One series, a seven-play, 47-yard drive, led to Wisconsin’s only points n the first half on Jonathan Taylor seven-yard touchdown. Yet the four series after that score yielded only 42 yards, two punts, and two interceptions.
“I thought we were playing a little slow, guessing ourselves in the first half,” left tackle Michael Deiter said, alluding to a lack of confidence in the first half.
Hornibrook finished the first half only 5-of-11 for 48 yards, with two of those incompletions interceptions in the second quarter. After being sacked by Samdup Miller and hurried by Alex Miller on consecutive plays, Hornibrook threw a pass intended for Quintez Cephus that was intercepted by J.R. Pace at the Northwestern 44-yard line.
Two drives later and with Northwestern now leading 10–7, Hornibrook guided the Badgers’ offense to midfield after a Cephus 19-yard completion. However, his next throw, intended for tight end Kyle Penniston, was intercepted by safety Godwin Igwebuike. That nullified any momentum heading into halfitme.
“The one to Penniston, that was all my fault, I shouldn’t have thrown that ball. I put him in a hard place,” Hornibrook said. “The one to Quintez, just kind of put it up there. I could have worked to the running back or something like that. Both of them are on me.”
Adjustments appeared to have been made during halftime, and there was also some help in the form of a talk from redshirt senior Alec James and an injured team captain.
“[Jack] Cichy had us going a little bit at halftime in the locker room,” Hornibrook said. “He was one guy that was speaking up a little bit for us, and that helped us out. Once we got on the field and people starting making plays and picking the team up, that’s when we started rolling.”
Wisconsin’s first offensive series of the second half set the tone until early in the fourth quarter, with three of its next four drives leading to 17 points and a 24–10 advantage.
On a 3rd-and-3 from Wisconsin’s 28-yard line, Hornibrook found Cephus for a 61-yard gain down to the Northwestern 11.
“I was pretty sure it was just a Cover 4 and their safeties were real short, so there’s a chance ‘Q’ could run by them,” said Hornibrook, who ended the day 11-of-20 for 197 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. “Then their safeties just stayed down post snap so we were able to get it.”
Cephus admitted it was just a “long, long, long ball” that took a while to come down.
“It felt like I was on the field alone,” Cephus said. “The safeties just ran downhill and nobody was on me. It was just like I was running free.”
The next play, Taylor found the end zone off the left side for an 11-yard touchdown and a 14–10 Wisconsin lead.
After the defense forced a three-and-out on the ensuing series, Wisconsin struck again on a four-play, 38-yard drive that featured another young wide receiver who has made plays early in his career.
On a 2nd-and-10, Hornibrook found Danny Davis, who in turn racked up some yards after the catch for a 32-yard gain down to the six-yard line. Two snaps later, Davis’s previous efforts were rewarded with his first collegiate touchdown on a leaping five-yard reception to give UW an 11-point advantage.
“It’s great to see a young man, a young guy coming in with dreams, making plays,” Cephus said. “That’s part of it, that’s what we’re here to do and having another receiver making plays, it helps our offense. It got our offense rolling, so Danny’s great.”
In that third quarter alone, Wisconsin rolled up 145 yards on 11.2 yards per snap. Hornibrook completed five of six passes for 116 yards with the touchdown pass to Davis, as the true freshman ended his day with three receptions for 50 yards.
“Early, I thought we were in some of those situations that you just never felt like we [helped] him, and he didn’t get himself into a rhythm,” head coach Paul Chryst said about Hornibrook after the game. “He found himself into a little bit of a rhythm, and we’ve got to continue to help him.”
Two drives later starting early in the fourth quarter, Wisconsin added a 23-yard field goal from placekicker Rafael Gaglianone to go up 24–10. The seven-play, 38-yard drive was the last substantial drive of the game for the Badgers.
Northwestern, despite being held to only 140 yards of offense in the first three quarters, stormed back offensively, hanging two touchdowns on a Wisconsin defense that had not given up a point in the second half this season until Saturday afternoon.
The final two offensive drives for the Badgers only totaled 2:06 on the clock, both registering as three-and-outs. That allowed the Wildcats’ offense to march back on the field and make it a seven-point game late in the fourth quarter.
“I think we bounced back and got kind of into a rhythm, but it’s important for us to keep our foot on the gas pedal when we do find it,” Neuville said. “We had two or three really good drives and kind of just didn’t do much after that, so I think it was a good lesson to know that when we have the momentum, we need to keep it going for as long as possible.”
The turnaround in the third quarter, much like in the season-opening win against Utah State, righted the ship in securing a Big Ten West division win.
Hornibrook and co., were also without All-American tight end Troy Fumagalli, who could have helped against Northwestern’s defense. However, the Badgers only gained 306 yards of total offense against a Wildcats’ defense that had given up 157 yards rushing and 253.3 through the air per game before Saturday’s contest.
“We just got to be confidence for four quarters, 60 minutes,” Deiter said. “That’s what we’ve got to work on.”