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Wisconsin overcomes sluggish start to defeat Northwestern 33–24

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It took a while for the Badgers to get hot, but they got there.

MADISON — After a miserable first half, the Wisconsin Badgers turned it around for their first conference win of 2017.

Despite committing three turnovers and playing sloppy on offense the first two quarters, Wisconsin rallied for 24 unanswered points and held off a Northwestern rally in a 33–24 victory.

Defensively, the Badgers gave up only 244 yards while generating two interceptions. Star Northwestern running back Justin Jackson finished the game with only 25 yards.

After that rough first half, quarterback Alex Hornibrook rebounded to complete 11 of 20 passes for 197 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions. Running back Jonathan Taylor carried the ball 19 times for 80 yards and two touchdowns. Though the offense missed tight end Troy Fumagalli, wide receiver Quintez Cephus caught four passes for 99 yards.

On Wisconsin’s first offensive play of the game, Hornibrook found Jazz Peavy, but the senior wide receiver fumbled the ball away to northwestern. The Badgers’ defense, unlike against Utah State and Florida Atlantic, held its opponent without a touchdown despite being backed up in its own territory. A Leon Jacobs tackle for loss held the Wildcats on a 3rd-and-1. Kicker Charlie Kuhbander drilled a 34-yard field goal to give NU a 3–0 lead.

The Badgers retook the lead later in the first quarter. After the defense held Northwestern with a combined sack by Isaiahh Loudermilk and Garret Dooley, UW drove 47 yards in seven plays and Taylor scored a seven-yard touchdown with 4:13 left in the opening quarter.

Both defenses held their ground until Northwestern, taking over on Wisconsin’s 44, drove down the field in 12 plays. Quarterback Clayton Thorson found Cameron Green for a one-yard touchdown pass to give NU a 10–7 lead with 2:38 left in the first half.

Aside from their only scoring drive, the Badgers’ first-half offense was anemic. Just 114 yards were gained in the first two quarters and only one of five third-down attempts were converted. Hornibrook threw two interceptions, including one to end a promising drive late in the second half.

After holding Northwestern on its first drive of the third quarter thanks to a chop-block penalty and an Alec James sack, Wisconsin’s offense struck to take a 14–10 lead. Cephus’ 61-yard reception on a 3rd-and-3 set up Taylor, who found the end zone once again on an 11-yard run to give UW a four-point lead.

The Badgers weren’t finished in the quarter, though, with another true freshman in wide receiver Danny Davis taking center stage. On a 2nd-and-10, Davis reeled in a Hornibrook pass near the west sideline and took it 32 yards to the NU 6-yard line. Two plays later, the southpaw found Davis for a five-yard touchdown pass—his first collegiate score. That made it 21–10 Wisconsin.

Placekicker Rafael Gaglianone converted a 23-yard field goal to make it 24–10 with 11:12 left in the game.

The defense even got in on the scoring. Free safety Natrell Jamerson intercepted a Thorson pass and took it 36 yards for a touchdown, putting the game out of reach for the Wildcats with a 31–10 lead. Jamerson finished the game with two interceptions, six tackles, and a half-sack.

And yet, Northwestern was not finished, with two touchdowns scored in the final 4:46 of the game. Thorson, who finished 29-of-45 for 219 yards, found Ramaud Bowman for a two-yard touchdown to make it 31–17 with 4:46 left in the fourth quarter.

Then, the Wildcats quarterback found superback Garrett Dickerson for a five-yard touchdown to make it just a seven-point lead with 2:53 remaining in the game.

Wisconsin’s offense could not run out the clock, so Northwestern had one last chance to drive 98 yards for a game-tying score with 1:09 remaining. Redshirt junior safety D’Cota Dixon—who registered 12 tackles and 1.5 sacks on the afternoon—keyed in on Thorson and dropped him for a safety to make it 33–24, sealing the win.

[Update Oct. 1, 8:30 p.m. CT: According to UW, Dooley actually recorded 3.5 sacks on the afternoon. We’ve adjusted his sacks, tackles for loss and tackles accordingly]