Wisconsin has struggled against Northwestern the past decade. The struggles continued on Saturday, as Wisconsin eked out a 24-15 victory against the Wildcats. While the Badgers will undoubtedly take a conference win against a B1G West division opponent, the way it happened was not always pretty.
In this weekly installment, let’s rattle off three items that I think we learned about the Badgers after their game Saturday.
With the offense and special teams both sputtering, the Wisconsin defense said enough is enough. Jim Leonhard’s unit took the scoring into their own hands, outscoring the offense 14 to 10 on the day.
Matt Henningsen has 2 fumble recoveries for touchdowns this season. No #Badgers player has more than 1 in a season since at least 2002.— Dave Heller (@dave_heller) September 28, 2019
Wisconsin had two defensive touchdowns for the first time in at least 10 years. Eric Burrell had a strip sack that ended in a Matt Henningsen touchdown in the latter part of the third quarter to give the Badgers a 14-3 lead. That was Henningsen’s second defensive touchdown on the season.
Later, in the early stages of the fourth quarter, Noah Burks had a 68-yard interception return for a touchdown.
These Windy City cats are having a devil of a time against the Fighting Wisconsin Badgers defense, which has proven tough as nails as of late— Wisconsin Football (@BadgerFootball) September 28, 2019
Wisconsin now leads, 24 to 3
Eleven minutes, 29 seconds left#OnWisconsin || #Badgers pic.twitter.com/E3g7kmUzsL
The defense was phenomenal Saturday in many aspects beyond the two touchdowns. The defense had 14 tackles for loss and five sacks, showing a great ability to put pressure on the quarterback from all different angles.
The defense held Northwestern to only 2.4 yards per carry on the ground and was able to make big plays when the offense and special teams put them in tough situations.
While it is not ideal that the defense had to win them this game, it is reassuring to see that the defense can do it when need be.
Second down struggles
While watching the game live, and in re-watching the game Sunday morning, it was apparent that the Wisconsin offense was out of sync.
On a positive note, Wisconsin mixed up the offensive play calling on first down to keep Northwestern honest, and Jonathan Taylor was able to gain 121 yards on the ground.
I really like that Wisconsin's been throwing more on standard downs and changing the script up and whatnot, but ... maybe they should un-change the script for now.— Bill Connelly (@ESPN_BillC) September 28, 2019
First-down rushes: 9-45 (5.0, 6.4 since start of Q2)
First-down pass att: 8-31 (3.8, 4.3 since start of Q2)
Everything else for the offense was a struggle. In charting the offense, the place where the offense struggled the most was on second down. The Badgers averaged only 1.7 yards per play on the down. While the no-call on the obvious pass interference on Quintez Cephus in the fourth quarter would have definitely helped that number, Wisconsin needs to be better on second down going forward through the air and on the ground.
Wisconsin was routinely forced into third and long situations because of the second down struggles, and that is not a recipe for success.
Watching it live it seemed like Jack Coan was always in the shotgun or pistol yesterday and the numbers back that up. Without the kneel downs at the end, the #Badgers were under center just nine times.— Zach Heilprin (@ZachHeilprin) September 29, 2019
Special teams far from special
Outside of Zach Hintze continuing his massive kickoff barrage and Aron Cruickshank’s 44 opening kickoff return, the special teams was bad. Collin Larsh connected on his only field goal attempt of the game, but the punting game was very inconsistent.
Senior punter Anthony Lotti averaged 39.9 yards per punt, with a 50 yard long, but he did not reward Paul Chryst for punting on Northwestern's side of the field. On two separate occasions he punted the ball for a touchback, resulting in net gains of only 16 yards and 28 yards on each punt. While part of the blame lies on Chryst for punting on fourth and five in the first place, Lotti was tasked with pinning Northwestern deep and couldn’t convert.
What kind of day was it for the #Badgers' offense? UW punted a total of 10 times in first three games? Today? Anthony Lotti punted nine times.— Jeff Potrykus (@jaypo1961) September 28, 2019
On punt returns coverage Jack Dunn struggled all day. He did not seem confident with the knuckle punts that Northwestern was employing, with only three total return yardage. The worst of his returns was a muffed return in Wisconsin territory that lead to a Northwestern score.
In the early stages of the game Rachad Wildgoose face-masked a gunner during punt coverage that gave Northwestern a first down, and they went on to score a field goal. Giving extra possessions to an opposing offense because of punt team issues is a no-no.
On a similar note, Wisconsin has now given up the ball on two onside kicks this season after Northwestern converted on one Saturday. Obviously the Badgers will need to tighten up that portion of kickoff coverage in the coming weeks.
With a home game against Kent State (2-2) scheduled for 11am next Saturday, Wisconsin clearly has some fall cleaning to do in order to get the offense and special teams back on track.