The Wisconsin Badgers(3-3, 1-2) defeated the Northwestern Wildcats(1-5, 1-2) 42-7 in a conference beatdown, gaining 515 yards offensively and delivering a strong performance on both sides of the ball in Jim Leonhard’s head coaching debut.
The Badgers started the game firing on all cylinders, as Graham Mertz was involved in a first-down dropback and a play-action from the jump.
A combination of Mertz throws with a 33-yard Braelon Allen carry led the Badgers into Northwestern territory, but the junior quarterback missed two potential touchdowns on consecutive throws.
On a field goal attempt inside the redzone, kicker Nate Van Zelst shanked the kick, leaving the Badgers with no points, despite a strong 11-play, 66-yard opening drive off a well-scripted game plan from offensive coordinator Bobby Engram.
After a 16-yard completion from Wildcats quarterback Ryan Hilinski leading to a first down on the ensuing drive, the Badgers had a chance to get off the field defensively, but defensive end Rodas Johnson committed an offsides penalty to grant Northwestern an extra first down.
Nonetheless, the Badgers held their ground, forcing Northwestern to punt near midfield, where punter Luke Akers delivered, pinning Wisconsin on their own two-yard line.
However, star running back Braelon Allen had a quick response, rushing for a 14-yard gain on first down to dig Wisconsin out of that hole, running behind good blocks from left tackle Jack Nelson and Michael Furtney.
Mertz completed three consecutive passes, including a 21-yard completion to a wide-open Skyler Bell, leading Wisconsin deep into Northwestern territory before throwing a 15-yard touchdown pass to a, once again, wide-open Bell for the score four plays later.
After a third-down conversion to Donny Navarro from Ryan Hilinski, the Wildcats were stalled once again, as the latter threw his first interception to safety Kamo’i Latu while being pressured by edge rusher Nick Herbig.
With optimal field position, the Badgers quickly capitalized, as Graham Mertz nicely progressed through his reads to find a streaking Chimere Dike over the middle, who broke several tackles en route to a 52-yard touchdown that gave Wisconsin an early 14-0 lead.
Hilinski was replaced by sophomore quarterback Brendan Sullivan, but that didn’t change much for the Wildcats’ offense, who failed to muster yards for the majority of the half.
After two quick three-and-outs from the Northwestern offense, Wisconsin got back on the board with a six-play, 66-yard touchdown drive, with 64 of the yards coming from a Mertz-to-Dike 41-yard completion and a 23-yard touchdown connection between the two, making it 21-0 Badgers.
On the following drive, Northwestern managed an extra play, but only due to a false start, and had their third straight three-and-out with new quarterback Brendan Sullivan at the helm.
Wisconsin responded with yet another touchdown drive, primarily operating on the ground this time, as they had a five-carry to two-pass distribution en route to a seven-play, 66-yard touchdown drive that resulted in a 23-yard touchdown pass from Braelon Allen to Chez Mellusi.
Northwestern finally gained some offensive momentum, as Ryan Hilinski returned for the Wildcats at quarterback, with a 45-yard Evan Hull reception leading to an 11-play, 72-yard drive.
But, from 3rd & 3 at the Wisconsin 3-yard line, Northwestern elected to kick a field goal, rather than go for it down 28 points, and Jack Olsen missed an easy 21-yard chip to leave the Wildcats scoreless as the half ended.
To begin the second half, Hilinski and the Wildcats’ offense were, once again, able to gain momentum, but the veteran quarterback threw a costly interception at the Wisconsin 13-yard line on 4th & short, leaving Northwestern with no points on consecutive 60+ yard drives.
Wisconsin struggled to gain offensive consistency in the third quarter, punting on their first two drives, but the defense continued to produce, as Nick Herbig stripped quarterback Brendan Sullivan for a fumble.
Then, after the Wildcats had a turnover on downs at their own 37-yard line, Wisconsin rallied a quick four-play, 37-yard touchdown drive to end the half, with Mertz finding Dike on two consecutive plays, with the latter resulting in a six-yard pass for the score.
Brendan Sullivan finally was able to create some offense for the Wildcats, completing four of five passes, with the final pass resulting in a one-yard touchdown to backup running back Anthony Tyus III, bridging the gap to 42-7.
However, the damage was already done as Wisconsin defeated Northwestern 42-7 to return to .500 on the season and get their first conference win of the season.
The offense had a spark, with offensive coordinator Bobby Engram calling a good, balanced game plan that made it less predictable for the opposing defense to counter with.
As a result, running back Braelon Allen didn’t see as many stacked boxes as in previous weeks, allowing him to operate with more room, which led a to 23-carry, 135-yard night for the sophomore halfback.
Additionally, quarterback Graham Mertz played his best game of the year, throwing for 299 yards on good efficiency, while tossing five touchdowns for the second time in his career and the third time in program history.
What made both aspects of the offense run smoothly, however, was the offensive line, who held clean pockets for Mertz all game long, while creating holes for Allen in the run game.
The re-addition of Michael Furtney in the starting lineup proved to be a good move, as the right guard worked in cohesion with left tackle Jack Nelson as the pulling lineman on several blocks that resulted in a positive play.
Defensively, the Badgers finally bounced back after two subpar performances to their expectations, holding the Wildcats to just 2.9 yards per carry, while top running back Evan Hull had just 13 yards on nine carries.
Additionally, the Badgers forced three turnovers and while they only accumulated one sack, the defensive front consistently created pressure, despite the loss of Keeanu Benton and Isaiah Mullens being inactive for the game.
The secondary had been the primary issue for the Badgers last weekend, as cornerback Jay Shaw was consistently beaten by Illinois receivers, however; the unit turned it around in Week 6, with Shaw having a clean game in coverage.
While the Badgers continued to miss tackles in space on occasion, their defensive presence at the line of scrimmage, as well as sustained coverage, gave them the clear advantage, hence why Northwestern manufactured just seven points on the day.
Now, the Badgers will travel to Lansing as they face off against the Michigan State Spartans, who have gone 2-4, including 0-3 in conference play, in another Big Ten matchup next weekend.