Well, that was ugly.
Offensively, the Badgers couldn’t pull anything together, as they struggled to move the ball, while head coach Luke Fickell was conservative with his decisions (more in a minute).
Defensively, Wisconsin heavily struggled early, as the Wildcats scored 24 first half points, with three touchdowns and a field goal in the redzone on their four drives of the half.
Here are three quick takeaways from the Badgers 24-10 loss to the Northwestern Wildcats.
The Badgers third-down defense was awful. There’s no other way to describe it.
Wisconsin allowed Northwestern to convert each of their first 10 third-down opportunities in the loss, which led to such a dominant first half for the Wildcats.
Regardless of what the Badgers threw at them, Northwestern consistently moved the chains, even scoring touchdowns on 3rd & 11 and 3rd & 6.
In the second half, they were much better on third downs, but it was primarily due to Northwestern having poor field position and running the ball a ton.
Defensive coordinator Mike Tressel was extremely predictable in the first half on third downs, running a very similar heavy package with Christian Alliegro on what seemed like each of the first nine third-down conversions.
The Badgers defense has a ton of issues at the beginning of games, but they’ve been able to alleviate some of those concerns by getting off the field on third downs.
That was not the case on Saturday, and they paid the price by allowing a Northwestern offense, ranked 111th of 133 FBS teams in scoring, to put up 24 points in the first half.
The Badgers went with a conservative approach on a number of situations on Saturday, and it cost them against an aggressive Northwestern team that piled it on early.
Wisconsin started the game with a redzone drive, but were only able to get a field goal out of it, stalling inside the 20-yard line.
Then came the questionable decision from head coach Luke Fickell, who elected to punt on 4th & 3 at the Northwestern 42-yard line, despite his defense struggling heavily with two consecutive touchdown drives allowed.
On the very first play of the Wildcats’ drive, the field position advantage was gone, as Northwestern’s Joseph Himon ran for a 32-yard gain that propelled an eventual touchdown drive for Northwestern.
The Badgers needed to match offensive firepower with offensive firepower, but elected to be conservative, and it costed them there.
Later on, the Badgers were hurt by a Will Pauling drop, forcing them to eventually settle for a 40-yard field goal near the redzone, which kicker Nathanial Vakos missed, adding even more fuel to the ongoing fire.
Head coach Luke Fickell has shared his desire to be more aggressive, but that factor was not present on Saturday, and arguably could’ve been the difference maker early.
Tanner Mordecai’s return
Less than a month after suffering a broken hand, quarterback Tanner Mordecai made his return for the Badgers, earning the start on Saturday against the Wildcats in a game where Wisconsin was favored by 12 points.
It was not the performance that Mordecai anticipated in his return, however, as the quarterback threw for 255 yards, completing 31/45 of his passes.
It was a ton of the short game for Mordecai, who completed just four passes over 10 yards on the day, while a lot of his targets were short of the sticks early on.
There are certainly questions about offensive coordinator Phil Longo’s playcalling, which seemed more on the conservative end after an early deep shot to Vinny Anthony.
The issue with the number of passes short of the sticks is that those drives require a much higher level of execution, knowing the number of plays it takes to move the chains, rather than having a drive mixed with more explosive plays.
Mordecai did help drive the team down the field after the Badgers started a second-half drive at the Northwestern 48-yard line, but Wisconsin was unable to get any points, turning it over on downs after the quarterback threw an inaccurate fourth-down pass high to Vinny Anthony running a slant.
Mordecai also did commit a fumble in the second half on a scramble, looking to gain extra yardage, that essentially sealed the game for the Badgers.
Mordecai definitely doesn’t deserve near the brunt of the blame in this one, given the issues Wisconsin had everywhere else, but it was an ugly one for the Badgers, and a tough return for the quarterback.