In the game, the Badgers had opportunities on both sides of the ball, but couldn’t get off the field defensively, while failing to finish drives offensively.
One drive was of particular interest offensively, as the Badgers had driven down to the Northwestern 43-yard line, facing 3rd & 4 situation.
Then, Wisconsin elected for a quick pass to the flat that gained just one yard, leaving them with a 4th & 3 at the 42-yard line.
Down 14-3 in the second quarter with a bad defense behind them, head coach Luke Fickell elected to punt rather than go for it, attempting to pin the Northwestern offense deep in their own territory.
The punt wasn’t great, as Atticus Bertrams only pinned Northwestern at their own 10-yard line, and a 32-yard run by Joseph Himon on the first play essentially erased the field position advantage that Wisconsin had created.
Northwestern ultimately scored a touchdown on that drive and never looked back.
What was the reasoning behind Fickell’s decision to punt rather than kick the field goal?
“I can’t remember the exact time and when that one was, but when we’re not playing good enough on defense, it’s really difficult to give them a short field to be aggressive,” Fickell said about that decision to punt. “So at that point in time I think, if that’s the one I’m thinking about, we got it down to the eight yard line and then the next play they run for 42 yards on a replace around the edge.”
In hindsight, Fickell understands the decision to potentially go for it, but knows that decisions can go both ways if you don’t execute.
“Hindsight, yeah, maybe should have just went for it, if we didn’t get it, we’d be right back where you were after the one play. All those things make it decision really difficult when you’re not playing very well. So when you’re playing really well and you make a bad decision, they overcome it. When you’re playing really poorly and you think you make a good decision, turns out to be a bad one. So they kind of go hand in hand. Either way if we don’t find a way to play better football, all decisions will be bad.”
Fickell later clarified that, had his defense been playing better, there would be no doubt that he’d keep the offense out on the field for fourth down.
“Oh, there’s no doubt. There’s no doubt. You put yourself in those situations, like last week, playing good defense, and you know, after the first series or two and so you’re going to put yourself in those situations, and when you’re not, it’s like I said, all decisions become very, very difficult,” Fickell said.
It was only in the second quarter, but given the way that Northwestern’s offense was rolling and how the defense was flat, I, among others, felt that would’ve been the perfect opportunity to take away the momentum from the Wildcats.
However, you also don’t expect your defense to immediately struggle when placed in favorable field position at the opponent 10-yard line, which is what happened.
The Badgers have punted in plus territory on a number of occasions this season, which has highlighted both their conservative approach at times, as well as the inability for the offense to finish drives.
Regardless, Wisconsin needs to improve in those areas if they want to competitive offensively to finish the season.
That begins with this weekend’s matchup against the Nebraska Cornhuskers, who share the same record with the Badgers at 5-5 and 3-4 in conference play.