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In its biggest game of the season, Northwestern falls flat in the trenches

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Northwestern’s chances in the Big Ten West are all-but over

Wisconsin v Northwestern Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

After an encouraging performance in Columbus last week against Ohio State, Northwestern took a step backward in its 21-7 loss to No. 8 Wisconsin, all but ending any chance they had at winning the Big Ten West.

It was a performance reminiscent of earlier this season, albeit against a much, much better team: The Badgers physically dominated the Wildcats all day at the lines of scrimmage, and individual breakdowns on the offensive line at key moments made it difficult for the Wildcat offense to keep drives alive. The stat of the day, undoubtedly, was the time of possession: The Badgers held the ball for over 40 minutes today.

Clayton Thorson was running for his life on a number of plays, and the running game was virtually non-existent; Justin Jackson had just 13 carries for 42 yards, with 28 coming on one play. To be fair, a lot of this was because of the Wisconsin defense. The Badgers were every bit as good as advertised. Just like in the Illinois State game, the coaches had no choice but to abandon Jackson, the team’s best player, and the running game completely; the line was getting no push.

“That was the difference in the game: our inability to run the football,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “It looked like we just weren’t getting to the second level.”

The offensive line wasn’t the only reason the offense sputtered, though. Even when Clayton Thorson did have time to throw, especially in the first half, he struggled to find receivers down the field, often dumping the ball down to shorter options. Against a very fast and disciplined Wisconsin defense, the check-downs that have gone for 6 or 8 yards went for 2 or 4.

But because the offense was so one-dimensional, staying on schedule and out of third-and-longs was a steep challenge; the Wildcats were just 5 for 18 on third down. The average distance to go on those 18 plays was over 7 12 yards.

“We had too many third-and-longs,” Austin Carr said. “We have to make third downs more manageable.”

Defensively, the story was more of the same.

Northwestern had trouble stopping the run and getting off the field all day. Though the Badgers only ended up averaging 3.3 yards per carry, that stat doesn’t adequately describe how the game went. Time after time, Badger running backs galloped through gaping holes at the line of scrimmage before eluding Northwestern tacklers with relative ease. Additionally, the Badgers ran for -37 yards on the final drive, trying to bleed out the clock with quarterback Bart Houston just running backward and sliding to the turf. Before that, the visitors averaged a ridiculous 6.2 yards per carry.

“They had a great scheme, the truck stick they were using,” Anthony Walker Jr. said. “Our cornerbacks hung in there and made plays, but you don’t want your cornerbacks making plays against 200-pound running backs all the time.”

The defense missed linebacker Jaylen Prater, who was out this week after suffering an injury against Ohio State last week, but the breakdowns weren’t limited to one player; there were far too many missed tackles and poor pursuit angles; players didn’t fit plays well, either, too often giving up positive yards when they seemed to be in position for a stop in the backfield.

For the most part, Northwestern’s defense bent but didn’t break. But the Badgers ate clock, and wore down the Northwestern defense. The defense forced Wisconsin to attempt four field goals on the day. Wisconsin’s backup kicker Andrew Endicott missed two of these kicks, which kept the game closer than it probably should’ve been.

Overall, when push came to shove, Wisconsin’s offensive line generated a significant push up front, and the Badgers took full advantage.

Still, the Wildcats weren’t out of the game until late.

Clayton Thorson led an impressive touchdown drive at the end of the first half to cut the Wisconsin lead to 10-7 at halftime. And in the second half, the Widlcat offense found itself down just 13-7 with the ball in the red zone. But on first-and-10 on the Wisconsin 19-yard line, an Eric Olson holding penalty pushed the offense back, eventually killing the drive. Fitzgerald called it a “mental error.” It was reminiscent of the “one-man breakdowns” Northwestern suffered up front early in the season.

Added Fitzgerald: “We had momentum going into the fourth and it simply killed it,”

The mistake was indicative of how the game went as a whole. Protection struggles and self-inflicted mistakes made it tough for Northwestern to convert third-downs, get stops, and ultimately stay competitive.

At the end of the day, Northwestern was just not as big, strong or skilled as Wisconsin was in the trenches, and the results showed in the final score. Northwestern still has some of the same flaws on the lines that it had early in the season, even if those units’ play in the month of October somewhat masked them. The Wildcats lost the physical battle today, and now find themselves at 4-5, needing two wins in its final three games to get to bowl eligibility. Three much easier opponents await, but the group up front must bring it for Northwestern to finish strong.