Northwestern hung around, but only for so long.
In a game that was a tale of two halves, No. 10 Wisconsin (4-0, 1-0 B1G) dispatched the Wildcats (2-2, 0-1 B1G) 33-24 on a crisp fall day at Camp Randall, wearing Pat Fitzgerald's team down in the second half.
Freshman sensation Jonathan Taylor finished with 80 yards and two touchdowns on the ground, which, coupled with a couple of big passing plays by quarterback Alex Hornibrook, was enough to get past a Northwestern team that couldn't get anything going in the second half.
The Wildcats got off to about as good a start as they could've when Trae Williams forced and recovered a fumble along the sideline on Wisconsin’s first offensive play of the game, but Northwestern couldn't convert on an ensuing third-and-short. Charlie Kuhbander then opened the scoring with a 34-yard field goal.
Aside from a 47-yard touchdown drive by the Badgers in the middle of the first quarter, the Northwestern front seven contained Taylor, Chris James and Bradrick Shaw pretty well, and the defensive line bothered Alex Hornibrook throughout the half. Taylor managed 62 yards on 11 carries, but a lot of it came on the touchdown drive.
The Northwestern defensive line got to the Badgers' QB for three sacks in the first half, two from Joe Gaziano and one from Alex Miller. Two second quarter interceptions from Hornibook killed Wisconsin drives, which helped the 'Cats win the time of possession battle in the first 30 minutes (16:33 to 13:27).
Northwestern's offense stalled a few times in short yardage situations early on, but a dump-off to superback Garrett Dickerson on third-and-short keyed a 44-yard touchdown drive that ended with a one-yard, play-action toss from Thorson to Cam Green. The first score of Green's career made it 10-7 NU.
What was a promising first half led into a debacle of a second for Northwestern.
Wisconsin outscored NU 23-14 after halftime, and the offense had trouble doing anything, save for one fourth quarter drive touchdown drive when the game was already out of hand. Thorson was under fire all day, but he looked much more affected by the pressure in the second half. The junior quarterback faced a lot of heat on the pick-6 he threw at the beginning of the third quarter, but the throw was still ill-advised nonetheless.
Half number two wasn't much better for the defense, starting with Wisconsin's first drive. Nearly the entire secondary bit on a play fake and allowed Quintez Cephus to get behind everybody for a 61-yard gain. Taylor then took the ball into the end zone from 11 yards out on the next play for his second TD of the day, making it 14-10 Badgers.
Following one first down on the next Northwestern drive, the Badgers went back to work. Another big catch-and-run, this one to Danny Davis III for 33 yards, set Wisconsin up deep in Wildcat territory. A leaping grab by Davis two plays later put the home team up 21-10 with 5:26 left in the third quarter.
A field goal and the aforementioned pick-6 ensued at the start of the fourth quarter, all but putting the game out of reach. The NU offense picked it back up late in the fourth, but it proved to be too late. A 75-yard Northwestern TD drive spurred by multiple penalties made the score 31-17 with 4:46 to play, and, after a quick defensive stop, Thorson led a 55-yard scoring drive, this one culminating with a five-yard pass to Garrett Dickerson made cut the lead to seven.
Wisconsin recovered the Luke Otto onside kick that followed, but went three-and-out, which gave Northwestern one more shot to tie the game with the ball on its own one yard line and just over a minute to go.
The game all but ended when Thorson took another sack on second down, this time for a safety, giving Wisconsin what would be a 33-24 win.
- The Northwestern offense line struggled...again
Part of the blame goes on Thorson for holding the ball and the receivers failing to get separation, but the offensive line didn't give the offense much of a chance to get going. When the team needed to move the ball early in the second half, the line folded. Thorson was sacked ten times on the day, in an offensive performance that was reminiscent in so many other past losses. The final numbers — 219 yards, three touchdowns and two picks from Thorson — don't look terrible, but two of the scores came when Wisconsin was up big. If it feels like we talk about the line troubles a lot, it's because we do, and because it's a recurring problem.
- The pass defense had a strong first half, but wore down
Northwestern's front four got to Hornibrook throughout the first half, which made helped out a secondary that has withstood a ton of injuries this season. In the second half, though, the rush was nowhere to be found, and Hornibrook exposed the deficiencies at the back end. The coaching staff will be able to take something from the first half flashes, but Wisconsin was just too much for this defense to handle for four quarters.
- The running game was nonexistent
Much like the Duke game, there was virtually nothing doing in the run game. Justin Jackson much be hurt in some capacity, because he only saw nine carries. Jeremy Larkin looked decent on the seven carries he had, but Mick McCall had to abandon the ground game fairly early. Thorson is being asked to do a ton right now.
- Northwestern's Big Ten West prospects took a major hit
The Wildcats don't look like a team that could realistically compete for the division title, but Saturday's effort in Madison makes it really tough to envision a scenario for NU to make it to Indianapolis, given that the Badgers — the favorites to win the West — will hold the tiebreaker advantage over the 'Cats.