Don’t let the 33-24 final score fool you — Northwestern’s defense played its best game of the season, given the situation.
Northwestern took a three-point lead into the locker room and it was hard not to think that should have been more. The Wildcats managed just three points off of three first half Wisconsin turnovers despite taking over in Wisconsin territory on two occasions. While it was the defense that kept Pat Fitzgerald’s team in the game, it was Wisconsin’s edge in the field position battle that proved insurmountable for Mike Hankwitz’s group.
Ultimately, Northwestern couldn’t put together the complete game it needed to win on Saturday. Beating the lofty two-touchdown plus spread is one thing, but beating Wisconsin at Camp Randall required consistency and timely plays that the visitors severely lacked. It was, however, mostly not the fault of the defense.
“We started the right way, getting the turnovers we need and we don't capitalize on it,” Fitzgerald said, referencing his offense’s inability to make the most of its opportunistic defense.
“In the second half, there were miscommunications and we give up a couple explosive plays, credit Wisconsin obviously for making those,” he continued. “Very disappointed in the outcome of the game, credit Wisconsin."
For all its offensive shortcomings in the first half, Northwestern was in a great position at halftime. Having deferred the opening kickoff, Thorson’s offense got the ball first in the second half with a chance to build on a 10-7 lead.
Instead, an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty stalled the opening drive and Wisconsin didn’t take long to respond. Alex Hornibrook’s first half stat line read 5-of-11 for 48 yards and two interceptions. He more than doubled that with a 61-yard completion on play-action to Quintez Cephus the Badgers’ third play in the second half.
“He was wide-ass open,” Fitzgerald said. “That was an issue of miscommunication on a play in a rep we actually practiced this week."
Jonathan Taylor waltzed into the end zone one play later, giving Wisconsin a lead they would not relinquish. Northwestern’s turgid offense stalled quickly once again, and a sack followed by a terrible unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the punt return gave Paul Chryst’s team a short field for its second drive of the half.
After allowing only 114 yards in the first half, Hankwitz’s group could only do so much, especially after getting thrown back onto the field almost immediately. With the end zone merely 38 yards to their backs, Hornibrook needed just four plays to put the Badgers up 21-10. Northwestern’s offense could not do anything against Jim Leonhard’s group.
“Then we just all of a sudden decided to stop executing on offense for some reason for about 16, 18 minutes,” Fitzgerald said.
That stretch gave Wisconsin ample opportunity to grind Northwestern down behind its massive offensive line. Given another short field to begin the fourth quarter, the Wildcats bent but didn’t break, conceding a 23-yard field goal.
Those were all the points the defense would yield. Wisconsin only had one drive longer than 50 yards, and nearly all of it came on the connection to Cephus. Hornibrook finished with 197 yards and Taylor collected 80 on the ground. The Badgers, who had come in averaging 275.3 rushing yards per game, were held to just 109 yards on 37 attempts (2.7 YPC). It was the first time they ran for less than 200 yards on the ground all season and their lowest total since Michigan held them to 71 yards in Week 5 of 2016.
Ignore the final score. By all means, Northwestern’s defense kept them in this game for as long as it could. Given the injury-plagued secondary and poor performances early in the season, it was an impressive effort on the road. Sam Miller and Joe Gaziano each tallied a sack. Paddy Fisher, Trae Williams and Jared McGee forced fumbles, although only one was recovered. Godwin Igwebuike and JR Pace picked off Hornibrook to set up the offense nicely.
When Northwestern ended a 24-0 run for Wisconsin and scored with 4:46 remaining in the game, the defense forced a crucial three-and-out to put the ball back in Thorson’s hands. Even after the failed onside kick attempt, the fourth time the Badgers started with the ball on Northwestern’s side of the field, the defense forced Wisconsin to punt with another three-and-out.
"I think they just executed what they were trying to do,” linebacker Brett Walsh, who collected 11 tackles, said. “They just out-executed us, I suppose. It's just a game of inches, we just need to make another play."
Playing a top 10 team on the road, Northwestern had to be at its finest form. Even the 2015 version of the Wildcats’ defense wouldn’t have been able to salvage this offensive performance. Northwestern had the luck, and a solid performance from its defense. The special teams and offense were not consistent enough.
“We've got to get our guys to be more consistent to win games like this,” Fitzgerald said.