EVANSTON, Ill. — Northwestern needed to slow down Jonathan Taylor and Wisconsin’s No. 1 rushing attack if it wanted to take down the No. 20 Badgers at Ryan Field on Saturday.
The Wildcats did that, and more, holding the Badgers to a season-low 165 yards on the ground, while forcing three fumbles, including two from Big Ten rushing leader Taylor.
“You know they’re going to try and pound it and pound it,” cornerback Montre Hartage said. “We came out and imposed our will today.”
Taylor, who rushed for two touchdowns against NU last year, was bottled up by a front seven that welcomed SAM linebacker Nate Hall back into the fold. The senior picked up a TFL — the 27.5th of his career — in the first quarter and recovered a fumble early in the fourth quarter.
“It makes a lot of difference just having him back, confidence and chemistry too,” linebacker Paddy Fisher said.
Hall and Fisher were NU’s dynamic linebacker duo last season, combining for 26.5 TFLs, four forced fumbles, and an interception. Reunited for the first time in four games, Hall and Fisher created havoc once more.
Fisher stripped Taylor at the end of a third quarter run and Hartage pounced on the once-airborne ball to give NU another short field. The Wildcats scored 17 points off Badger turnovers.
The Wildcat secondary may have been even better. Badger quarterback Jack Coan, who was making his first career start, never looked comfortable under center. Wisconsin did its best to call a conservative game plan, but as NU pulled away, Coan was forced to throw more and more. Safeties JR Pace and Jared McGee did an excellent job of limiting the big play — Wisconsin’s longest pass play of the day went for 18 yards. Coan managed only 4.8 yards per attempt.
Then there was Montre Hartage. The senior has routinely drawn the toughest wide receiver assignments as NU’s best cover corner, and he’s been pretty reliable. On Saturday, Hartage was dominant.
“He’s a really good player and you saw that today,” Clayton Thorson said. “We call him ‘Strap’ [because Hartage is strapped to opposing wide receivers].”
Hartage, a co-captain alongside Fisher, had a career-high four pass breakups, including two on back-to-back incompletions in the fourth quarter to force a turnover on downs. Per Pro Football Focus, Hartage was targeted ten times but only allowed 21 yards after the catch.
Hartage said the defense, whose depth has improved over the course of the season, wants to prove it can compete with anyone.
“Guys are just persistent ...” Hartage said. “Guys take it personally to come out and work every week.”