MADISON — Northwestern (1-3, 0-2 B1G) put up the best defensive fight it could muster against No. 8 Wisconsin (4-0, 2-0 B1G), but ultimately fell by nine points to the Badgers.
Both teams’ defenses showed up to play. Northwestern held Wisconsin to 243 total yards — a group that has averaged over 500 yards of total offense a game. The Wildcats limited Wisconsin’s greatest weapon Jonathan Taylor early on, but late game performance was a different story.
The combination of Wisconsin’s outstanding defensive performance with Northwestern’s inability to produce offensively ultimately led to the Badgers’ win. Wisconsin held the Wildcats to 255 total yards, and Hunter Johnson finished 10-of-21 with only 59 yards on the day. Two second-half defensive score from the Badgers solidified the well-earned win for the Wisconsin defense.
The Badger offense took control early in the first quarter with an explosive 10 play, 54-yard drive that ended with a 13-yard touchdown run from Jonathan Taylor on fourth down. The Wildcats seemed to be falling back into their tackling woes and dormant offensive play, but they bounced back on both sides of the ball by the end of the first.
Pinned inside the five, Drake Anderson’s efforts were not enough to prevent a quick three and out, but a penalty on Wisconsin during the punt resulted in an automatic first down and gave the Wildcats the momentum they needed. Two huge rushing plays — one from Anderson and one from Johnson — allowed Northwestern to see the red zone, but Wisconsin’s defense held the ‘Cats right there and forced a 29-yard Charlie Kuhbander field goal.
Most of the second quarter was quiet as the Wildcats and Badgers exchanged three-and-outs for the bulk of the quarter. With under two minutes to play in the half, Jack Coan took a deep shot down field and was picked off by JR Pace. However, the Wildcats were unable to capitalize on the turnover and punted the ball away. The 7-3 score held at half.
Both teams continued their defensive stands in the third with back-and-forth punts throughout the quarter. Wisconsin’s defense ultimately made the play of the day late in the third with a strip sack from S Eric Burrell, recovered for the touchdown by DE Matt Henningsen. The score extended Wisconsin’s lead to 14-3 heading into the fourth.
After an uneventful three quarters, the fourth was hectic. Hunter Johnson went down with a chest injury and was replaced by junior backup Aidan Smith. On his second play of the game, Smith was hit from behind on a pass resulting in an interception that was run back 68 yards for a touchdown by Noah Burks. The Wisconsin lead was 21. Johnson returned soon after to relieve Smith for two plays but left the game again with a knee injury, this time for good.
However, the momentum started to shift in Northwestern’s direction for a moment as Wisconsin’s Jack Dunn fumbled on a punt. Ray Niro III recovered the football, giving Northwestern solid field position, and Anderson punched it in on a four-yard run. After a failed two-point conversion attempt the Wildcats trailed 24-9.
Following the touchdown, Kyric McGowan successfully recovered Trey Finison’s onside kick, but another strip sack from the Wisconsin defense just plays later negated the recovery.
Late in the fourth, Smith put together a 10 play, 83-yard drive that ended with a 15-yard JJ Jefferson touchdown. Yet again, Northwestern could not convert the two-point conversion. Wisconsin led 24-15 and that score would remain the same, as the Wildcats threw short of the sticks on a last-gasp fourth down.
Northwestern will take on Nebraska next weekend in Lincoln.