EVANSTON, Ill. — Just when you thought Northwestern’s season couldn’t get much worse, it did.
On Homecoming weekend, Wisconsin (3-3, 1-2 B1G) blew out the Wildcats (1-5, 1-2 B1G) by a score of 42-7.
Ryan Hilinski led Northwestern in passing, throwing for 147 yards on 10-for-22 passing. He threw two interceptions and no touchdowns. Brendan Sullivan also added 111 yards on 11-for-17 passing, and led the ‘Cats on the ground with 33 yards on 10 carries.
For the Badgers, it was Graham Mertz who led the way with 299 yards and five touchdowns on 20-of-29 completions. Braelon Allen added 135 yards on 23 carries on the ground, and Chimere Dike snagged 10 passes for 185 yards and three touchdowns.
The Badgers got off to a quick start on their first drive, picking up two first downs via Mertz passes to Dike. Allen kept the momentum going, as he ripped off a 33-yard run and broke multiple tackles along the way to put Wisconsin in field goal range. However, the drive stalled at the NU 17-yard line. Nate Van Zelst hooked his 35-yard field goal attempt wide left, and the game remained scoreless.
The Wildcats responded by moving the chains twice on a 16-yard Thomas Gordon reception and a Wisconsin offside penalty on third down. The drive petered out at midfield, though, after Hilinski couldn’t connect with Donny Navarro III on third down.
Following a Luke Akers punt that buried the Badgers at their own two-yard line, Allen gave his offense some room with a 14-yard run. A Jordan Butler unsportsmanlike conduct penalty soon put Wisconsin in NU territory, and Mertz took it from there. He connected with Skyler Bell twice, the latter of which was an easy 15-yard touchdown pass on play action. It capped off a 98-yard drive and put the Badgers up 7-0.
Northwestern’s response looked promising after Hilinski hit Navarro for a third down conversion, but the quarterback threw an interception a few plays later to set the Badgers up at their own 48.
Mertz struck again off the turnover, this time with a bullet down the middle of the field to Dike. The junior cut to the left sideline and outran two Northwestern defenders en route to a 52-yard score. With the extra point, Wisconsin went up 14-0 as the first quarter concluded.
On the next drive, Brendan Sullivan entered the game for Hilinski. The quarterback change couldn’t jumpstart the offense, though. Led by their pass rush, the Badgers forced Northwestern’s first three-and-out of the day. Wisconsin picked up a first down on the ensuing possession, but then punted back to the ‘Cats for the first time.
After another three-and-out by NU, Wisconsin had another chance for a big play when a busted coverage left Jack Eschenbach alone in the middle of the field, but Mertz missed him. That ultimately didn’t matter, because Mertz found an open Dike for a 43-yard pass on the very next play. The duo connected again when Mertz dropped a 21-yard touchdown throw over Dike’s shoulder. That increased the Wisconsin lead to 21 with 6:58 left in the half.
Northwestern couldn’t respond, and the Badgers added to the damage. They gradually moved down the field before Allen turned what appeared to be an unsuccessful stretch run into a 23-yard touchdown pass to Chez Mellusi. With just over two minutes in the half, Wisconsin went up 28-0, putting NU in its biggest deficit of the season.
Hilinski reentered the game on the next drive, and the ‘Cats finally showed signs of life. Evan Hull took a screen pass 45 yards, setting up Northwestern in the red zone. A fourth-down conversion by Hull inside the 10 put NU in great position with under a minute left, but it couldn’t capitalize. Jack Olsen missed a 21-yard field goal attempt as time expired, leaving the score at 28-0 in Wisconsin’s favor at halftime.
The Wildcats looked like they would turn it around on their first drive of the second half. Hilinski found Malik Washington and Bryce Kirtz for gains of 12 and 25, respectively. But inside the red zone, Hilinski threw his second pick of the day to Wisconsin’s Kamo’i Latu. Making matters worse, Nick Herbig’s blindside block on the return injured Hilinski. He would not return to the game.
The Badgers picked up a first down before punting away. Once again, Northwestern strung together a few first downs before committing another crushing turnover. Replacing the injured Hilinski, Sullivan led the ‘Cats to midfield before an unblocked Herbig rushed off the edge to strip-sack him and force a fumble.
Both teams traded possessions before an unsuccessful fourth-down attempt by Northwestern gave Wisconsin a short field. The Badgers took advantage, as Dike punctuated the drive with his third touchdown reception of the day. It extended the Wisconsin lead to 35 at the beginning of the fourth quarter.
The ‘Cats finally got on the board after Sullivan found Navarro for 21 yards and dropped a perfect throw to Kirtz for 41 yards down the right sideline. The drive appeared to stall at the goal line when Northwestern’s fourth-down pass play didn’t immediately develop, but Sullivan bought himself enough time with his legs to find Anthony Tyus for a one-yard score. That made it 35-7 Badgers.
Wisconsin added one more touchdown for good measure on an 84-yard drive. Mertz capped it off with his fifth touchdown pass of the afternoon, this time to Markus Allen for 19 yards.
Northwestern will have an open week before heading to Maryland to take on the Terrapins on Oct. 22 at 2:30 p.m. CT.