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Rapid Reaction: Northwestern’s offense overpowers Wisconsin for 24-10 win in Ben Bryant’s return

Consummate complementary football.

Northwestern v Wisconsin Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

MADISON, Wisc. — Northwestern football may never win or lose two games in a row under David Braun, but it’s already hit the five-win threshold.

After scoring only seven points at Wrigley Field last Saturday, the Wildcats (5-5, 3-4 B1G) saw their offense on the gas pedal the whole first half from Camp Randall Stadium, beating Wisconsin (5-5, 3-4 B1G) 24-10. In his first time playing since Sept. 30, Ben Bryant fueled a hyper-efficient operation, going 18-for-26 with 195 yards, three total touchdowns and a 157.6 rating. On the ground, Cam Porter added 72 yards on 18 carries. Collectively, the ‘Cats totaled 319 yards, 5.3 yards per play and were 11-for-16 on third down, but the team had only 25 yards in the second half.

For Wisconsin, Tanner Mordecai went 31-for-45 for 255 passing yards and a fumble lost in his return. Will Pauling led the way for the Badgers’ receiving corps with 10 catches for 96 yards, but Braelon Allen had just four touches for 11 yards.

As the Badgers took the field for the first time, it marked the return of Mordecai, Allen and Chimere Dike — and that star power got to work. After a five-yard pass from Mordecai to Riley Nowakowski, the UW starter hooked up with Will Pauling to move the chains on third. On the following play, Phil Longo dialed up a play-action shot, where Mordecai found Vinny Anthony II for 35 yards. Allen then gained 10 yards himself on a catch followed by a run, but Kenny Soares II tripped up Mordecai on a third-down scramble from the Northwestern 15. NU bent but didn’t break as Nathanial Vakos made a field goal from 33 yards out.

Then, Bryant returned to action for the Wildcats. No. 2 connected with Bryce Kirtz on a sprintout for six yards, but the receiver next dropped a deep out. On third-and-4, Bryant hit Ray Niro II, who broke a tackle to gain 12 yards. A five-yard curl by Cam Johnson and two-yard carry by Cam Porter set up third-and-2, where Porter surged up the gut for a gain of 17. Mike Bajakian got creative with a screen to Joseph Himon II and jet sweep to A.J. Henning, and Bryant tossed to Kirtz to get the first down. The ‘Cats faced another third down having surpassed five minutes on their first drive, and NU answered by locating Henning wide open for a touchdown. It was 7-3 Northwestern with 4:12 to play subsequent to the 12-play, 79-yard drive.

Following the marathon possession, the Wildcats held Allen to no gain on first, and Garnett Hollis Jr. knocked a third-down pass away from Bryson Green. On the ensuing possession, Porter squirted through the hole for six on second, and Bryant found Johnson over the middle to gain a first down. Porter continued running with a head of steam, collecting 13 and five yards, while a facemask on an Anthony Tyus III run put the ball at the Badgers’ 17. In the red zone, Kirtz caught a late out route for five, but a Henning sweep was stuffed. Not to fear, because Porter picked up the first. Two plays later, Bryant scampered in on a play fake, and it was 14-3 Wildcats.

The Badgers got a surge of momentum courtesy of a 25-yard return from Anthony and kept going from there. C.J. Williams was left wide open on the near side on second down and gained 10. Cade Yacamelli ran for two and netted four on a dump-off, and on third-and-4, an excellent open-field tackle by Jaheem Joseph cut down Hayden Rucci. Luke Fickell punted on fourth-and-3 from the Northwestern 42, leaving the Surrender Index displeased.

The offensive explosion continued in the form of Himon, who raced down the far sideline for a 32-yard trot. NU went back to No. 20, who escaped multiple Badgers for as impressive of a five-yard carry as you’ll see. Bryant threw it a hair too far for Kirtz on second but was then on the money to Henning for a first down. After throwing it away on first, Bryant kept his eyes downfield to find Niro for 19 yards. Porter amassed four yards on two carries, but the Wisconsin defense faltered again: Bryant threw a beautiful fade to Johnson, who came down with it in the end zone. It was 21-3 Northwestern with 6:41 to go in the first half.

Another Henry Helms kick went short, giving Wisconsin the ball at its own 42. Mordecai and Pauling got another major gain, with the transfer picking up 33 yards against Rod Heard II. Pauling dropped the subsequent target, and a three-yard completion to Anthony set up third-and-7 at the Northwestern 22 — but Mordecai overthrew Dike. It went from bad to worse for the Badgers as Vakos missed the 40-yard kick.

Starting on its 22, Bryant looked deep downfield to Henning, who made a circus catch with one hand at the Wisconsin 37. Porter kept up his angry running by getting four, but Jack Lausch got decked on a QB Sweep. On third down from the UW 32-yard line, Bajakian put Henning in the backfield, and No. 8 danced along the sideline to pick up the necessary yardage. Bryant was nearly intercepted by Jason Maitre on first, but a 12-yard screen to Marshall Lang got enough to keep the ball with NU. An illegal shift backed the pigskin to the UW 13, and Bryant was errant on two straight passes to Kirtz. The NU starter scrambled for three on third down but was well short of the end zone. The ‘Cats came away with points when Jack Olsen sank a 28-yard field goal.

With 61 seconds left in the half, Mordecai hit Bryson Green and Pauling for pickups of seven and eight, respectively. but UW stalled after a Najee Story trip-up of Mordecai and a drop on third. Northwestern knelt to close out the half up 24-3, having amassed 294 yards of offense and going a pristine 10-for-10 on third down.

The second half offensive regression began quickly. Porter was stuffed on his first carry of the third, and Bryant dropped a snap but fell on it. On third-and-16, the Wildcats’ QB was sacked by Christian Alliegro. Hunter Renner was forced to punt for the first time, and his boot went only 35 yards. UW started on the Northwestern 48.

On the ensuing Badger possession, Mordecai had time on third but found Pauling late to convert on third-and-8. The tandem reconnected for nine on first down, but a hold on Jack Nelson pushed the ball back to the NU 39. Yacamelli muscled his way for six on second, and on third-and-5, a draw from Mordecai picked up 19. A false start on second down pushed the rock back to the 17, but Anthony tapped his toes for an 11-yard catch. On third down backed up in its goal line, Soares batted down a would-be touchdown pass. Then, on fourth-and-4 from the Northwestern 8, Morcedai’s pass went off the hands of Anthony, and the Badgers came up empty.

Despite the stop, Northwestern’s offense was stuck in neutral again. The Wildcats went three-and-out, and Renner’s punt checked up at the Wisconsin 49. Yet, UW couldn’t muster anything offensively. A second-down hold turned into a third-and-9, where Aidan Hubbard wrapped up Mordecai for a loss of 10 — his fifth sack in three weeks.

Tyus kickstarted Northwestern’s next possession with a five-yard gain, but Hunter Wohler met him in the backfield on second down. Third-and-6 displayed a strong pitch and catch between Bryant and Johnson, who narrowly was in front of the marker. The two worked over the middle for eight two plays later. As the third quarter came to an end, neither team got on the board, and Northwestern maintained a 21-point lead — still not enough to discourage Jump Around, though. Following the frenzy, Bryant was off to Kirtz, and Renner punted to the Wisconsin 22.

Longo’s offense stayed in hibernation on the next drive, with Sean McLaughlin batting down a pass on first. Jackson Aker picked up a third-and-1 and collected seven on a flip from Mordecai. The Badger QB found Skyler Bell to put the ball at the Northwestern 42 with 11:30 left. On a scramble up the middle, Heard knocked it away from Mordecai for a fumble lost, and Fickell’s team still couldn’t find the end zone.

The ‘Cats went three-and-out on the next drive, with Maitre knocking a pass away from Henning. Despite marching into Northwestern territory, Mordecai overshot Pauling on third-and-17, and Fickell elected to punt with 6:37 remaining.

Ultimately, Wisconsin finally found paydirt with an Aker touchdown with 11 seconds left. Yet, Northwestern came away with a 24-10 victory — its first triumph in Madison since 2015.

The Wildcats return to Ryan Field to conclude their home slate next Saturday at either 11 a.m. or 2:30 p.m. CT.