Saturday’s contest started and ended as one would expect from a typical University of Wisconsin-Northwestern game.
In the first half, the Wildcats were up to the task, the Badgers looked nothing like a top-10 team and UW appeared in jeopardy of suffering a serious blow to its promising season. As time wound down in the fourth quarter, Northwestern scored two late touchdowns to cut a big Badgers lead to one score and give fans at Camp Randall Stadium yet another scare.
UW survived the pesky Wildcats in the end, holding off their late charge for a 33-24 victory.
“It’s always a good game with (Northwestern),” UW left tackle Michael Deiter said. “You never expect them to lay down. That’s what we expect out of Northwestern. Still, we have to be better."
While miles from perfect Saturday, 10th-ranked UW (4-0, 1-0) can move on past the opponent that derailed its 2014 and 2015 seasons and always seems to make a victory more difficult than it appears on paper.
The Badgers turned the ball over three times in the first half — two interceptions from quarterback Alex Hornibrook and a fumble by wide receiver Jazz Peavy on the first play from scrimmage. UW also fumbled twice more before halftime but recovered both times.
Peavy’s fumble immediately set up Northwestern (2-2, 0-1) in prime field position at the Badgers’ 24-yard line, but UW’s defense held the Wildcats to just 3 points.
That field goal marked the only score the Wildcats produced off the Badgers’ turnovers, something Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said was the “difference in the game in the first half.”
True freshman running back Jonathan Taylor, who finished with 80 yards on 19 carries, scored his first of two touchdowns with 4 minutes, 13 seconds remaining in the first quarter to give the Badgers’ their first lead at 7-3.
It was the only time UW even threatened to score in the first half, though. Outside of that drive, the Badgers only managed 67 yards and converted on 1-of-5 third-down attempts, not to mention the three turnovers.
Late in the second quarter, Northwestern took advantage of another short field — driving 44 yards on 12 plays — to regain a 10-7 advantage before halftime.
“All those things happened, and it’s how you respond,” UW coach Paul Chryst said. “That’s what I was proud of, the way the guys continued to play and respond and come together."
Hornibrook said the Badgers “had a fire lit from underneath” them at halftime and mentioned inside linebacker Jack Cichy, who’s out for the season after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament during fall camp, as one of the players who addressed the team during the break.
It didn’t take long for the game to flip in the third quarter. Facing a third-and-3 from their own 28-yard line on their first offensive possession after halftime, the Badgers used play action to complete a 61-yard bomb to wide receiver Quintez Cephus.
Taylor scored from 11 yards out on the next play, giving the lead back to UW.
"It was a time where we need to make a play,” Cephus said. "Somebody had to stop the bleeding."
Hornibrook, who finished 11-of-20 passing for 197 yards, connected with Danny Davis for a 32-yard gain on the next drive and found the true freshman again two plays later for a 5-yard touchdown, extending the Badgers’ advantage to 21-10.
Northwestern punted on its first four possessions of the second half before Wildcats quarterback Clayton Thorson threw an interception to safety Natrell Jamerson, who returned the ball 36 yards for a touchdown, giving UW a 31-10 lead with 9:54 remaining.
With half the student section emptied out, Northwestern scored two late touchdowns in the span of less than two minutes, the second coming with 2:53 left to cut the Badgers’ lead to 31-24.
Northwestern had one last chance from its own 2-yard line with 1:09 remaining, but Badgers safety D’Cota Dixon ended the threat of a remarkable comeback when he tackled Thorson in the end zone for a safety, the last of eight UW sacks on the day.
“I think we kind of got a little relaxed. We got a little too relaxed,” UW safety D’Cota Dixon said. "That was the only thing I was disappointed about. … It was an ugly finish."
UW managed to maintain its undefeated record and likely top-10 ranking for another week after facing its biggest test yet.
Saturday’s performance on the whole may not be able to keep the Badgers unblemished as the season ages, but this matchup rarely seems to play out as anticipated for UW.
“Really proud of the way the guys fought together and found a way to win,” Chryst said. “We knew it was going to be a hard one, and yet I think there are a lot of lessons to be learned in this one. … There are many areas that we can get better in, need to get better."