MADISON-Northwestern had a 10-7 lead at halftime against No. 10 Wisconsin and things were looking good. The Wildcats had gone toe-to-toe with the big, bad Badgers for 30 minutes and had accomplished its first priority: stopping their powerful running game.
But Wisconsin shifted gears and took to the air in the second half, and three big passing plays changed the tenor of the game, and then a pick-6 proved to be the game-winner as the Badgers claimed a 33-24 victory in the Big Ten opener for both teams.
Northwestern rallied to cut a 21-point deficit to just seven in the closing minutes, but it was all for naught as quarterback Clayton Thorson was tackled in the end zone for a safety to drive the final nail in the coffin for the Wildcats.
Alex Hornibrook went 11-for-20 for 197 yards and one touchdown, with two interceptions for the Badgers. Northwestern was led by Clayton Thorson, who was 29-for-45 for 219 yards, with three TDs and two interceptions. Thorson was also sacked eight times.
Here are our six points on a loss that drops Northwestern to 2-2 (0-1 Big Ten):
The Cats carried the first half: The first half was an old-fashioned, 1970s Big Ten slobberknocker. Northwestern had the edge in total yards, 117-114, as neither offense had much room to operate and collected just eight first downs apiece. The Wildcats led 10-7 at the break, thanks to a 12-play, 44-yard TD drive in which Thorson completed passes to three different superbacks, including the 1-yard scoring throw to Cameron Green. They also found some success on the ground, with Jeremy Larkin gaining 37 yards. The defense, too, came up with three turnovers (one fumble and two interceptions) and two sacks (half of their total in the three previous games combined). But it all changed in a hurry in a disastrous third quarter.
Wisconsin’s passing game was the difference in the second half: Northwestern’s defense achieved its first priority, containing Wisconsin’s ground game. Instead, the Badgers took to the air to blow the game open with three big plays in the second half. In the third quarter, Hornibrook hit a wide-open Quintez Cephus for a 61-yard strike to the NU 11 off of a busted coverage. One play later, Johnathan Taylor ran it in for a 14-10 lead the Badgers would not relinquish. On the next drive, Hornibrook connected with Danny Davis for 32 yards to the NU 6 and, a play later, another TD. Finally, a 33-yard pass to AJ Taylor early in the fourth led to a Wisconsin field goal. Hornibrook’s three long passes went for 126 yards and the Badgers’ went from a 10-7 deficit to a 24-10 lead.
The Wildcats made it interesting late: After Natrell Jamerson ran in a 36-yard pick-6 with 9:54 left in the fourth quarter, the Badgers had scored 24 unanswered points to open up a 31-10 lead and it appeared that the rout was on. But Northwestern wouldn’t quit. Going exclusively to the air, Thorson directed two touchdown drives in the closing minutes, capped by scoring strikes to Garrett Dickerson and Ramaud Chiaokhiao-Bowman, respectively, to bring NU to within one score at 31-24. After failing to get an onside kick, Northwestern forced a punt and got the ball back on its own 2-yard line with 1:09 to play. But on the second snap of the drive, Thorson was tripped up trying to roll out in the end zone for a safety and the game was over. He blamed himself for failing to get rid of the ball.
Northwestern’s offensive line struggled: One of the biggest questions going into this game was whether the Wildcat offensive line would be up to the challenge against a legit Big Ten defense. The answer came early and was repeated several times throughout the afternoon: No. Pass protection was the most glaring weakness, as Thorson was sacked eight times – six in the second half -- and was under pressure throughout the game. The Wildcats also got stuffed on two pivotal third-and-1s in the first half, with Justin Jackson losing a yard on his two attempts. Wisconsin’s defensive line owned the line of scrimmage.
Northwestern can’t win without the running game: It’s an old adage in Evanston: as Justin Jackson goes, so go the Wildcats. The Wildcats are 18-4 when Jackson runs for 100 yards in a game and, now, 6-14 when he doesn’t. Against Wisconsin, they are 2-0 when he reaches the century mark, 0-2 when he doesn’t. It was clear early that the Badgers were zeroed in on No. 21 like a Madison tailgater on a bratwurst. He finished with just 25 yards on nine carries and fell far short of the 109 he needed to set the Northwestern career rushing mark. It didn't help that Jackson continues to battle a leg injury that kept him out of practice all week. Larkin, though, was impressive in limited duty and wound up as NU’s leading rusher.
Looking ahead: While the Big Ten West race is far from over, Northwestern now faces a very difficult path to claim the title. The loss means that the Wildcats are essentially two games behind the Badgers in the division because, as the head-to-head winner, Wisconsin only needs tie Northwestern in wins and losses. The schedule doesn’t get any easier for Northwestern, either. After facing the No. 10 Badgers, the Wildcats return home to meet No. 4 Penn State. The defense, coming off of a game against the physical, ground-and-pound Badgers, now must prepare for an offense with several explosive weapons, including All-Big Ten quarterback Trace McSorley and all-everything running back Saquon Barkley. Northwestern will once again be double-digit underdogs and face the very real likelihood of being 0-2 in conference play and nothing more than a potential spoiler in the conference race.