Just one year and five days removed from a Scott Starks fumble recovery for a touchdown that sent the then-perfect Boilermakers into a spiral, Purdue once again fell victim to a crucial play by the Wisconsin secondary Saturday afternoon. Only this time it was free safety Roderick Rogers who made the play.
Rogers took an interception in the third quarter 84 yards all the way to paydirt as the No. 19 Wisconsin Badgers (7-1, 4-1 Big Ten) picked up the 31-20 Homecoming victory over the Purdue Boilermakers (2-5, 0-4) at Camp Randall Saturday afternoon.
"I felt like I had to make a spark," Rogers said. "We talked about making a spark all week and once one person makes a spark it's contagious and it went all throughout the defense and it helped us the rest of the game."
Rogers jumped in front of Purdue quarterback Curtis Painter's third quarter throw to Dorien Bryant to grab the interception at the Wisconsin 16-yard line. Bryant tried to get Rogers to bite on an outside fake on the play, but the junior recognized the route and settled into position to make the play before racing to the end zone, giving UW a 17-13 advantage.
"At first I wasn't thinking end zone but, to be honest, the reason I cut it back was because I saw two 300-pound linemen coming down the right," Rogers joked. "So I cut it back to the sideline and found a wall."
Rogers' play was the turning point in a game that nearly took on a whole new complexion just four plays earlier when Painter misfired on a deep ball to wide receiver Brian Hare that would have given the Boilermakers a 20-10 lead midway through the third quarter.
On the play, Hare had beaten UW senior Brett Bell deep and Rogers was late coming in over the top to help, allowing Painter the open toss to Hare. But Rogers more than redeemed himself with the interception return, giving UW the spark it desperately needed.
"That was a huge point in the game," said linebacker Andy Crooks, who played in place of injured mike linebacker Mark Zalewski. "Rod made a great pick on the ball, made some nice cuts and took it to the house … they were marching down the field, if they would've scored they would've been up 10, and that swung the momentum. It was a huge play to put us up four and then we never really lost the momentum after that."
The interception lit a fire, not only under the Badger defense, but under the Wisconsin offense as well.
The Wisconsin offense responded with a touchdown of its own on the ensuing offensive drive. Staring down a vicious blitz, John Stocco, who was 15-for-21 for 217 yards and a pair of touchdowns on the day, found a streaking Brian Calhoun out of the backfield and, one juke move to Purdue free safety Brandon Whittington later, the junior was 40 yards downfield for the touchdown, putting UW ahead 24-13.
"There was so much space it's hard for any safety to defend me in that much space," Calhoun said. "I didn't know where I was going, but I was smiling to myself because I can just make one move here and go all the way."
Wisconsin put the game out of reach late in the third quarter when Jack Ikegwuonu grabbed his second interception of the game and took it 62 yards for the touchdown. The redshirt freshman's first career score gave UW an insurmountable 31-13 advantage with only 3:21 remaining in the game.
"The last [interception] ices the game for you because the game was still, as far as I was concerned, still in balance until he intercepted for a touchdown there," head coach Barry Alvarez said. "I thought Jack probably grew up today. That should give him a ton of confidence."
While the defense played well Saturday, the Wisconsin offense struggled after posting back-to-back outings of more than 35 points.
Looking to exploit Purdue's pass defense — a unit that was allowing nearly 370 yards per game — the Badgers employed a three-wide receiver attack for a good chunk of the game. But UW was unable to capitalize consistently through the air, finishing the contest with just 217 passing yards.
The rushing attack also suffered, as Wisconsin posted a season-low total of 63 rushing yards. The Badgers' 17 points was also their lowest output since posting 14 points in a win against North Carolina earlier this year.
"Give credit to Purdue, they have a lot better defense and a very athletic defense compared to what their record shows," Calhoun said after gaining just 62 yards rushing. "They played a phenomenal game on defense and I think one of the things they focused on was to stop the run, and they did a good job of that."
Luckily for Wisconsin, its own defense was up to the task, and despite coping with numerous injuries in its front, was able to come up with enough big plays in the win.
"We were very patched up as you knew all week," Alvarez said. "Some of our defensive linemen hadn't practiced all week and yet some of them played. Then you lose Zalewski and some other guys who haven't played all year have to go in and respond and play. So, with a patched up outfit, I was very pleased how they played. I feel good about it today. It's an ebb and flow, the matchups are different every week, but they responded today very well."