The Badgers’ season opener against Northern Illinois started with a bang, had the makings of a blowout, then ended with the remaining fans in Camp Randall gripping their seats as the game came down to the last two minutes.
All that mattered to head coach Bret Bielema and the Wisconsin football team, however, is that the final score of 28-20 read in the Badgers’ favor when the game clock hit zero.
“There are a lot of good things that happened out there tonight,” Bielema said. “For as many young people as we played, there were enough positive things out there to help us win the football game.”
As if there were cue cards held up behind the reporters, every player at the press conference agreed.
“We got out of there with the win, and that is what’s important,” senior captain Garrett Graham said.
“I am going to take away that it is a good start — with 11 games to go, we need to start with a win,” starting quarterback Scott Tolzien said.
“We got the ‘W’, and that’s what counts. There were some mistakes, but for the most part we played well, you know,” senior captain Chris Maragos said.
UW’s first offensive possession of the season was a quick one. Starting on their own 20-yard line, offensive coordinator Paul Chryst caught the NIU defense off guard when he called for a deep pass to junior wide receiver Isaac Anderson — a call Anderson said Chryst made three days before the game. Given all day in the pocket, Tolzien lofted his first pass as a starter for an 80-yard touchdown before half of the students had entered the stadium.
“That is the ideal situation,” senior left tackle Gabe Carimi said. “Coach Chryst said that we were going to call that call right away and to get our minds right, and that was the best thing that could happen.”
The Badgers’ passing attack didn’t stop there, totaling 281 yards on just 18 completions, compared to the Huskies’ 174 yards on 15 completions. Graham caught six balls for 82 yards, sophomore Nick Toon snagged five for 72 yards and Anderson finished with three catches and 100 yards.
With the passing game excelling, NIU at least made sure they weren’t badly gashed by the Badgers’ feared rushing attack. Although UW finished with 152 yards on the ground, NIU made them earn every inch, holding John Clay to 2.9 yards per carry and Zach Brown to 3.6 yards per carry.
“Northern Illinois, give them credit,” Bielema said. “They were definitely jamming up the box, and the reason that play was open for Isaac was because they weren’t going to let us run the football consistently.”
After an NIU field goal made it 7-3, Anderson struck again in the second quarter, running on an end-around for a 23-yard rushing touchdown. Clay also added two touchdown runs from the 1-yard line in the third quarter.
“I think we ate up 12 minutes in the third quarter if I’m not mistaken,” Bielema said. “That could end up being the difference in the game. Especially defensively, we are a little thin at the D-line, and just being able to rest those guys is huge. And that is Wisconsin football — we have to be able to eat up the clock and move ourselves forward.”
For the defense, the game highlighted several new starters — most notably sophomore defensive end J.J. Watt and freshman linebacker Mike Taylor — while returning stars such as defensive lineman O’Brien Schofield and Maragos made sure UW fans haven’t forgotten them. Those four accounted for seven tackles for a loss, one forced fumble and recovery (Taylor), plus a handful of crucial tackles on third down.
“You know what? I thought our D-line was survivors,” Bielema said. “As you noticed, Lewis wasn’t out there and that took away another defensive end. … ‘OB’ and J.J. just played their tails off. That is something we get excited about because that is something we thought the group had a lot to prove coming in to today’s matchup.”
In the fourth quarter, the defense nearly gave back the lead to the Huskies, letting in 14 points before shutting the door on the last drive of the game. With 2:46 left in the game, the Badgers defense got off the field in five plays, allowing everyone in the stands to breathe again.
“I think there are a lot of mistakes that we made that we can easily fix,” Maragos, who broke up the last pass of the game on fourth down, said. “A couple of pass interference penalties, a face mask. Things like that you can control a bit more. It was the first game, and I think the new guys in there did a heck of a job.”