WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Early on, it wasn’t pretty. But then again, that’s why they play four quarters.
After a sloppy, sluggish first half, the Wisconsin Badgers (8-1, 4-1) recovered to take down the Purdue Boilermakers (4-5, 2-3) 34-13 Saturday afternoon at Ross-Ade Stadium behind a strong defensive effort and two touchdowns from running back Montee Ball.
Despite an interception on a poorly thrown ball by quarterback Scott Tolzien on the Badgers’ first drive and a missed 40-yard field goal by kicker Phillip Welch on the next, Wisconsin, now ranked No.7 in the BCS standings, trailed only 10-6 at halftime. Purdue, meanwhile, took advantage late in the first quarter with a 23-yard scoring pass from quarterback Sean Robinson to receiver Antavian Edison. Robinson, a true freshman, made his first career start after starting quarterback Robert Marve was lost for the season with a knee injury. The Boilermakers were also without starting running back Ralph Bolden and All-Big Ten receiver Kevin Smith, both also out for the season with knee injuries.
Once Welch connected from 44 yards out with 8:08 remaining in the second quarter, UW finally got on the board. Seven minutes later at the 1:00 mark, Purdue’s Carson Wiggs nailed a 37-yarder to put Purdue up 10-3. Yet, with all three of their timeouts remaining, the Badgers were able to drive 57 yards on seven plays and Welch hit a 38-yard field goal to end the half 10-6 in Purdue’s favor.
“Obviously, a tale of two different halves,” UW head coach Bret Bielema said. “In the first half, we just weren’t characteristic of what we’ve been doing to have success. We came in at halftime, didn’t need any superhuman effort, just wanted guys to focus in on the details of playing winning football.”
The Badgers seemingly calmed down during the halftime break, emerging a different team in the second half. On the first drive, Culmer St. Jean baited Robinson and intercepted a pass on third and five from PU’s 25. The Badgers’ middle linebacker took it to the 18, where a few plays later – after a fourth and one conversion – Tolzien found receiver Jared Abbrederis for a seven-yard touchdown reception. Wisconsin went up 13-10, and never looked back.
With their defense finally getting solid pressure on Robinson, the Badgers forced a three-and-out on the next two drives. Then, after Tolzien found receiver Nick Toon streaking across the middle of the field for a 20-yard completion at the Purdue 31, running back Montee Ball took advantage of excellent blocking down the left side of the field for a 31-yard Wisconsin touchdown, which made the score 20-10. Starting running back John Clay ran the ball 12 times for 45 yards, but sat out most of the second half with a knee injury.
“I knew Montee could step up, and he did a great job,” Clay said, adding that he has no doubts about playing next Saturday against the Indiana Hoosiers. “So, I told the coaches, just run it with him.”
Ball finished with 127 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries, while Tolzien threw for 130 yards, one touchdown and one interception on 13 for 19 passing. Wisconsin’s offense was able to take advantage of much-improved play by their offensive line, which looked fairly out of sync in the first half.
“Us [running] backs, when you come here, the team’s going to put the load on your shoulders and you’ve got to be able to carry it” Ball said. “That’s what I feel like I did. The line did a great job of pushing them, and I just didn’t want to let them down.”
After Purdue converted another field goal, this one from 35 yards, the score tightened at 20-13. The Badgers only managed one first down on their next drive before punting, and the Boilermakers looked to be driving before Mike Taylor picked off a deflected pass. The sophomore linebacker, playing without the knee brace he sported at Iowa, returned the ball 26 yards to the Purdue 14.
From there, Ball scored from 15 yards out two plays later, and Wisconsin was up 27-13. Robinson began the next drive with an incompletion, and on second down with 8:54 remaining in the game, his pass was tipped once again and UW cornerback Antonio Fenelus intercepted and returned it 36 yards for a touchdown. That was the final score of the game, as the two teams traded possessions to end the game.
“Antonio has really played good football for us,” Bielema said. “Him and Niles [Brinkley], as long as I’ve been the head coach, those guys are playing pretty good. They can go one side or the other. …These guys have been pretty balanced.”
Both teams finished with 303 total yards, and Purdue actually possessed the ball for 30:56, slightly longer than Wisconsin’s 29:04. Yet, as it was the Badgers’ miscues that put them behind in the first half, it was the Boilermakers’ second half mistakes that ultimately lost them the game.
“The guys never quit,” left guard John Moffitt said. “The guys fight to the end, and that’s what you need because the game’s not over until the last second ticks off the clock. I think guys understand that, which is really important.”