WEST LAFAYETTE, IND. – Down two touchdowns early on the road against a determined underdog is a recipe for disaster.
With just over five minutes gone in the second quarter, the Wisconsin Badgers looked to be heading toward that deficit against Purdue.
Trailing 7-0, the Badger defense needed to make a play in the worst way. After a three-and-out from the UW offense, the Boilermakers were driving and looking to score at the Badger 31-yard line.
But at that moment, Aaron Henry and Antonio Fenelus combined to give Wisconsin the turnover they so desperately needed.
Purdue wide receiver Antavian Edison caught a pass and was immediately hit by Henry, who got his arm on the ball and forced a fumble. Fenelus alertly scooped up the loose ball and motored down the sideline, setting the Badger offense up deep in Purdue territory.
Heading into West Lafayette on Saturday, the Badger defense had recorded just one turnover in conference play. Head coach Bret Bielema had been stressing the importance of creating turnovers for weeks, and he finally saw the results he was looking for.
“As long as I’ve been in this game, it seems like the more you try to emphasize [turnovers] they don’t come and then all the sudden they come in a flurry,” Bielema said.
Edison’s fumble, which was upheld after review, was the first of four forced turnovers on the day for UW and it allowed the Badgers to kick a field goal and get themselves back into the flow of the game.
“Huge,” Bielema said of the fumble. “They were going in for a score there and I was holding my breath on that challenge. And fortunately for us we were able to get points there.”
Wisconsin entered the locker room at halftime down four, but second half turnovers allowed UW to come away with a comfortable 34-13 road victory.
On the opening possession of the third quarter, senior linebacker Culmer St. Jean gave his team an instant momentum boost after picking off Sean Robinson’s third down pass.
The true freshman quarterback was effective and poised in the first half, but after making the mistake of staring down his intended receiver, St. Jean took advantage.
“I went to my drop and it was an out route so I knew I wasn’t able to get there,” St. Jean said. “We had extra leverage on that side so I just dropped back and read the quarterback and he took me right to the ball. I was just trying to be optimistic and make a play and I was able to get that and trigger the whole team to keep rolling.”
Quarterback Scott Tolzien found receiver Jared Abbrederis wide open in the back of the endzone five plays later as the UW offense converted the critical turnover into points immediately.
More turnovers led to more scoring in the fourth quarter. And late in the game, the Badgers made a point of exposing Robinson’s mechanics.
The UW coaching staff saw an opportunity to create turnovers and the players executed.
“At halftime, after we kind of saw their offensive plan, we thought we would be able to get our hands on a couple balls. We talked about being opportunistic,” Bielema said. “The quarterback was leaving the ball in the air a little bit.”
With the Badgers up 20-13, sophomore linebacker Mike Taylor hauled in a pass tipped by cornerback Niles Brinkley and returned it down to the Boilermaker 14 yard line.
“I said last week that turnovers kind of come in bunches,” Taylor said. “Once you get one everyone kind of gets hyped up, and that’s what we did out there.”
The Badgers scored two plays later, but the Wisconsin defense wasn’t done generating scoring opportunities.
In fact, Fenelus and the defense would be the ones putting up the points.
On Purdue’s next drive following Taylor’s pick, linebacker Blake Sorensen deflected another pass from Robinson, and the ball fell into the waiting arms of Fenelus who sprinted down the sideline untouched and into the endzone.
“It felt real good,” Fenelus said of the touchdown. “I haven’t been in the endzone since high school.”
Fenelus’s score wrapped up an outstanding second half for the Wisconsin defense, which was struggling to make plays. With the Badger offense admittedly flat early, UW needed some help from the other side of the ball, and the defense responded with a season-high four turnovers.
“The defense was just tremendous,” Tolzien said. “Especially in the second half just getting the ball back and making plays.”