The alumni were in town and so were the Wildcats. By the end of the football game, it seemed as if only one of the two performed to expectations at Camp Randall Saturday afternoon.
81,411 came out for Homecoming Weekend to watch Wisconsin battle No. 19 Northwestern in what was expected to be an offensive shootout, but those fans eventually found the scoreboard only half-lit as the Badgers thumped the Wildcats 35-6.
Following the game, head coach Gary Andersen wasn’t speechless; he just refused to say anything negative about how his team performed.
“We’re not going to talk about anything negative,” Andersen said during his press conference. “It was all good in my mind.”
And for the most part, it definitely was “all good.” Just about every facet that has excelled at some point this season for the Badgers showed well on Saturday, be it the swarming defense, the sometimes-electrifying passing game or the two-headed running back monster known as senior James White and redshirt sophomore Melvin Gordon. And in the end, none of the three shone brighter than the others in what was likely Wisconsin’s most complete performance of the season.
Considering both the Badgers and the Wildcats entered the game averaging more than 37 points per game, the imagined storyline was centered around which offense would outscore the other.
And from the start, that’s where the game was headed. Northwestern started quickly, advancing the ball to midfield, where its first and second drives were briefly separated by a quick freshman cornerback Sojourn Shelton interception and even quicker fumble by redshirt senior wide receiver Jared Abbrederis as the ball switched hands twice in less than two minutes.
The Wildcats raced off with that second drive, gaining three first downs, forcing the issue and the ball down to Wisconsin’s 3-yard-line. But the Wisconsin defense bent and didn’t break as redshirt senior linebacker Chris Borland tracked down NU do-it-all player Kain Colter for the third-down sack. Northwestern had a lead and the clichéd momentum, but were only able to muster one more field goal throughout the rest of the game.
“Northwestern, they’re a bunch of smart guys, and for us to be able to confuse them … was a good thing,” senior linebacker Conor O’Neill said. “For our defense to play collective, Wisconsin defense, and to hold an offense like that to six points, it’s an encouraging sign.
O’Neill continually stressed the “whole” of the defense, playing as one. In the end, just about each player had his hand in the action. O’Neill made just one tackle, but it was a sack. Six of his other teammates had sacks as well, including Borland, Wisconsin’s leading tackler with 10 on the day. From the start, the attacking 3-4 defense swarmed Northwestern’s duo of quarterbacks in Colter and Trevor Siemian.
Colter was flushed frantically out of the pocket on the just the fourth play of the game, forced to the Wildcat sideline before throwing against his body and finding the Badger Shelton instead of his intended Wildcat receiver.
It was the only turnover the Wisconsin defense was able to force all day, which inherently brings context to the six points they surrendered in total. Following the early Wildcats field goal, the next seven Northwestern drives totaled 28 offensive plays and just 52 total yards. Furthermore, Northwestern was only able to convert 2-of-17 third downs on the game, with five of the seven sacks coming on either first or second down, making those conversions evermore difficult.
While the Wildcat offense was hobbled at times — Colter left the field for some time with an ankle injury and running back Venric Mark was forced from action as well — it was a statement game for the Wisconsin defense that has struggled against top competition in 2014.
“We felt like we definitely had something to prove. As a defense we haven’t truly played to our potential, all year,” senior linebacker Ethan Armstrong said. “Just speaking from our side of the ball, we felt like we had a lot to prove this game and we wanted to go out there and do that.”
Perhaps the most telling sign of a balanced, dominating performance was seen in the press conference, where 10 minutes and plenty of questions passed before the running game — and the 171 and 101 rushing yards gained by Gordon and White, respectively — was even mentioned.
It was during the second quarter when that running game was, by its standards, rather stagnant. Redshirt junior kicker Kyle French had missed his only field goal attempt from 38 yards, and although the game was in the Badgers favor at 14-3, it was still young and Abbrederis was sidelined for the game with a head injury.
From there the Wisconsin running game would take off. Motioning everyone out of the backfield, redshirt sophomore quarterback Joel Stave took the snap under center with just minutes left in the second quarter, handing off the jet sweep to Gordon like they did all of last season and letting the sensational sophomore do the rest.
Gordon raced around the edge and weaved through the second level of blocking Badgers and defenders. All of a sudden he was in the secondary and then all of a sudden he was beyond the secondary in a footrace to pay dirt.
“That definitely gave us momentum,” Gordon said of his score that vaulted UW up 21-3, minutes before halftime. “We needed to score, we needed to go down there and score fast and we did.”
In order to sustain the 35-point offensive attack throughout the second half, with a sidelined Abbrederis, Wisconsin’s next level of wideouts needed to step up, and on cue, they did.
Eight players not named Abbrederis caught passes from Stave, two of them for touchdowns. Though Andersen expects Abbrederis to be ready to play next weekend against Illinois, his quarterback was happy to find some other names out there to throw to.
“I thought we responded really well to [Abbrederis’ injury],” Stave said. “We know we have a lot of good players out there who can step up in his spot. Obviously, you never want to see one of your senior leaders go down, but I thought we did a great job responding.”