The No. 8 Wisconsin Badgers (4-0, 2-0 Big Ten) continued their impressive start to 2019 with a 24–15 victory at home against the Northwestern Wildcats (1-3, 0-2).
For the first time this season Head Coach Paul Chryst’s team found themselves in a contentious battle, but thanks to two defensive scores, three total turnovers and five sacks, Chryst’s team found a way to stay undefeated and remain in the Associated Press Top Ten heading into week six.
Here are four notable takeaways from Saturday’s narrow victory.
First, Chryst’s offensive line finally met a strong match in Northwestern’s defensive front.
Jonathan Taylor still came away with 119 yards on the ground when it was all said and done, but how badly did Chryst’s offensive line and running backs actually struggle against the Wildcats?
Saturday’s rushing total of 133 yards marked the team’s lowest output since Dec. 2, 2017 against The Ohio State University in the Big Ten Championship game — 667 days ago.
Even during the 2018 campaign, when the Badgers went 8-5 and struggled to beat inferior opponents, they bested Saturday’s rushing mark in every contest including blowout losses to Michigan and Minnesota.
This inefficiency on the ground put Jack Coan and the Badgers’ offense behind the sticks early and often, something which leads into the second takeaway from Saturday’s contest — Coan, for the first time this season, wasn’t sharp in passing situations.
The phrase “Jacky Heisman” was often heard around Madison after Coan led the Badgers to a blowout win against Michigan.
After Saturday, that phrase is gasping for air, as Coan struggled to push the offense down the field all day.
Coan ended the day completing 15 of his 24 passes for 113 yards, 4.7 yards-per-attempt, zero touchdowns and one interception.
The third takeaway from Saturday, turning to the bright side of the Badgers’ performance, is the continued dominance of Defensive Coordinator Jim Leonhard’s unit.
Saturday’s game felt like many of last year’s losses — Chryst’s offense struggling to hold the ball and the opposing team besting the Badgers in first downs, passing yards, total offense and total plays.
The first notable turning point came with 2:43 remaining in the third quarter after a long punt return for Northwestern was called back to their 16 yard-line due to a penalty.
Leonhard, needing a spark for his unit, dialed up a corner blitz with Eric Burrell coming off the edge. Northwestern QB Hunter Johnson didn’t see the blitz coming and Burrell knocked the ball loose, allowing the Badgers to recover the fumble for a touchdown.
The next turning point, the play that sealed the game for the Badgers, came five minutes into the fourth quarter when Aidan Smith, Northwestern’s backup QB, got pressured off the edge by Zack Baun and threw an interception to Noah Burks. Burks then proceeded to return the interception for a touchdown to make the score 24–3.
These two defensive touchdowns were what the Badgers lacked a season ago, and were what ultimately made the difference in this game.
The fourth takeaway from Saturday, much in line with the overall dominance on the defensive side of the football, is the continued dominance of linebacker Chris Orr.
Orr finished the contest with nine tackles, two tackles-for-loss, two sacks, a forced fumble and three QB hits.
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This performance earned him Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week, the first time a Badger has received the award since November of 2017.
Orr and the linebackers have taken a back seat statistically to Baun and the rest of the defensive front thus far, but Saturday Orr and Jack Sanborn combined had 22 total tackles. This is a great sign for Leonhard’s unit as his team nears tough tests against nationally-ranked offenses in the coming weeks.