But instead of giving momentum to the Huskies, it gave the Badgers the necessary ‘kick in the pants' it sorely needed in their first road test of the season.
"That could have really swung the momentum in their direction," said sophomore tight end Jacob Pedersen, who grabbed the onside kick that served as the starting point for the Badgers' 49-7 blowout over Northern Illinois Saturday in front of 41,068 fans at Soldier Field. "We wanted to capitalize and that's what we were able to do."
Capitalize? More like obliterate. Wisconsin (3-0) scored at least 35 points for the third straight game, racked up 631 yards of total offense and saw senior quarterback Russell Wilson throw for 347 passing yards, the seventh highest total in school history.
And, ho hum, Wisconsin's running attack churned out 266 yards and three touchdowns on the ground and held Northern Illinois (1-2), a team that is expected to compete for the MAC championship, to 237 total yards.
"I think we are a pretty good football team," Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. "Our leadership comes up front in the offensive line and Russell has identified with that."
It looked to be a crisp start for Wisconsin when it went 51 yards in four plays in 2 minutes, 30 seconds on its first drive – ending with a Nick Toon 12-yard touchdown reception – and the defense held Northern Illinois's fast-paced offense to 14 yards on its first two series.
But as the penalties stifled its offensive momentum (the Badgers had 4 for 35 yards in the first quarter) and Huskies senior quarterback Chandler Harnish tied the score with a quick 67-yard drive of his own, Wisconsin appeared to be on its heels.
It was the situation that Doeren knew he needed to exploit and an onside kick that caught the Badgers' special teams off guard.
"I told our players that I was going to coach to win," Doeren said. "I told them if we scored, that I'd go for a surprise onside. If we got it, we'd go score again and get some momentum going … Had we gotten that surprise onside and marched downfield, got them tired and scored, it's a different ballgame."
"You just have to trust your instincts and go make a play," Ewing said. "I thought I was going to come down with it but once it got knocked out of my hands, I kind of lost my bearings. I am just glad we came up with it."
After Pedersen emerged victorious, Wisconsin and Wilson went to work. James White caught a screen pass for 21, Bradie Ewing caught a checkdown pass for 14 and Toon caught his second touchdown pass from 16 yards out. From on their heels to in control in 62 seconds, it was the turning point in hindsight.
"(Recovering the kick) definitely helped a lot because it was a momentum changer," said Wilson. "We came out and scored and it was a good thing for us."
For the third straight game, Wilson was the model of efficiency. Going 8-for-11 in the second quarter, Wilson kept the Badgers' foot on the gas. After getting pinned on the three, Wisconsin went 97 yards in 10 plays – its longest scoring drive of the season – that was capped by Montee Ball's sixth rushing touchdown of the season and highlighted by Pedersen's 55-yard catch-and-run getting UW down to the 2.
Per the usual, Wilson did bits of everything for Wisconsin offensively. Running 15 run plays and 22 pass plays in the first half, Wisconsin gained 335 yards (9.1 yards per play), 270 of which came from Wilson on 22's plays (12.3 yards). He didn't need to run but when he did, Wilson's scrambles were timely, like his 11-yard scramble that bailed out Wisconsin after a false start penalty on third-and-2. Two plays later, James White scampered 20-yards for the touchdown and the 28-7 lead.
"He knows the plan, he knows how to stick to it, but he can adapt very well," Bielema said of Wilson. "He's playing at a high, high level. If someone else that is better out there now, I would like to see him because he is an exceptional football player."
A lot had been made all week about whether or not Doeren's prior knowledge of Wisconsin's personnel would play an impact, especially when the Badgers' defense was on the field. Needless to say, all the talk was moot. During Wisconsin's explosion offensively in the second quarter, the defense held Harnish and the Huskies to 77 total yards.
And it never got much better for NIU, which came in averaging 40.5 points and 485.5 yards per game and finished with season lows in points and total yards, a sign that Wisconsin's defense is clicking on all cylinders the last two weeks.
"Northern Illinois had a reputation with its offense and I think we were up to the challenge," said sophomore linebacker Chris Borland, who led the 11 tackles. "I think we stepped up to the plate."
Utilizing quick strike attacks in the first half, the Badgers grinded the clock in the second half with similar perfection. On their first two drives of the second, the Badgers milked 3:45 off the clock on a 9-play drive and 3:15 on a 7-play drive that effectively ended any hope of a comeback by the home team.
So that begs the question, how much better can Wisconsin's offense get with the conference opener two weeks away?
"I don't think we are playing at that high of level now because there is so much room for improvement," senior right guard Kevin Zeitler said. "I feel like we have miles to go. If we can get to that level, then I'll be impressed."