There are so many things that senior quarterback Russell Wilson brings to the Badgers' offense: a strong arm, mobility and leadership. The thing that's the most impressive, according to head coach Bret Bielema, is something he sees in the film room, on the practice field and every time he lines up under center.
"It's his mind," Bielema said. "Obviously God blessed with a tremendous amount of athletic ability, but his mind is second to none. That kid, whatever I go at him with, his responses never cease to amaze me. He just continues to think ahead of the play."
That ability was on display for three-plus quarters against Northern Illinois and yes, Wilson's 347-yard, three-touchdown performance was eye-opening, it was one play that showed his skills.
Facing a third-and-8 late in the first half and the Badgers in an empty backfield, Northern Illinois linebacker Pat Schiller came free up the middle and had a clean shot at Wilson. Wilson sidestepped him, made another defender miss and took off on an 11-yard run. Two plays later, UW had a touchdown and a 28-7 lead.
"When you bring all kinds of pressure, you need to make one guy miss and you are running for awhile," Bielema said of Wilson avoid the blitz. "That's exactly what happened on that play … As a defensive coordinator, to have a play covered and everything in order and have that guy with the ability to escape, it's really, really unique."
Throw in the fact that Joe Brennan got more meaningful reps late in the game – going 1-for-2 for eight yards passing and his first touchdown on a 6-yard scramble – and it was an overwhelming positive day under center.
Watching the film, it was obvious that offensive coordinator Paul Chryst knew he could run at will on Northern Illinois, who had allowed 556 yards on the ground in the first two weeks. The results were as expected – the Badgers rushed for 266 yards, averaged 5.7 yards per carry and score three times.
And just like in the opener, the running backs were a key fixture in the passing game, catching 10 passes for 126 yards.
"Going into the season, I knew we had backs that could catch the ball," Bielema said. "That brought an option to our game that really hadn't been there before. Those guys have a good feel for things."
Montee Ball continued his torrent stretch, scoring at least one rushing touchdown for the ninth straight game with a couple of 1-yard plunges, and James White added a 20-yard scamper to cap an 11-play drive at the end of the first half. Both big backs had 91 rushing yards and Wisconsin improved to 6-0 when both score a touchdown.
"Bradie is so valuable for us," Bielema said. "All four phases of the kicking game he plays in, he's a great leader and for him to be that added dimension, it's definitely good for catching the ball."
The Badgers' dedication to the run game helped Wisconsin own the time of possession battle and kept the Huskies' offense off the field.
Much like last week, Wisconsin's passing game opened up the offense and Nick Toon and Jacob Pedersen were the big playmakers. Toon's two touchdown passes helped get the UW offense rolling, as he now has 11 career touchdown passes and the team is now 8-0 when the senior wide receiver finds the end zone. Toon's 75 receiving yards were more than he had all of last year and his passing yards have increased each game.
Pedersen 55-yard catch in the second quarter was a career long and the longest reception for a UW tight end since Nov. 2006. Pedersen continues to impress, and his touchdown – where he sold block and released unguarded into the end zone – was simply too easy.
Jared Abbrederis caught a team-best six catches for a team-high 83 yards, which just goes to show how deep and productive Wisconsin's receiving corps is. Throw in the running backs ability to catch the football and it all makes sense why none of the offensive coaches seemed too concerned with the lack of depth in the passing game.
Four of the Badgers' six penalties for 45 yards were by linemen, including illegal motion penalties by right guard Kevin Zeitler, right tackle Josh Oglesby and a third call that was on either tackle, Oglesby or Ricky Wagner. The other line penalty was an illegal chop block by Wagner.
The other penalties were a false start by Ball and blocking in the back by Abbrederis. With the crowd overwhelmingly Wisconsin fans, crowd noise didn't appear to be the issue and it left most of the group confused as to what the problems were.
"We were talking on the side and a lot of people didn't really know (what was happening)," Zeitler said. "We were making (line) calls and people thought we said, 'Go.' "
Whatever the reason, the Badgers didn't have any problems after halftime. Wisconsin didn't commit a penalty in the second half and managed to rack up over 600 yards of offense. When the Badgers go on the road again in a month, the penalties have to be cleaned up.
The Badgers also need to hope Oglesby isn't out for a lengthy period. Rob Havenstein projects to be a good football player, but it's pretty risky throwing in a redshirt freshman into the Big Ten melting pot right away.
Entering the week 25th in the country in rushing yards (averaging 218 yards per contest), Wisconsin's defense continue its confidence from last weekend's shutout over Oregon State. The Badgers didn't allow any running back to gain over 25 yards rushing.
Yes the Badgers allowed a rushing touchdown and didn't get a lot of pressure up front from its defensive line, but against Chandler Harnish, was one of the most prolific running quarterbacks in the MAC that had rushed for over 80 yards in his first two games, Wisconsin held the quarterback to minus-2 yards rushing.
What's troubling though is Wisconsin's defensive line hasn't created a lot of pressure that have resulted in lost yardage. UW had no quarterback hurries and the defensive line had no sacks or tackles for loss. The only play the Badgers did make was a pass breakup by Louis Nzegwu. As the Badgers prepare for the conference season, pressure from the line needs to increase.
Harnish had Northern Illinois' offense averaging 40.5 points and 485.5 yards per game in a win over Army and a loss at Kansas. The Huskies were nowhere near those marks Saturday, finishing with just 237 total yards. Chris Borland continues to get better at the middle linebacker position for Wisconsin, leading the team in tackles (11) for the third-straight game and registering two tackles for loss.
‘We really played pretty simple," Bielema said. "We don't try to get overly cute on defense. We just line up and let our guys play fast. They know what they are doing, keep the ball in front of them and tackle well. That's a formula for success. I think a lot of people in today's day and age try to get too gadgety, too pretty, too fancy … just line our guys up and let them play."
Making his second consecutive start in place of strongside linebacker Kevin Claxton, sophomore and longtime Chicago Bears fan Ethan Armstrong enjoyed the experience as much as anybody, finishing with four tackles and the only sack of the game, which led to a 10-yard loss on the opening play of the fourth quarter.
Stepping in for injured senior cornerback Devin Smith, junior Marcus Cromartie registered eight tackles in his second career starts. He got beat on a 39-yard pass early and a 38-yard pass late in the game, but was solid in coverage.
"Cro has been pretty serious," Bielema said. "The thing that Cro has been since last spring, he's really focused on being a good football player."
Antonio Fenelus was rarely picked on, as Dave Doeren knew that there are few cornerbacks playing better in the country than the senior. Fenelus made three tackles and was rarely targeted.
Aaron Henry's numbers don't jump up the page (four tackles, two solos) but his leadership is unquestioned.
"When we are playing all together, we are really hard to stop," Henry said. "When we play great defensive ball like this, you can talk about a championship caliber team."
After Northern Illinois tied the score at 7, Huskies coach Dave Doeren decided to roll the dice with an onside kick. The ball bounced off cornerback Peniel Jean, Ewing and a Huskies player, leading to a mad scramble, before Pedersen finally came up with it at the NIU 49-yard line.
After Pedersen emerged victorious, Wisconsin and Wilson went to work. White caught a screen pass for 21, 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, as Wisconsin rolled from that point forward.
"It was definitely a big momentum swing because we did respond with a touchdown and got that score back to where we needed to," Bielema said.