It looked like it was going to be one of those days for Wisconsin's passing game with two of its first five drives ending in turnovers, but Joel Stave deserves some credit for not panicking when his No.1 receiving weapon was lost for the game.
With Abbrederis out of the lineup, Stave threw for 145 yards and two touchdowns against one interception. Stave also completed passes to nine different receivers or tailbacks, developing a needed balance in an offense. He also successfully considered the big play in the passing game, hitting Abbrederis for a 61-yard score in the first quarter to give Wisconsin a lead it never lost.
"When we can land those big shots, that's something that's really important," said Stave, who passed for 241 Saturday. "We need to make sure when we're taking them that we're landing them."
While blame is shared on his first interception, Stave's second interception was ugly. With five interceptions in six games this season, the poor mistakes need to stop.
Knocked from the Ohio State in the fourth quarter because of an injury, Gordon rushed for 172 yards on 22 carries and a 71-yard touchdown that was perfectly designed and executed. On the Badgers' first touchdowns – a play-action pass to Abbrederis – Wisconsin faked the jet sweep to Gordon and the dive to White, causing the defensive backs to pause and the deep ball to be wide open.
"It feels good to have a little speed to make those long runs," said Gordon, whose 13 career touchdowns have averaged 35.8 yards per play. "The coaches planned it out well. They knew what they were going to do. They did exactly what we thought they were going to do, and it worked out swell. It's always good when you can cash in those long runs."
When Wisconsin ran the same look in the second quarter, they gave the ball to Gordon and the sophomore didn't miss the big hit.
White had a productive 101 yards on 19 carries, the 13th time he's rushed for over 100 yards in his Badgers career. Funny enough, White has never rushed for 100 yards in a game by himself. All 13 games have been part of multiple 100-yard rushers for UW. Wisconsin is 13-0 when he rushes for 100 yards or more.
Seeing Jared Abbrederis go down with a head injury at the end of the first quarter was a good preview of next season with the senior is in the NFL collecting a paycheck. For one day, however, the Badgers showed they could get by without him, albeit with the help of two other seniors.
Jacob Pedersen's return to the lineup was invaluable with a team-high four catches that went for 30 yards and a score and Jeff Duckworth, who barely practices because of injuries, had two catches for 36 yards.
"He continually makes plays for us," said Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen of Duckworth. "He catches some big balls, and he's a young man that has to really just prepare himself the right way.
"A lot of that during the week is mentally because he can't go out there and take a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday practice. He can't do that. He gets himself ready to go. I think Coach Beatty has done a good job of developing that."
Ironically, the only thing that prevents this grade from being an ‘A' was Abbrederis, who fumbled on UW's first series following a catch and bobbled a back-shoulder throw that ended up being Wisconsin's first interception.
Dallas Lewallen returned to the lineup after missing the Ohio State game and admitted that Wisconsin's defense was keeping the offense in the game early. But as the game moved into the second quarter, the Badgers' offense got into a flow, especially after those big hits by Abbrederis and Gordon.
"We were settling in there, trying to pick up the movements better," said Lewallen. "Still think we could have done a better job picking up the movements, but the backs running well, the receivers blocking well, the tight ends helped us (and) got the ball moving down the field."
Wisconsin ran for a ton of yards, threw for a decent amount and had above average pass protection, giving up three sacks and only one QB hurry.
Rob Havenstein was given the challenge of matching up against a really good defensive lineman in Tyler Scott, but Scott was limited to only two tackles and no pressures on the quarterback. Andersen says the junior right tackle has been very consistent all season.
"I think Rob's done a great job," said Andersen. He's been physical in the run game. He's been technically working on continually becoming the pass setter that he wants. He wants to be a tremendous player in the run game and in the pass game. The way he's been consistent is very, very impressive."
A group that had struggled putting pressure on spread offenses this season broke through in a big way against a Wildcats' offense averaging 218.4 yards on the ground. UW was so effective against Kain Colter and Vernic Mark that Northwestern eventually abandoned the run in the second half, partly due to playing from behind and partly because both players got banged up going against UW's physical front.
"Toward the end of the second quarter where we got multiple three-and-outs, you could tell that they were getting frustrating," said senior defensive end Pat Muldoon, as Wisconsin held Northwestern to only 44 rushing yards.
Wisconsin's front was aggressive, as seniors Pat Muldoon and Beau Allen each had a sack while junior Konrad Zagzebski, who will need to play a bigger role in the defense next year, had a tackle for loss. It was a solid job by this group.
Coming off a career-high 16-tackle effort at Ohio State, senior Chris Borland recorded 10 tackles and 1.0 sack. It was his third double-digit tackle game of the season and 15th of his career. With 364 career tackles, Borland is now tied with Ken Criter (1966-68) for eighth on the Badgers' all-time list.
Borland's sack was likely one of the turning points in the game, as he sacked Colter on a third-and-goal from the four for a six-yard loss. Instead of Northwestern going up 7-0, the Wildcats had to settle for a field goal. UW took the lead for good a little over five minutes later.
"Chris, he'll never cease to amaze me," said Andersen. "I don't know if he's ever going to surprise me with the way he plays. He played at a high level. He plays at a high level every single week. He'll continue to do that."
While Borland was Borland, Wisconsin got standout performances from Ethan Armstrong (five tackles, two TFLs and one sack), Vince Biegel (four solo tackles, one sack, one PBU), Michael Caputo (three tackles, one hurry) and Brendan Kelly (one PBU, one hurry).
In all, the Badgers linebackers had four of the team's seven sacks, three of the four pass breakups and all three quarterback hurries.
"We had a huge emphasis in the bye week," said Andersen on the pass rush. "I think putting B.K. (Brendan Kelly) in that setting more, putting (Vince) Biegel in that setting more gave us two very talented kids. There's a lot of reps going on out there, and there's a lot of packages coming on and off the field.
"We'll continue to work as a defensive staff to put the best kids in the best position as they can possibly be in to make a play."
A good third-down conversion team, Northwestern went just 2-for-17 on third downs.
The amount of pressure by the front seven took plenty of pressure off the Wisconsin secondary, allowing the Badgers' youthful unit to make some nice steps forward. Northwestern completed 17 passes to seven different receivers, but UW allowed only two explosive plays over 20 yards and didn't allow any passing touchdowns.
Sojourn Shelton continues to make significant strides as a young player with his third interception, and Andersen said it was a good teaching game for him considering he got away with some potentially damaging mistakes.
Tanner McEvoy continues to impress and get better at the safety spot, registering four tackles, and allows UW's coaches the flexibility of moving Caputo down to the field linebacker role.
Kenzel Doe made an instant impact in his return from a hamstring injury, returning his one kickoff 50 yards. He also had two punt returns for nine yards. Punter Drew Meyer was highly complimented by Andersen after all four of his punts landed inside the 20-yard line, flipping the field position in favor of Wisconsin.
Kicker Andrew Endicott averaged 63.7 yards on his six kickoffs, including a pair of touchbacks, but Kyle French's miss on a 38-yard field goal pushed Andersen over the edge, benching French in favor of sophomore Jack Russell, who will be the team's starting kicker this Saturday at Illinois.
"We'll just have to practice through it," said Andersen. "It's definitely a situation. We're going to have to handle that situation, and we're going to have to be dynamic a little bit maybe sometimes on offense. But Jack will prepare.
"The good thing is, if you sit back in the positive of this whole issue we have is it's we're snapping the ball, and we're holding the ball very good, and that's a good sign. So the next kicker that can step up there and just put them through, that's going to help all the kids."