MADISON - Senior linebacker Derek Landisch thought he had let a golden opportunity slip off his fingers.
Standing at his own five-yard line and feeling the Badgers’ newly-found momentum start to slip away, Landisch was in the right place to interception Bowling Green quarterback James Knapke’s pass. And with an open field in front of him, Landisch couldn’t believe the interception went off both of his hands.
Good thing safety Lubern Figaro was right there to back him up.
“When I turned around and Lubern was there, that was a great sight” said Landisch. “I had a great sigh of relief.”
Landisch’s deflected pass went into the waiting arms of the true freshman safety at the goal line, leading to a 43-yard return to get Wisconsin out of harm’s way. Three plays later, Wisconsin found the end zone and the route was on.
“It was big, it was big,” said tailback Melvin Gordon, who capped off three of the final four first-half drives with touchdowns to help No.19 Wisconsin build a 41-10 lead at halftime and cruise to a 68-17 victory over the Falcons in front of 79,849 at Camp Randall Stadium. “Momentum is big in this game and obviously that took the momentum away from them.”
Wisconsin (2-1) never looked back from that point, thanks in large part to Gordon. The junior, who fumbled on a rushing attempt for the first time in his career on his first carry, finished with career-best 253 yards on only five carries and a school-record-tying five touchdowns, including a 50-yard scamper three plays after Figaro’s pick.
Gordon’s 253 yards were the 10th-best performance in school history and helped the Badgers register a school-record 756 yards of total offense (401 coming in the first half), broke the Big Ten record for rushing yards in a game (644) that they set two years ago and average 9.7 yards per play, becoming the third Bowling Green (2-2) opponent to put up at least 40 points on a beleaguered Falcons defense.
“When you feel you are in the zone, it’s a great feeling,” said Gordon. “It’s a great feeling being on this level, this type of stage, and getting in that groove. Sometimes it happened a little later than you want it to. Today it happened a little early.”
A lot was made this week with the up-tempo style of Bowling Green, an offense that ran a school-record 113 plays for 571 yards a week ago in a 45-42 victory over Indiana. Utilizing the bye week to push the tempo in practice, Wisconsin worked paid off by holding the Falcons to only 271 yards and 2-for-15 on third down.
“You could definitely see their frustration from the offensive linemen to the quarterback,” said linebacker Vince Biegel. “It was clear. They were going three-and-outs, three-and-outs with a fast-paced offense. When they came out it was quick, quick, quick, quick. Then when we moved to the third and fourth (quarter) when we started building a bigger gap, it was a little less quick, little more slower-paced offense. It was kind of nice.
“As a defensive player, you are always trying to crush your opponent into the dirt. It was good to see all that hard work pay off.”
The game may have turned out differently if Landisch and Figaro weren’t in the right place at the right time early in the second quarter.
Wisconsin had yet to fall behind but couldn’t shake a Bowling Green offense known for needing only a small gap and one mistake to register a big play. Just minutes earlier, quarterback Tanner McEvoy hit a wide-open Sam Arneson for a 34-yard pass, a scoring drive that took eight seconds, that appeared to be a back breaker, but here the Falcons were with their first trip into the red zone trying to get back within one possession.
The importance of the situation could be seen with Wisconsin calling consecutive timeouts to get the right personnel on the field and Bowling Green calling a timeout of their own after Landisch stuffed Knapke for a one-yard loss.
As timeouts continued to be whistled, Landisch had plenty of time to weigh the situation with his team backed up to its goal line.
“(I knew) we just got to seize the opportunity,” said Landisch. “The defense, I think we had a big opportunity. We had to hold them because they had some momentum going their way and football is a game of momentum. The turnover there in redshirt was a big momentum change for us, and I think Lubern made a great play. That was really good to see.”
Figaro’s interception opened up the flood gates for Wisconsin, who scored six touchdowns on the next seven possessions to turn a 21-10 game into a 65-10 laugher that sent the fans to the exits early, likely feeling much better about this team’s long-term outlook than they did two weeks ago.
“They’re a great team, we can’t take anything away from them, they were working, but we just played great defense,” said Figaro. “Our defense has gotten better every day. We just have to keep working. We want to be the best defense in the country, so why not just keep working?”