EVANSTON, Ill. - Wisconsin had an opportunity, countless of them in fact, which was all junior quarterback Joel Stave said he could have asked for with the ball in his hands and time squarely against them. In what has been the case with the Badgers’ offense for most of the season, it’s another wish that has gone unanswered.
All the problems No.17 Wisconsin thought it started to correct from the season opener came roaring back in ugly fashion to start Big Ten play, as Northwestern out executed the Badgers in all three phases in the Wildcats’ 20-14 victory at Ryan Field Saturday.
A horrid performance could have been saved with one stop or one smart throw, but the end result puts Wisconsin (3-2, 0-1 Big Ten) back to the drawing board, eliminates any thought of sneaking into the College Football Playoffs and opens up a Pandora’s Box of problems that were all swept under the rug during its three game winning streak against overmatched opponents.
Wisconsin’s running game generated 284 rushing yards, but 259 of those came in a career-high effort from Melvin Gordon. Yet the offense managed only 14 points on five trips inside the red zone.
“It’s tough just trying to come out here to do your best, trying and trying, and you break some long runs.” said Gordon. “You’re still trying and you get right by the goal line and come up short and get no points.”
Wisconsin’s defense – which feasted off its advantage during the last three games - missed dozens of tackles, allowed scoring drives that went on for 13, 15 and 11 plays and generated zero turnovers after creating seven through the first four games. As a result, Northwestern’s offense generated 15 plays of at least 10 yards.
“It comes down to the skills that you obtain through doing open-field tackling drills and experience,” said safety Michael Caputo, the only UW player with double-digit tackles (11). “Some guys can do it, some guys have to work at it and some guys aren’t that good at you. We weren’t doing that well at it today.”
And last and least, Wisconsin’s passing game again developed no semblance of rhythm or effectiveness. Worst yet, Wisconsin now has a quarterback controversy between two juniors who proved to be massively ineffective.
Wisconsin finished with only 138 passing yards between two quarterbacks and threw four interceptions, three by Stave. Tanner McEvoy had starting field position of 6, 10, 4 and 24, but was yanked after his final series went three-plays-and-done and only took 23 seconds off the clock. He finished 4-for-10 for 24 yards.
“I felt like we needed to find a spark on offense,” said Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen.
The Badgers scored on their opening drive of the second half for the fifth game this season to finally get on the scoreboard and cut the lead to 10-7, but that was due to Gordon rushing for 70 yards on the series., including 61 yards on his first carry of the half.
Two drives later, pressure from the right side caused a pass deflection and an interception at the UW 16-yard line, which turned costly one play later on a touchdown by Miles Shuler off a reverse.
“That one interception is on me,” said right tackle Rob Havenstein. “I was just in a bad position.”
Wisconsin’s defense held Northwestern to 146 total yards in the second half, including forcing a key 22-yard field goal at the beginning of the fourth quarter to keep the game at two possessions. Having an opportunity to chip away at the lead, UW came away with no points on its next two drives despite both getting to the red zone.
Getting to the Northwestern 16 thanks in part to a 31-yard Gordon run, UW was forced to punt following a holding penalty (wiping out a 15-yard Gordon run), consecutive incompletions and a delay-of-game penalty with UW planning to go for it on fourth-and-21. They elected to punt.
UW got the ball less than two minutes later and advanced the ball to the Northwestern 3, but Stave tried to sneak a pass around defensive end Godwin Odenigbo to receiver Alex Erickson. He ended up throwing the pass right to him for a touchback.
The play proved costly when Stave threw a touchdown pass to Kenzel Doe with 4:16 left; trimming the deficit to 20-14 instead of a 21-20 lead.
“I was trying to force it,” admitted Stave. “Guy in the window, guy right in my face on first-and-3 from the 3-yard line, you’ve just got to throw that away and play another down.”
Wisconsin burned its lone timeout and lost valuable seconds after Northwestern converted one of two third-down attempts on the next drive, giving the Badgers the ball with 33 seconds left. The miracle was quickly crushed when Igwebuike registered his third interception of the game.
Wanting a dual-threat quarterback to be the centerpiece in his offense, Andersen was blunt afterwards saying the coaching staff will be taking a lengthy look at the entire offense to find what type of play matches, acknowledging his offense is not effective enough to be stable.
He didn’t commit to a starting quarterback for UW’s home game next weekend against Illinois, and his players aren’t quitting despite an uneasy start to a season that began with a lot of promise.
“I think we can be a great team,” said Havenstein. “We got a lot of fire, a lot of fight. It’s not like we rolled over and played dead today. In the end we just didn’t get it done.”
Fantasy Week 5: Who's Getting the Ball?
Gotta Hear This: Snoop Raps About Son’s Football Team
Video: Watch an ISIS tank get torched by U.S. Military
Top NFL Running Backs of All Time
Giant Minnesota Pike Bite!