MADISON - Ten.
No, that’s not the number of controversial calls officiated by the Big Ten conference officials in Saturday’s game pitting two Top-25 teams in its two quarters.
It’s the number of points off of five Wisconsin turnovers that ultimately doomed the 21st-ranked Badgers in its 13-7 loss to the Northwestern at Camp Randall Stadium.
Aside from the last drive of the game that went 73 yards in 11 plays to the Northwestern 1, and had the Badgers within a yard and a pair of overturned touchdown from victory, head coach Paul Chryst’s offense sputtered with only 203 total yards. Their two fumbles and two interceptions lost - along with a rare special teams miscue by senior wide receiver Alex Erickson - halted any chance at prolonging a consistent threat to an impressive Northwestern defense.
“It’s disappointing,” said senior tight end Austin Traylor. “You don’t want that, clearly. Turnovers are never a good thing.”
The first turnover led directly to the Wildcats’ first score and a lead they’d never relinquish. Facing a 3rd-and-4 from their own 16, senior quarterback Joel Stave was pressured and hit as he released the pass, which was deflected at the line of scrimmage and intercepted by defensive back Nick VanHoose at the UW 19. Three plays later, sophomore running back Justin Jackson ran into the end zone from eight yards out and a 7-0 lead.
The ensuing drive ended with another takeaway forced by a stingy Northwestern defense after UW started getting some momentum inside their opponent’s 40-yard line. Stave completed a pass to senior receiver Tanner McEvoy on a crossing pattern well before the first down marker. Junior defensive back Matthew Harris knocked the ball loose after McEvoy worked to turn up the field on the 3rd-and-11 attempt. Defensive end Dean Lowry recovered the loose fumble and returned it to the Wisconsin 43.
Northwestern failed to capitalize on the drive due to a missed 27-yard field goal by kicker Jack Mitchell, but UW had shot itself in the foot and wasted a prime opportunity.
“It’s tough to win a game with five turnovers,” said McEvoy. “No matter how you are losing them, whether it’s a fumble, interception, missed blocked or a penalty, there’s a handful of things that should have lost us the game.”
Wisconsin coughed up the ball up three times in the second half. Two fumbles - an Erickson muff of a punt return and a Stave fumble after Northwestern registered one of its six sacks on the afternoon - yielded great field position inside the Wisconsin 37 on both drives.
Both possessions, however, yielded no points on the scoreboard mostly due to Wisconsin’s defense, which held the Wildcats to 209 total yards on offense and six three-and-out possessions on the afternoon.
“You turn the ball over five times, four on offense, one on special teams and even have a chance to win the game, that’s a credit to that group,” said Chryst.
Stave’s last interception helped yield a six-point advantage for Northwestern in the fourth quarter. On a 3rd-and-1 on their 11-yard line, the former walk-on didn’t see sophomore linebacker Anthony Walker over the middle when trying to hit McEvoy over the middle. Mitchell’s 37-yard field goal made it 13-7.
Wisconsin travels north Saturday to protect Paul Bunyan’s Axe against rival Minnesota next Saturday. They’ll have to lick their wounds from a tough yet winnable game due to another outstanding defensive performance, and not because of their anemic offense and turnover troubles.
“You just got to keep playing,” Chryst said. “And we struggled, offensively, all day. Didn't go a good job of running the ball, protecting the quarterback. And early on the long third down, we weren't efficient at all. That's on me. We got to be better.”