WEST LAFAYETTE—Purdue was marching to victory when Scott Starks intervened.
The Badger corner helped jar the football free from Boilermaker quarterback Kyle Orton, then scooped it up and dashed 40 yards, giving Wisconsin a 20-17 lead with 2:36 left to play.
Purdue drove 62 yards to the Wisconsin 25 on the ensuing drive, giving Ben Jones a 42-yard field goal attempt with just 24 seconds remaining.
One only needed to watch the eruption from Badger fans seated in the end zone to know that Jones' kick had sailed off course.
The Badgers' defense dominated early and held on late, putting together a gutsy performance despite missing all four of its starting defensive linemen at various points in the game and playing without ends Jonathan Welsh and Erasmus James for much of the contest. Offensively, Wisconsin played the fourth quarter without star tailback Anthony Davis.
"I was very proud of how my players showed resolve," Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez said.
The victory put No. 10 Wisconsin (7-0, 4-0) in charge of its own destiny in the Big Ten Championship race. Fifth-ranked Purdue fell to 2-1 in conference play, 5-1 overall.
Jones' miss was just his third of the season, capping a wild game with a crazier finish.
"I've been in this racket a long time and I don't know if I've ever been in a game like that," Alvarez said.
After a 73-yard touchdown drive with 5:29 remaining pulled the Badgers within 17-14, the Boilermakers set to work running out the clock. On third-and-two from Purdue's 25, Orton picked up five yards on a keeper, picking his way through the injury-depleted Wisconsin defensive line.
A pair of Jerod Void runs took close to a minute off the game clock and made it third-and-three at the Purdue 37. Orton then made a play-action fake on an inside run and darted around right end. As he lunged for the first down, Starks upended him and safety Robert Brooks drilled him high. Orton technically picked up the first down with a three-yard run, but the hit knocked the ball loose.
"This is just another example of our defensive guys believing in one another… There was a bust on that play….Mark Zalewski should have had the contain on the bootleg," defensive coordinator Bret Bielema said. "With a couple guys hustling…something special happened."
Starks had the presence of mind to scoop up the loose ball and sprint untouched for the score.
"If the ball had been bouncing around it would have been hard to pick up and try to scoop," Starks said. "I probably would have just laid on it. But it was just sitting there."
"At first I didn't even know it was jarred loose," Brooks said. "Then I saw the ball come out and I saw somebody's hands come and pick it up. I was like, ‘please don't let it be somebody from Purdue.' I saw some white pants…I was ecstatic. I just thank God that it worked out that way."
The play was redemption for Starks, who had been called for pass interference on each of Purdue's first two scoring drives.
"A lot of guys just jump on the ball," Alvarez said. "He had the awareness to pick it up and go score with it."
Mike Allen's extra point, however, was blocked, keeping Purdue within a field goal of forcing overtime.
Nine plays into Purdue's last-ditch drive, Orton looked dead to rights on fourth-and-two at the Boilermaker 46 with 1:07 left to play but he scrambled to his right and found Dorien Bryant for nine yards. Bryant had fallen down on the play, causing Starks to vacate coverage and pursue Orton, who picked up numerous first down with his feet Saturday.
Three plays later Orton found Kyle Ingraham for 16 yards to the UW 22, but a sack surrounded by two incomplete passes set up Jones' field goal attempt.
"I was sick in my stomach after having that extra point blocked," Alvarez said. "I always stand right where they have to get to—where I think his range is. And he was beyond me. So I didn't like that."
Alvarez and the Badgers, though, had no complaint with the result.
Wisconsin appeared to be in dire straits when Orton ran it in from six yards out to give Purdue a 17-7 lead with eight minutes left in the game.
On the ensuing drive, however, the Badgers successfully took to the air, calling seven straight pass plays. Quarterback John Stocco completed 6 of 7 for 73 yards, culminating in a 7-yard touchdown pass to reserve tailback Booker Stanley. Wisconsin had just three first downs in three previous second-half drives.
"It was basically the same plays that we was running the whole game," receiver Brandon Williams explained, "they went to a soft zone and started dropping their guys out of the middle."
"I thought [Stocco] was really crisp on that drive," Alvarez said. "He was stepping up in the pocket, he saw the field well."
Stanley filled in for Davis, who injured a quadriceps muscle on a 33-yard run in the first half. Stanley had missed the previous two-and-a-half games with a turf toe injury.
"I thought Book had fresh legs today," Alvarez said. "I was glad to see Book back in the action."
Wisconsin was fortunate that Stocco's third pass of the touchdown drive fell incomplete. The throw sailed well over its intended target, tight end Owen Daniels, and hit Purdue safety Kyle Smith in the hands before falling to the ground.
Linebacker George Hall's 44-yard return of Stocco's one interception Saturday set up a Jones field goal early in the fourth quarter that gave the Boilermakers a 10-7 lead.
Defense was the story early. Purdue was held to 122 yards total offense in the first half and was shut off the scoreboard until well into the third quarter. Wisconsin, meanwhile, picked up just 67 yards on its first four drives.
The Badgers' Davis broke up the first-half defensive struggle with his 33-yard run down the right sideline to the Purdue 45 with six minutes left in the second quarter. He initially missed four plays following the run.
While Davis was absent, Stocco completed a 14-yard pass to the far sideline to Brandon White to convert a third-and-eight. Three plays into Davis' return Stocco found Williams for 14 yards on a crossing pattern to convert third-and-nine into first-and-goal at the eight. Two plays later, Davis powered through the right side for his sixth touchdown of the season.
The Wisconsin score marked the first time all year that Purdue had trailed.
Purdue finally broke through Wisconsin's defense late in the third quarter when Orton found Charles Davis in the back of the end zone for an eight-yard score, capping an 11-play, 82-yard drive.
The Boilermakers' offensive explosion, however, did not come before the Badgers' health faltered. Welsh left the game in the second quarter with an ankle injury. James was injured in the third quarter when he was chopped to the ground from behind, the hit coming on a play that was ruled dead due to a false start penalty.
James returned for two plays on Purdue's next drive—its third-quarter touchdown drive. But he limped off the field and did not return again. On that same scoring drive Hawthorne missed a handful of plays with an upper calf injury.
Prior to the injury, James had two tackles, a sack and had drawn two holding calls.
For Wisconsin, Stocco finished 17 of 32 for 211 yards and Williams tallied game highs with seven catches for 84 yards.
Purdue's Orton completed 25 of 45 passes for 235 yards but was sacked five times, lost two fumbles and was intercepted once.
Badgers stake claim on first place
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